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.
Coming in to the 2018 season, most of those who follow the Titans expected them to lean on the defense early as the offense worked it’s way in to sync in a new offense, but I don’t think anyone expected them to be leaning this hard. Tennessee’s offense has been completely decimated by injuries to EVERY quarterback and offensive tackle that started the season on their 53-man roster. Oh, and they also lost their 3-time Pro Bowl tight end in the middle of the first game too.
The defense has been up to the challenge though. After three weeks of play, Tennessee ranks 4th in the NFL in points allowed, 12th in yards allowed, 6th in first downs allowed, and 8th in sack percentage. They’ve also progressively improved each week, allowing 20 points to the Dolphins in Week 1 (not including the 7 points from the kickoff return touchdown), 17 points to the Texans in Week 2, and then 6 points to the Jaguars in Week 3.
Before you throw out the “but, Bortles” corollary, it has to be pointed out that Blake Bortles was coming off the best game of his NFL career, carving up the Patriots defense to the tune of 376 yards and 4 touchdowns with just 1 interception and 0 sacks. Maybe the Pats defense isn’t that great (it’s not), but at least some credit is due to Dean Pees’ Titans defense for what they did to turn Bortles back in to Bortles.
Here’s how they did it.
Dean Pees’ zone heavy game plan made Bortles uncomfortable
The Titans coaching staff has been on fire with their game plans over the past two weeks. Last week, it was Matt LaFleur’s side that got most of the credit for their ability to create a functional offense without the use of their top three tackles and starting quarterback. This week, the credit should go to Dean Pees’ defense for his scheme that kept Bortles and the Jaguars offense from doing what they like to do.
Under offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, Jacksonville has built the majority of it’s passing offense around screens, a boatload of crossing routes, and a few deep shots down the field. The Titans game plan intentionally took those things away. Rather than chasing Jaguars receivers running across the field all day, they ran a steady mix of zone coverages. Here is the break down of coverage calls from this game.
Cover 3: 16 snaps (40.0%)
Cover 1 Man: 9 snaps (22.5%)
Cover 2: 6 snaps (15.0%)
Quarters: 5 snaps (12.5%)
Prevent: 3 snaps (7.5%)
Cover 2 Man: 1 snap (2.5%)
That’s 75% zone coverage which is unusually high. Last season the most frequent user of zone coverage in the NFL was the Carolina Panthers and they were in zone 72.5% of the time. The Titans clearly wanted to limit explosive plays and force Blake Bortles to march down the field making tight window throws and that strategy was extremely successful.
It’s hard to overstate the level of preparedness that showed up on tape from this defense. The Titans clearly knew Jacksonville’s tendencies and were ready for them. Here’s an example of the Cover 3 zone that was Pees’ favorite coverage call against the Jaguars. Kevin Byard (far side), Kenny Vaccaro (center), and Malcolm Butler (near side) divide up the deep part of the field in to thirds while the boundary corner, Logan Ryan, blitzes off the edge.
The deep defenders all do an excellent job. Watch how quickly Byard (top of the screen) is able to flip his hips and get turned around when the tight end breaks towards the sidelines. Vaccaro (deep middle) does a great job of recognizing the routes and driving down on the deep crosser.
The guy who ends up making the sack is Wesley Woodyard (spotlighted). He was actually part of the coverage scheme, but when he realized there was no back leaking out and all the routes had gone vertical, he closed on Bortles and was able to make a great open field tackle to force second and long, ultimately killing the drive. Woodyard stuffed the box score on Sunday with 12 tackles (10 solo), 1 sack, 1 tackle for loss, 1 pass defensed, and 1 QB hit. It was yet another great game from the veteran inside linebacker.
Here is another great example of how prepared the Titans were. They give a straight Cover 2 look pre-snap, but then roll in to a Cover 3 zone. The Jaguars are running one of their staple crosser combinations, but watch Adoree’ Jackson (spotlighted). As soon as he sees the wide receiver to his side go to cross, he turns and starts looking for the crosser coming back the other way. He starts breaking towards Austin Seferian-Jenkins before Bortles even starts to throw and is able to knock the ball out of the big tight end’s hands to force 3rd and 4. This is great pattern recognition and reaction from Jackson.
Jackson was outstanding in coverage for the second straight game before leaving with a concussion suffered on a punt return. On throws targeting Jackson, Bortles was 0 of 5, meaning the Titans corner turned in a true MMCNB game. Coverage like this next example is a big reason why. This is a 3rd and 14 which is why he’s playing with so much cushion, but watch how tight he is on Moncrief’s back when the ball arrives. Jackson is really playing well right now and it’s a big deal that the Titans are likely to have him available for the Eagles game.
Kenny Vaccaro has been playing at a very high level through three games as a Titan. He had the interception in Week 1, but he’s also been all over the field as a run defender and has held up really well in coverage. This play ended up getting called back for a hold on the receiver, but watch Vaccaro recognize the play and close to make a strong tackle. Tennessee was extremely lucky that a player of his caliber was still available when Johnathan Cyprien went down in August.
One of the Jaguars’ other favorite calls is a sail concept off of play action bootleg. Here is one of those from Sunday. The Titans linebackers don’t take the cheese on the play fake and rookie Rashaan Evans (spotlighted) does a nice job of recognizing and picking up the crossing route to take that option away. Evans looked good in a pretty limited role Sunday.
The Jaguars actually wanted to take a deep shot on this play though. They have Keelan Cole running a stutter-go against Malcolm Butler at the bottom of the screen, but Butler isn’t having any of it. Kevin Byard takes away the fullback in the flat which leaves Bortles with no option, but to throw it away with Harold Landry closing in. Beautifully defended play from the Titans defense.
Woodyard was the star, but I thought Jayon Brown had an excellent game as well (it’s hard to really hate how anyone on this defense played Sunday). This was a play that showed great play recognition. The Jaguars are a good screen team and this was one of their more elaborate efforts. They fake the quick swing pass to the flat and then come back with a middle screen to Corey Grant. It’s really well executed, but Jayon Brown isn’t fooled. He stays home and then beats the block of Brandon Linder to make the tackle for a short loss.
The Titans zone heavy coverage scheme was extremely successful against Jacksonville. It forced Bortles to make short throws and the Tennessee defensive backs did a good job of making quick tackles and limiting run after catch. Bortles helped them out a few times with some poor throws and the receivers dropped a few balls as well, but that shouldn’t take away from a stellar defensive game plan from Dean Pees and his staff as well as the performance of the players.
Pressure without blitzing
One of the reasons that the Titans were able to sit back in zone coverage for most of the game was due to the defensive line and edge rushers getting pressure pretty consistently with four. The Titans sent more than four pass rushers just 8 times all game and never sent more than five.
The pressure numbers weren’t overwhelming for the Titans pass rush like they were against the Texans, but they were around middle of the pack for the week according to PFF. The most effective rushers for Tennessee were Jurrell Casey and Derrick Morgan. Casey showed off some impressive pass rush chops against one of the best pass protectors in the NFL in Andrew Norwell. This play is a completion for the Jaguars — one of the few times they were able to catch the Titans in man coverage against those crossing routes — but that is a clean pass rush win for Casey. He’s one of the best in the NFL for a reason.
Later in the game, Casey would pick up his 3rd sack in the last two games when he twisted around DaQuan Jones and Daren Bates to get a strip sack on Bortles. Watch that bend around the edge as he comes around the corner. That’s insane for a man of Casey’s size.
The Titans had success with a few defensive line games against Jacksonville. Here, they use Wesley Woodyard as a smasher to clean out Jaguars right guard Chris Reed and free up Derrick Morgan to get the big hit on Bortles, forcing an errant throw.
Morgan is starting to look like himself again as he gets further removed from the meniscus injury that slowed him early in the season. This is a fantastic cross chop move, something that Sharif Finch mentioned that Morgan had been teaching him during training camp. Bortles gets the ball away quickly, but this is a good rush from Morgan here (and yes, he’s probably fortunate to not get called for roughing the passer).
The Titans defense did an excellent job on the day of getting their hands up in passing lanes to deflect passes. Here is a pretty strong bull rush from Morgan that’s finished off with a nice bat down of a Bortles pass attempt.
Here, again, is a great job of recognition from the Titans. Brian Orakpo (spotlighted) recognizes the bootleg and gets up field before batting another pass down. The Titans consistently looked like they knew exactly what was coming from the Jacksonville offense. That’s a credit to both the coaches and the players.
I also love Kenny Vaccaro’s close and finish on the back here. He is an extremely physical player and a near perfect embodiment of Vrabel’s “know what to do and play fast and aggreessive” mantra.
Woodyard really made his presence felt all over the field. Here he’s coming on a blitz off the edge. He quickly gets past the block from the back and nearly gets his second sack of the game. However, Bortles escapes and flips the ball to the back. I spotlighted Harold Landry on this play because I love the effort he shows. He gets knocked down on his initial pass rush, but gets back up and ends up chasing down this play on the opposite side of the field.
Of course, no Titans defensive effort would be complete without a completely absurd Harold Landry edge rush. He was quieter in this game than he was against Houston, but look at him bend and turn the corner here against Jaguars right tackle Jermey Parnell. No 250 pound man should be able to run sideways like that. It’s amazing that he doesn’t have a sack yet given how well he’s playing. I would imagine we will see him get one very soon.
Austin Johnson and Bennie Logan playing well inside
Austin Johnson had one of his best games in this one. He was powerful at the point of attack as he shows on this rep, stuffing Brandon Linder’s block and then shedding him to help with the tackle for no gain.
He also can move really well for a man of his size. This was a big play in the game on 3rd and 1. He is able to beat Linder’s block again, avoid some trash around his feet, and get down the line to make the stop and force a Jags punt from deep in their own territory.
Bennie Logan also continued to impress as a run defender. Check him out here as he flings the right guard out of the way, draws a holding penalty, and still helps make the play in the backfield. He’s a load to block.
Also, good work from Jayon Brown here as he avoids Linder’s block and is able to beat the back to the edge.
It was hard to find a lot wrong with the Titans defense in this game. The plan and execution were excellent and the result was earned. Holding an NFL team — even one quarterbacked by Blake Bortles — to just 6 points on the road is an impressive feat.