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All-22 Review: Marcus Mariota and Taywan Taylor stand out in performance filled with “almosts” for Titans offense

The game plan was conservative once again, but the offense did enough to get the W in Jacksonville.

Tennessee Titans v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The All-22 Review is a recurring feature breaking down the tape from the previous week’s Titans game. The focus will vary depending on where the action on the field takes us, but the idea is to bring insights that may have been missed on the TV broadcast.

There has already been a great deal of fun poked at the Titans and Jaguars for the 9-6 contest played in Jacksonville on Sunday. The national media has brought out the “how was this game not on Thursday night” jokes and largely blamed this result on Blake Bortles rather than crediting the Titans defense for their part in his struggles.

That shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise to Titans fans. This is the life of small market teams. National analysts glance at the box score, see the Titans leading rusher had 57 yards and their leading receiver had 34 yards, and assume that this must have been a crappy game between two teams that haven’t exactly had explosive offenses over the last few seasons.

But was this game really as bad for the Titans offense as the box score stats would indicate? I think the tape would suggest not. There were four very near misses for the Titans that could have resulted in touchdowns during the game. Obviously, they need to do a better job of turning those near misses in to results, but there is some reason for optimism despite the poor stats.

Marcus Mariota played outstanding

Let’s start here because “The Young Maestro” — as Titans Radio play-by-play man Mike Keith has taken to calling Mariota — came off the bench and delivered in a massive way. The numbers were just OK — 12 of 18 for 100 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions plus 7 carries for 51 yards on the ground — but the tape is much better than that.

Let’s start with what he can do pre-snap. I don’t know if it’s the way that offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur and quarterbacks coach Pat O’Hara are preparing him during the week or just the natural evolution of Mariota as a 4th year quarterback, but he’s become very adept picking out blitzes pre-snap and making adjustments.

In Week 1, he noticed a tell from a Dolphins corner coming on a blitz off the edge and threw a smoke route to Tajae Sharpe for a 17 yard gain to take advantage. This week he, again, recognizes the corner blitz, changes the protection up front, and then gets the ball out quick for a short gain. It’s not one of his better throws of the day, but it leaves them with a 3rd and manageable situation rather than getting potentially knocked out of field goal range.

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The Jaguars frequently brought pressure against both Titans quarterbacks on Sunday, but Mariota was far better at dealing with it. Here is an example from one of the bigger plays of the day. The Jags bring an all out blitz filled with stunts and twists on 3rd and medium near the edge of field goal range, but Mariota does a nice job of buying just enough time to get a pass to Corey Davis on his second read with bodies flying all around him. It’s also a great job by Davis of being aggressive at the catch point and attacking the ball before breaking a tackle for the first down.

This is also one of those near misses that I talked about up top. Davis is brought down just by a lucky grab of a cleat by Barry Church. If he is able to keep his balance here, he has just one Jaguar between him and the endzone and two blockers to help him get there.

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Compare that to Gabbert, who struggled mightily with the Jags blitzes before being knocked out of the game with a concussion. This is actually the play that he suffers the injury on. The irritating part about this snap is that Gabbert takes his eyes down and tries to flee a pocket that was still holding up.

If he had kept his eyes down field, he may have seen Darius Jennings (spotlighted on the sideline view) breaking wide open on the crossing route and been able to get a big completion rather than getting injured.

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Mariota was largely unaffected by the Jaguars pressure all game. For a guy playing through an injury, he looked calm and composed. This is an example here. It’s not a massive amount of pressure by any means, but Calais Campbell is starting to get an edge on Kevin Pamphile as Mariota is starting to get ready to throw. Mariota doesn’t seem bothered as he steps in to a deep shot down field to Corey Davis that results in a big defensive pass interference call against A.J. Bouye.

This throw also shows that despite the nerve issues in his throwing arm, Mariota can still at least get the ball vertical enough to keep opposing defenses honest. The ball looks pretty accurate based on where I would have expected Davis to be if he didn’t get grabbed. I would imagine that the throws that will trouble Mariota until he’s back fully healthy will be deep outs and comebacks. He’s also probably not throwing any 50 yard posts either, but the Titans can build enough of a vertical threat with stuff like this to keep defenses from cheating too much on the shorter routes.

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The Titans clearly had some level of faith in Mariota’s ability to hit deep passes because they called another shot play later in the game (though Mariota chose to pull it down and run due to tight coverage). Here is the play and I think it’s actually a brilliant play call. The Titans had been using Taywan Taylor on speed outs on 3rd and short to medium situations all game — more on that later — but this time in that same down and distance they dialed up an out and up, hoping to get Jalen Ramsey to bite on the out he’d been seeing all game. Ramsey, to his credit, stayed disciplined here and was able to stick close to Taylor despite running out of his shoe during the play. Taylor could have done a better job of selling the out here, but it’s hard to gripe too much about his performance in this game.

Mariota, seeing Ramsey didn’t take the bait, wisely pulls the ball down and finds a running lane to pick up the 3rd down and keep the drive alive.

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Mariota’s stats should have looked even better. One of the attributes that is most impressive about his game when he’s on is his ability to manipulate defenders with his eyes. He does that here as his head and shoulders turn out towards Dion Lewis in the flat which causes Barry Church and Telvin Smith to both vacate the middle of the field, resulting in a wide open window for Tajae Sharpe on the dig route. The throw couldn’t be more perfect, but Sharpe isn’t able to hang on.

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Mariota did plenty of damage with his legs in this game as well. He seems to make at least one big play as a runner every time the Titans play Jacksonville. Here he’s running a read option and he pulls the ball, runs through the arm tackles of Telvin Smith and Yannick Ngakoue, and gets down field for the first down.

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Later, the Titans ran an RPO on one of the most critical plays of the day, 3rd and 1 with 2:31 remaining and the Titans trying to hold on to a 9-6 lead. Mariota has the option to pop pass to Tajae Sharpe or throw a quick flat to Jonnu Smith if the defense overcommits to the run, but instead of risking a pass, the quarterback just takes it himself, once again running through tackles to pick up 15 yards and essentially guarantee the Jaguars wouldn’t get the ball back with any meaningful amount of time left on the clock.

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I really can’t say enough about the performance from Mariota in Jacksonville. Coming off the bench with a nerve injury in your throwing hand and casually going 12 of 18 against one of the best passing defenses in the league with 4 of your 6 incompletions being drops or throwaways is pretty good stuff.

The best news is that he made it out of the game without worsening his injury and showed the coaching staff that he is capable of performing effectively on Sundays despite any grip issues he may have been having during the week. It’s safe to assume that No. 8 will be back behind center this week against the Eagles and they’ll need him to turn in another strong performance.

Taywan Taylor showing signs of development

Earlier this week Mike Vrabel was asked in a press conference about reps for the wide receivers, specifically the increased usage of Taywan Taylor since Week 1.

“The way we try to allocate reps is based on production in the games first and foremost, but then also in practice. If guys are dialed in and they’re playing well in practice and then especially the games, then they play more.” — Mike Vrabel

That seems like common sense, but I took it to be an indication that Taylor would likely be continuing to play more as long as he keeps producing in games. He certainly did that in Jacksonville in my opinion. Again, like Mariota, the numbers weren’t eye-popping — just 4 catches for 30 yards — but the way he got those numbers was promising to me.

Let’s start with a look at one that he didn’t catch. I thought this was a bad miss from Gabbert when I watched it live, but holy smokes, the All-22 angles make me want to slam my head on my desk. Taylor is wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiide open here and has a chance to score if Gabbert is able to hit him in stride on the crossing route.

Throw aside, you can see how Taylor’s speed is useful in this offense here. This is a staple play for a Matt LaFleur/Kyle Shanahan offense. The outside zone action pulls the linebackers and safeties one direction, while the flow of the wide receivers goes the other way. Taylor blows by Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson so fast that Gipson starts retreating towards the goal line to try to get an angle on Taylor if he makes the catch and is able to turn up field. Taylor’s speed is an asset in this offense and, again, this could have been a touchdown if Gabbert’s throw is accurate.

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Here is a throw that Gabbert did put on the money to Taylor. It’s a 3rd down play early in the game and this play is as much about playcalling as execution. Matt LaFleur knows that the Jags love to play Cover 3 zone in this situation so he calls a perfect route combination to beat that coverage. Taylor is the front man in the two-man stack spotlighted at the top of the screen. He’s just running a simple out route at the sticks. He does a nice job of making sure he gets enough depth for the first down before breaking it outside and making the catch.

However, Rishard Matthews, the receiver running behind Taylor out of that stack has an important job as well. He splits the gap between Tyler Patmon (No. 23) and Myles Jack (No. 44) and sits down, drawing the attention of both players and taking Patmon out of position to try to undercut the out route to Taylor. Excellent design and execution here on a big 3rd down.

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In my opinion, the most promising play of the day from Taylor was this one. He’s working one on one at the bottom of the screen against A.J. Bouye. He gets an excellent release, but then at the top of his route, he is able to use Bouye’s hands against him with a well-timed swipe that creates separation and gives Mariota a chance to drill the ball in. On top of that, Taylor aggressively comes back to the ball and hangs on through contact for the catch, something he struggled with last season. This is nuanced route-running and represents a pretty major improvement from some of what we’ve seen from Taylor on tape previously.

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I will be very interested to see what the snap distribution looks like at wide receiver behind Corey Davis this week. I would say that Taylor’s performance against Jacksonville should earn him more work against Philadelphia.

Jonnu Smith’s blocking was much better

In Week 1, the Titans running game really struggled in large part due to their tight ends failing as run blockers. They were better in Week 2 with Stocker playing very well and Smith playing at least a little bit better. In Jacksonville, I thought Smith had his best run blocking game of his career.

This first play is a good example of why backside blocking on zone plays is important. The Titans do a great job on the backside of this run with Josh Kline, Kevin Pamphile, and Jonnu Smith all getting their jobs done and opening up a cutback lane for Derrick Henry. Smith doesn’t have to do a ton here as Calais Campbell appears to be a little tired (this play was in the 4th quarter), but he gets the job done anyway.

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Smith was matched up with Campbell a couple times during the game and actually fared pretty well considering the fact that Campbell is a 6’-8”, 300 pound block-destroying machine. Again, this isn’t the most impressive block you’ll ever see, but it is good enough to give Henry a chance to put his head down and pick up a tough 5 yards. I thought Henry ran particularly tough in this game despite the relatively pedestrian stats.

Sidenote: Check out Corey Davis blocking on Jags safety Ronnie Harrison (No. 36) coming in from the left side of the screen. Davis is playing with so much more aggression and swagger this season. It’s only a matter of time before he breaks out and everyone starts to take notice.

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Smith’s best block of the day came on this run as he takes Jags defensive tackle Malik Jackson and washes him all the way down the line to give Henry a hole to work to on the backside. Also, again, good finish from Henry to pick up yards after contact. He’s another guy where stats don’t match performance. Out of Henry’s 139 rushing yards so far this season, 123 of them have come after contact according to PFF.

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None of these highlights from Smith’s game as a blocker are that impressive, but you don’t have to have him out there pancaking guys. He just needs to get his feet in the right spot and get in the way. That’s what he does here on the jet sweep call to Tajae Sharpe. First, you can see Malik Jackson (No. 97) is completely fooled by the play. He actually reaches out and touches Sharpe as he goes by while looking for the ball inside and doesn’t realize Sharpe has it until it’s too late. Good ball-handling by Mariota to sell the dive after the hand off.

The play is really made by three guys blocking downfield though. Taylor Lewan is able to cut off Myles Jack, Jonnu Smith is in great position and walls off his defender, and Corey Davis bullies A.J. Bouye near the sideline.

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Smith only had one catch in the game, but I thought he did a nice job of being in position and serviceable as a blocker. As a whole, the offensive line struggled to create huge holes — again, a byproduct of the opponent having a good defense and knowing that you want to rely on your running game — but they did enough to avoid negative plays and keep the offense on schedule. I thought Josh Kline had his best game of the year, making a few key blocks at critical points in the game.

Other near misses

I mentioned the near misses up top. Here are the others that I haven’t already hit on. This double play action screen to Dion Lewis was perfectly set up, but it looks like the timing of the play is just a touch off as those rolling blocks from Josh Kline and Ben Jones would have been fine if Lewis had been closer behind his blockers. Timing in the screen game is critical and the Titans being just a split second off here is the difference between a decent gain and a long touchdown for Lewis as he had nothing but daylight and blockers ahead of him.

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Another near miss came on a 3rd down play at the end of what ended up being the Titans game winning drive. The Titans go back to a play action boot look, but the Jags blitz a defensive back off the corner and that keeps Mariota from getting around the edge. Davis has Ramsey beat on his route here, but a bump (illegal contact) from the corner slightly disrupts the timing. Still, if Mariota throws this just a beat earlier, Davis would have had a chance to come down with the catch in bounds.

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Davis was good as a blocker once again, but he also showed off some serious ability after the catch for the second straight week. This play is really a great example of the design of Matt LaFleur’s passing concepts. The routes are designed to open up at different points in the quarterbacks progression. Here, Mariota is reading the left side of the field first, but works back to Davis on the right running what I call a pivot (its basically an inverted whip route). He hits Davis on time coming out of his break and the wide receiver is able to create after the catch because of it, picking up 22 on a 1st and 20. Davis, again, nearly breaks this thing for a touchdown.

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The offense took a noticeable step in the right direction once Mariota came in the game. His ability to anticipate the defense and make plays even when protection isn’t perfect in front of him is a big deal. I also thought that Mariota looked like he was more on-time with his throws compared to Week 1. Getting a week to watch the offense from the sideline might have actually helped him a little bit.

Tennessee needs to convert some of these “almosts” in to big plays, but it feels like the offense has a chance to break out soon as they likely get Jack Conklin back this week and Mariota’s health should improve with time.

Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor are both showing glimpses of the players that the Titans hoped they would be when they selected them in the 1st and 3rd rounds of the 2017 draft.

Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis are currently ranked 11th and 15th in the NFL in yards generated after contact right now. There are blocks to build around in this offense, and with key pieces getting healthier, I would expect to see the run-pass balance move closer to... well... balance.