After two gut check performances against familiar foes, the Titans and their fans have every reason to be proud. Though it hasn’t been pretty or flashy, the coaching staff and players have done enough to right the ship and avoid falling behind in the playoffs race. Obviously, given the rash of injuries they’ve had to overcome, it’s fair to give them credit for simply finding ways to win.
While fully acknowledging the less-than-desirable circumstances they’ve gritted their way through, I think it’s important for reporters and fans to not go so far as to heap praise on any Titans coaches or players right now outside of one notable exception: Jurrell Casey. #99 has shown up and performed at a level that would have stood out against any opponent. The rest of the team, however, has only performed to a degree that can win when the competition plays poorly or indecisively. Though it seems many sense a change has taken place, personally, I have yet to witness an obvious sign that this team is beyond getting boat-raced by elite competition.
This week’s game against the Eagles may provide a true gauge as to how far the Titans have to go before they are “legit”. So far, Philadelphia has been in a very similar spot health-wise as the Titans, with their QB working to get closer to 100% and injuries to other key players preventing them from stomping on the gas. I, for one, want to see Philly play well tomorrow, because I want to gain a better feel for where the Titans truly stand. Though a win will still be sweet even if it comes partially due to the Eagles not playing like the reigning champs, that type of result will only continue to avoid the elephant in the room: are the Titans good or do they just have enough moxie to hang around most Sundays?
Granted, this single game won’t be the be-all and end-all answer to that question even if Philly does come out swinging, but it will drive the national narrative surrounding the Titans the rest of this season unless something drastic changes later on. If you ask me, the two-toned blue are either going to have earned respect or given it up for good this season by the time they walk off the field. Such is life for a small-market team without certified star power.
On to the preview ...
The five games I watched were:
When the Titans Run
The Eagles run defense was rated highly last year and continues to be early on in 2018. Their rush defense DVOA was ranked second overall in 2017 and, based on a limited sample of 3 games, is standing pat this season.
When Philly knows the run is coming they are able to shut it down. A big key for offenses going against them is disguising formations and mixing up play-calling in order to keep their stacked defensive line from committing one way or the other.
The Eagles’ game against Carolina last year provided the most comparable example to what I’ve seen from the Titans running game in terms of personnel and scheme so far under Matt LaFleur. Jonathan Stewart was clearly in decline last season, but his running style profiles similarly to Derrick Henry. Christian McCaffrey has not displayed the same knack for running in between the tackles as Dion Lewis has, but they present close to the same match-up concerns for defenses.
Early on in the game, Carolina was conservative and tried to establish the zone read, which is what Matt LaFleur got the most out of last week against a Jacksonville defensive front that compares physically with Philadelphia’s. Let me be blunt: the Eagles’ front seven ate Carolina’s rushing attack alive. Stewart showed the same tendency to slow down when not presented a clear lane as Derrick Henry has for most of his pro career, and he paid for it, every time. Stewart finished the day with 8 carries for -4 yards. McCaffrey looked more decisive and explosive but was generally guided laterally. He finished with 4 carries for 8 yards. Cam Newton totaled 11 carries for 71 yards and a TD but his impact was weathered and didn’t require a change in the Eagles’ defensive game plan.
The Rams and Todd Gurley found much more success play-to-play on hand-offs. In that game, the Eagles LBs looked flat footed. This likely had to do with the offensive unpredictability they were facing. Jet sweeps were featured heavily as decoys, and much of the Rams passing attack was designed off play-action and screens. I hope/pray that LaFleur intends to incorporate more of the backfield motion concepts the Rams use than we’ve seen to date. Jet sweep motion has been rare (outside of the wildcat) even though his most recent coaching influence has shown it to be an effective means to keep defenses guessing. Is this the week we see it brought into the fold in QB-led formations?
Honestly, what I’m really wishing for in this match-up is a fairly heavy lean towards the pass and, specifically, play-action. If the Titans can find stable profits from handing the ball off, by all means they should take advantage of it. My guess based on the Eagles’ recent history, however, is that they will not.
The Mularkeyist argument would be that running over and over despite ongoing poor returns is a means to exert physical will on a defense and set up other aspects of the game plan. I sincerely hope Vrabel and LaFleur recognize that as an incredibly inefficient philosophy and are aware that play-action is not dependent on run-call volume to be successful. The Titans should pass to set up an occasional run, not the other way around.
When the Titans Pass
Building off the last section, with Mariota now at least close to full-go, it is time to push the ball vertically into space, as opposed to overly relying on WR screens to generate YAC. Mariota needs to hit receivers in stride and his targets need to be where they’re supposed to be on schedule, no excuses.
The Eagles’ secondary is not of the clamp-down variety. They generally allow cushion and are susceptible to savvy route running/route concepts. Philadelphia’s defensive philosophy is to stop the run and rely on their pass rush to get off the field on third down. Especially against a team with an unproven aerial attack such as the Titans, they will take this approach until forced to adapt.
I cannot stress how critical it will be for the Titans to connect on multiple chunk passing plays if they hope to remain competitive in this game. LaFleur must throw enough variety at Jim Schwartz to keep the Eagles’ DC from compressing the field. That means attacking all levels of the defense regularly and isolating favorable match-ups for Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, Jonnu Smith, and Dion Lewis.
This game is going to tell us a lot about how aggressively-minded LaFleur is. If I’m the Titans OC, I’m going into this one expecting needing to score 25+ points to win. Offenses don’t achieve that by waiting for things to come to them. Frankly, I’d much rather go down swinging, while putting roster deficiencies on tape for the staff and Jon Robinson to evaluate, than play it safe over concerns that the QB/WRs aren’t ready to execute the full breadth of the new scheme.
Offensive line play may be the single most important factor this week. It’s great to be getting Jack Conklin back and ideally he will be close to his normal self. If you watched the Thursday night game between the Rams and Vikings, you saw how much time Jared Goff was afforded (and how confident he looked because of it). It’s not fair to expect that level of performance against this Eagles’ pass rush, but in order for those aforementioned chunk plays to occur, Mariota must have time to collect himself in the pocket.
One cue we’ll get as far as how advanced Mariota is in this scheme right now will be his willingness to step up into pressure and throw downfield. This is a part of Mariota’s game that must improve under LaFleur’s tutelage and a full off-season of work should at least result in seeing it occasionally at this point. This is what I’ll be watching for whenever the Titans pass. Especially given his recovering elbow, Mariota simply does not have the arm strength to challenge secondaries if he’s running around and off balance. Seeing him stand in there will indicate he is grasping the timing of routes downfield and incorporating the footwork he focused on this off-season.
When the Eagles Run
The Eagles run game this year has featured a hodgepodge of backs, with each week’s combination based on availability. In week 1, it seemed Jay Ajayi would receive more carries than the rest of the committee, but given his ongoing status with a minor back fracture, I’m assuming that won’t be the case anymore.
The Titans will likely receive roughly equal doses of Ajayi, Corey Clement (if he plays), Wendell Smallwood, and Darren Sproles (if he plays). Clement and Sproles are the primary pass-catching backs whereas Ajayi and Smallwood are more traditional runners. Ajayi has taken over the LaGarette Blount, short-yardage-hammer role and done well in those situations.
The Eagles’ entire offense is predicated on disguised looks and synergy between the run and pass. The now-obnoxious term “RPO” gained its notoriety based on Doug Pederson’s near-constant use of it and with Carson Wentz back under center it is again in full force. I don’t have a means to track down an exact percentage, but I would venture a guess that around 75% of the Eagles play calls either feature an RPO or are designed to appear to.
The run game itself is a disguised look within a disguised look. Philly seamlessly alternates between zone and gap blocking concepts, with it at times being hard to tell one from the other. Instead of the typical lateral movement seen from offensive lines on zone runs, the Eagles OL tends to move more vertically and less in lock step than I’m accustomed to observing. I suspect they are coached that way in order to further prevent defenses from reading blocking patterns at the snap. Philly’s OL personnel, especially center Jason Kelce, is adept at pulling and getting up field on gap-blocked runs. To further muddy the waters, delayed hand-offs are common place, forcing defenses to hesitate as they wait to diagnose the play call.
Production-wise, the Eagles run game has looked slightly boom or bust to me through 3 games. Their backs do a good job following the play design—they are not off-script creators—and they’ve produced 2-3 longer runs per game. I wouldn’t say they’ve consistently gotten “ahead of schedule” on early downs, however.
When the Eagles Pass
In perfect harmony with their run attack, the Eagles passing game builds off the base RPO look. After brief hand-off fakes, quick slants, hitches, and comebacks attack defenses before they can settle in. Titans corners are going to have to play up on early downs or the Eagles will simply play pitch and catch down the field.
Minus Alshon Jeffery (who may return this week, but appears doubtful), TE Zach Ertz has cemented himself as the passing focal point. WR Nelson Agholor has shifted outside more often due to injuries to other WRs and has remained productive. Rookie TE Dallas Goedert had his first big game last week, making it likely he’ll receive increased targets going forward. Outside of those three, RB Corey Clement (if he plays) will be featured regularly on screens and dump-offs. New re-addition (WR) Jordan Matthews and TE Joshua Perkins will receive any additional targets.
While dealing with injuries, the Eagles have stayed away from pushing the ball vertically. However, even when fully healthy their offense doesn’t prioritize shot plays. I’ll be curious to see if and how often they test Malcolm Butler deep downfield with Agholor; WR Mike Wallace would have been a better option to do so with before he went down.
I expect Dean Pees to play mostly man coverage (ideally close-up on normal downs and distances) and utilize Kenny Vaccaro as assistance on Ertz. That will mean single high safety duty for Kevin Byard, putting him in position to be the last line of defense. The key for the Titans will be getting home on blitzes. The Eagles OL has not dealt well with overloads, stunts, etc., so look for plenty of 5-man rushes. Vaccaro, Logan Ryan, Rashaan Evans, Wesley Woodyard, and Jayon Brown will all get cracks at rushing Carson Wentz. Wentz is fearless in the pocket and good at stepping forward through traffic. He’s susceptible to fast blindside pressure (I’m looking at you, Harold Landry) and collapsing interior rush.
The defense will not be able to win this game on their own, no matter how well they play. The Eagles offense doesn’t get stuck in ruts based on a bad drive or bad play. Even if they turn the ball over or get down on the scoreboard, they will collect themselves for the next drive and proceed to recommence attacking.
Four to Watch
Offense: Corey Davis
Defense: Harold Landry
Offense: Dallas Goedert
Defense: Fletcher Cox