About midway through last season, I started putting together breakdowns of each upcoming opponent based off a sample viewing of their last five games. I’m looking forward to doing that again for the entire 2018 season. I’ll maintain the same four-section format: When the Titans Run, When the Titans Pass, When the (insert team name) Run, and When the (insert team name) Pass. I’ll begin including some example GIFs because the people have spoken and they like that sort of thing.
For the first handful of weeks, I obviously won’t have five games of current-year tape to review—for this first go round, not any. Until week 6, I’ll fill the remainder with select games from the recent past that I feel can offer some clues as to how the week’s match-up will play out.
I’ll be the first to admit that this activity will initially contain more guess work since teams’ exact dynamics are yet unclear.
The Dolphins games I watched are as follows:
My reasoning in selecting these games was simple: weeks 12-14 in 2016 were Ryan Tannehill’s last three regular season appearances and the most up-to-date glimpse at how Adam Gase prefers to call his offense with Tannehill under center. Weeks 12 and 14 in 2017 featured Dion Lewis against the Dolphins’ front seven and a Miami roster that as closely resembles what we’ll see on Sunday as possible.
When the Titans Run
I’d be much less enthusiastic about this specific facet of this game had Jon Robinson elected to roll into 2018 with Derrick Henry as a feature back. That’s not to say that Henry will play second fiddle to Dion Lewis every week, but against the Dolphins I see much more use for Lewis’ skill set. We don’t yet know how the loss of Ndamukong Suh will affect Miami’s defensive line play, but if one of Akeem Spence, Davon Godchaux, or Vincent Taylor can approximate Suh’s run-defense role, I suspect a smaller, nimbler, faster-accelerating back will have more success navigating Miami’s trenches. The Dolphins “Wide 9” front combined with their athletic personnel allows their defensive line to get up field quickly at the snap but briefly presents wider running lanes. The best way to attack it is to quickly knife past oncoming defensive linemen, using their forward momentum against them, before available openings collapse.
Don’t get me wrong: if the more decisive, blocking-scheme-adherent version of Henry we saw glimpses of during the preseason is here to stay, he absolutely can make a big mark on this game. I simply don’t anticipate many opportunities for him to get an unmolested head of steam going as I compare the Titans interior OL vs. the Dolphins DL. During his pro career so far, when Henry has encountered “noise” in the backfield, he’s had a tendency to slow down a tick in an attempt to find a way around it. This week, he’ll need to tune it out and explode through it if he’s to be successful.
The read option has really killed Miami’s defense in the recent past. We still don’t know whether LaFleur intends to make it an integral part of the Titans offense—I’d understand if he elects to keep Marcus Mariota out of harm’s way as much as possible—but if he does, this is a game that should feature it heavily. RPOs can stem off this and really put Dolphins defenders in a bind.
The Titans will obviously be looking for ways to minimize the absence of Jack Conklin. They could accomplish this by either running “away” from Dennis Kelly or possibly by offering him occasional assistance from Josh Kline, pulling blockers, or TEs on run calls that allow it. If it were up to me, I’d skip the complexity of the latter option as much as possible, especially in week one, and focus on running to Taylor Lewan’s side or up the middle.
When the Titans Pass
Of course, the added bonus of utilizing Lewis more than Henry in the run game this week would be the “lookalike” factor—if the Dolphins defense can’t key on personnel or formation to help them determine run or pass, LaFleur can keep them on their heels and exploit them in the pass game with Lewis leaking out of the backfield, running two-way-go routes against LBs, and perhaps even splitting out wide. From what I saw, the Dolphins are fairly disciplined against traditional HB screens (which both Titans backs can execute well). Instead, HB routes designed to get one-on-one match-ups against LBs—Lewis’ forte—proved far more effective.
With an unsettled OL facing Cameron Wake, Robert Quinn, Charles Harris and Co. off the edges, I’d prefer for the Titans passing attack to operate almost exclusively out of Shotgun and Pistol looks. Standard play action from under center will force Mariota to turn his back on the pass rush and could result in him taking unnecessary big hits. Keeping his eyes facing forward will allow him to better manage his pocket and/or get rid of the ball quickly when necessary. It remains to be seen just how much trust LaFleur has in Dennis Kelly in pass pro: How often does he sacrifice offensive resources to aid him against Wake?
I’m not holding my breath for a Corey Davis breakout game just yet. Xavien Howard is an excellent young corner who matches up well with Davis physically. Howard really reminds me of Malcolm Butler in terms of his trail technique, physicality and aggressiveness, but with an extra gear that allows him to run stride for stride with faster receivers downfield. He especially excels near the sideline where he can leverage the confined space the quarterback has to place the ball into. In my opinion, if the Titans really want to get Davis going, they’d be best off sending him across the field at intermediate depths—on “transcontinentals” as Dave McGinnis would say. When facing zone coverage, this would result in Howard handing off Davis to a more favorable match-up for the Titans. Against man coverage, it would provide Mariota a clearer sense of whether he has an open throwing window.
Speaking of the intermediate middle, Delanie Walker and perhaps even Jonnu Smith could be primed for big days. Over the last couple seasons, attacking Miami’s linebackers and safeties at the seams has proved a gold mine for teams with capable pass catchers at TE. The addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick may change that to some degree, but he can only cover one man at a time. With Dion Lewis threatening the LBs and holding them in place, there should be fertile ground between them and the Dolphins back-end coverage.
While I’m not ready to tab him as a spotlight player this week due to a lack of gauge on what his role will be in this offense, Taywan Taylor at least has sleeper status. If Howard ends up following Davis around the field, I’m not sure the Dolphins have anyone else that can keep up with Taylor.
When the Dolphins Run
Kenyan Drake broke out and took control of the Dolphins backfield last season, enabling the team to trade away Jay Ajayi. Drake’s physique is more like that of a wide receiver (more on that in the next section) and he has more shiftiness than wiggle. He’s at his best when he can spot a lane to accelerate into. Slowing him down involves making him think too much in the backfield and/or getting hands on him early, as he doesn’t possess the size or lower-body strength to consistently break through clutter.
We’ll see how often Frank Gore is brought in to spell Drake. Gore’s not a guy that scares you at this point, but he’ll still take what’s there with the savviest of vets.
Mike discussed some of the changes along the Dolphins OL in this piece. Miami’s run blocking was sub-par last year, hence the broad changes. The chemistry along the reconstructed unit remains to be seen so I don’t want to speculate, but I can tell you that PFF doesn’t think highly of the new interior starters, especially in terms of run blocking. Josh Sitton, the big FA “fish” Miami landed at LG, graded out at 73.2 in 2017, second-year RG Jesse Davis at 50.2, and former 49er C Daniel Kilgore at 64.4. Factor in returning tackles Laremy Tunsil at 47.9 (the Titans may have dodged a bullet in the 2016 draft if Tunsil was ever truly being considered) and Ja’Wuan James at 63.0 and indications don’t point to an about face.
I’d love, love, love to see the Titans DL feasting in the backfield in this one. We know what a game wrecker Jurrell Casey is, but it would be a really positive omen if DaQuan Jones picked up where he left off before his 2017 injury, Austin Johnson continued his upward trend, and Bennie Logan could be disruptive as a true NT.
When the Dolphins Pass
Ryan Tannehill will finally step back into meaningful action after being out for all of last year and the end of 2016. Has he evolved his game at all? Last time we saw him, he was a QB with clear strengths and weaknesses. Tannehill absolutely looked like a franchise QB when he could play rhythmically and get the ball out quickly. He didn’t when forced to hold onto the ball or faced with a collapsing pocket.
Watching his 2016 tape, these tendencies played out almost like clockwork. If either his first or second read was open within the first 3 seconds after the snap, he’d predictably deliver an accurate pass with pretty velocity. If those reads weren’t open or he started to sense the pocket collapsing, he would make poor decisions and throw random passes (some good, but most not). In situations where he could escape the pocket to the outside, his arm talent and athleticism allowed him to make some quality downfield throws on the run or scramble to pick up yardage. For what it’s worth, Tannehill to this point has not displayed great touch as a passer—he prefers to fire lasers.
Seemingly, the crux for Tannehill is dealing in narrow parameters. If he sees what he expects early or can roll out into open field, results are usually positive for Miami. Once he has to multitask through reads and pressure, chaos ensues. Dean Pees has had success flustering Tannehill in the past, but the Titans may not be operating at full strength at pass rusher in this one.
Now without Jarvis Landry, the Dolphins passing attack doesn’t yet have a clear focal point. I actually wouldn’t be surprised to see Kenyan Drake take over Landry’s target share. Drake is a very good pass catcher capable of running split-out and/or downfield routes—again, he reminds you more of a wide receiver than a running back at times.
Some folks are really high on Albert Wilson or Danny Amendola as new additions, but I’m not sure either will command substantially more targets than Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker (who’s out with an injured finger Sunday), or Jakeem Grant as the year progresses. I expect the Dolphins to take a committee approach with their receiving corps.
Mike also touched on Mike Gesicki, who may be thrust into more of a feature role due to an injury to Dolphins starting TE MarQueis Gray. Under Adam Gase, though, TE has been a relatively low-usage position in Miami’s offense. Does Gesicki’s freakish stature change that? We’ll find out.
Four to Watch
Offense: Dion Lewis
Defense: Jurrell Casey
Offense: Jakeem Grant
Defense: Cameron Wake