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All-22 Review: Another very frustrating day for the Titans offense

The Bills defense is very good, but the Titans were their own worst enemy on Sunday.

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NFL: OCT 06 Bills at Titans Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The All-22 Review is a recurring feature here at Music City Miracles 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.

Despite putting up 43 points on opening day in Cleveland — which now feels like it was a lifetime ago — the Titans have tumbled down to 23rd in the league in scoring, averaging less than 14 points per game over the last four contests. Unfortunately, that’s about what we’ve come to expect from a franchise that hasn’t ranked higher than 14th in scoring since 2003.

However, instead of being bitter about the past, let’s take a look at what’s going wrong in the present and how it could get better — or worse — in the future.

I already wrote in depth about the Titans nearly unprecedented turnover rate through the first five games in this piece — and why that might not necessarily be a good omen for the team’s prospects moving forward this season — but there are some other interesting takes from those outside the Titans media bubble when it comes to the offense and whether this extreme turnover avoidance is a product of good play or a reflection of a damaging ultra-conservative mindset.

One of those outsiders — Chase Stuart of Football Perspective — wrote this week that “Marcus Mariota needs to throw more interceptions”. Before you scoff at the seemingly ridiculous headline, I’d encourage you to give it a read. Stuart argues that Mariota’s determination to avoid interceptions is overriding the primary objective of an offense which is, of course, to score points.

A lot of that blame should fall to the coaching staff obviously. I think we can pretty safely assume that Mariota is playing this way — at least in part — because he’s being instructed to do so. If not, surely we would have heard commentary or seen evidence that suggests frustration with the quarterback from Mike Vrabel and Arthur Smith, right? I suppose it’s possible that they’re frustrated behind the scenes and putting on a positive public face to avoid stoking the Ryan Tannehill fires, but my read is that they’re happy with Mariota’s conservative play. To me, that’s the most concerning thing of all. If this is what they want this offense to look like... this is a team that is going nowhere.

Alright, let me reset... I’m getting bitter again.

*deep breath*

OK, let’s look at some very telling stats that I believe paint a very clear picture of what is going wrong on the offensive side of the ball, starting with some data from Pro Football Focus. One of their analysts tweeted out this chart earlier in the week along with this accompanying article. PFF has started charting the routes run for each and every passing play based on quarterback. They are then assigning expected depth of target for each route based on what the route is, how it’s run, and how likely it appears to be targeted. They take that data from every pass play and boil it down to a number called “expected aDoT” (aDoT is average depth of target). That number essentially tells us how deep downfield each team’s plays are designed to be targeted.

In the chart below, PFF has plotted out the “expected aDoT” versus the actual aDoT (how deep downfield the quarterback actually throws the ball on average) and the results for Marcus Mariota are interesting.

Looking at the x-axis, Mariota has the 7th deepest expected aDoT among all NFL quarterbacks which means that the Titans are running a lot of deeper routes compared to other teams. However, when you look at his actual aDoT — where he’s actually throwing the ball — on the y-axis, you can see that he’s a little below the middle of this group.

Part of this is the fact that the Titans have found themselves in so many 3rd and long situations — no team has faced more 3rd and 8-plus scenarios than Tennessee’s 35 through five weeks — which obviously drives up the route depths a little bit, but ultimately that’s a pretty small slice of the overall pass attempts.

The bigger issue here is that it appears Arthur Smith has an aggressive downfield passing attack designed for a quarterback that is not most comfortable attacking vertically and an offensive line that has struggled to hold up to protect for longer developing routes. That seems like a formula that’s inviting sacks.

Another stat that does a great job of explaining the Titans offense through five games is Marcus Mariota’s stats with and without play action per PFF:

  • Mariota WITH Play Action: 32 of 51 (62.7%) for 626 yards (12.3 YPA) and 5 TDs
  • Mariota WITHOUT Play Action: 55 of 90 (61.1%) for 490 yards (5.4 YPA) and 2 TDs

Mariota’s yards per attempt with play action is 2nd best in the league behind just Gardner Minshew. His yards per attempt without play action are 3rd worst in the league ahead of just Ryan Fitzpatrick and Luke Falk. No quarterback has a bigger delta between his yards per attempt with and without play action than Mariota’s 6.8 yards per attempt gap.

That tells me a few things. First, Mariota and this passing offense is at it’s best when they can use the threat of Derrick Henry to open those big windows in the middle of the field and give the quarterback defined reads. The other big takeaway is that the Titans offense absolutely must remain on schedule when it comes to down and distance. This is an offense that can’t afford disruptions. Penalties, sacks, and other negative plays are almost always drive killers for this team due to the lack of success with a traditional drop back passing game.

Unfortunately, the Titans offense has not been able to avoid those disruptions frequently enough. Here are their totals in offensive penalties, sacks, and negative running plays along with their league rank (with 1st being the most):

  • Offensive Penalties: 20 (11th)
  • Sacks: 22 (2nd)
  • Negative Runs: 19 (5th)

All of that leads to the Titans leading the league in 3rd and 8-plus situations. Tennessee has converted the first down on just 6 of their 35 attempts in that spot, a rate of just over 17% which is bottom ten in the NFL in those situations. So not only are the Titans putting themselves in a bad spot on 3rd down too frequently, but they’re terrible at converting when they do. Not a great combination.

The margin for error for this offense is so incredibly slim right now. The best word to describe the Titans attack is fragile. As soon as they get a negative play that takes away their ability to run the ball and credibly use play action passes, things fall apart quickly. That’s a tough way to play offense in 2019.

With all that sunshine and rainbows out of our system, let’s jump into the tape from the Bills game and take a look at a few things that went right and a lot of things that went wrong for the Titans offense.

We can start with the first snap from scrimmage that proved to be a perfect microcosm of the Titans offense on the day. Arthur Smith comes out trying to do exactly what his offense does best — possibly the only thing it truly does well right now — with a play action pass from under center.

This is a pretty creative way to get to what is effectively a sail concept. A.J. Brown’s deep route clears out space in the intermediate area for Delanie Walker’s corner route which Mariota hits for a 26-yard gain across midfield. However, Taylor Lewan gets called for a completely unnecessary holding penalty. After doing a nice job stopping the pass rush, he chooses to grab the defender to keep him from going back downfield. It does nothing to help the play, but the ref sees it and it costs the Titans 36 very valuable yards.

NFL Game Pass

Despite a good effort by the offense to climb out of the hole created by Lewan’s penalty — Mariota hitting a couple underneath passes to Adam Humphries and Delanie Walker — they come up two yards short and are forced to punt on the opening drive.

The next drive starts much better. A WR screen to Corey Davis on 1st down yield 5 yards and then a 2 yard run from Henry puts the Titans in 3rd and 3. The Titans go to an empty set, Mariota finds the matchup he likes and puts a good ball into Humphries who drops it, forcing a punt.

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The next drive gets a promising opener as well. Jack Conklin, Nate Davis, Ben Jones, Jonnu Smith, and MyCole Pruitt do a great job springing Henry for a 24 yard rumble that puts the Titans into Bills territory for the first time.

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A quick hitter to Adam Humphries for 5 yards on 1st and 10 set up another positive down and distance situation for the Titans where the full playbook is wide open to Arthur Smith, including the highly effective play action package from under center.

That’s exactly what they dial up and Mariota finds Brown on a dig route right in the hole vacated by the linebackers stepping up to stop Henry.

Sidenote: Check out Corey Davis’ release at the bottom of the screen. He absolutely roasts Levi Wallace off the line and might have an easy touchdown if Mariota gets to his second read. Mariota made the right play here, hitting his first read — who was also very open — on time and in rhythm, but on a release like that you almost wish Brown hadn’t been open so Mariota could have found Davis.

NFL Game Pass

After a 3 yard run for Henry, the Titans take a shot deep looking for Corey Davis. It’s a post wheel combination with A.J. Brown and Davis. Brown’s post is intended to threaten the corner vertically — forcing the corner to commit to sticking with him if the Bills are in Cover 3 — and then hold the single high safety to the middle of the field, giving Davis a clean runway to the endzone. This is a play where I think the Titans just have to tip their hat to the Bills defense. Levi Wallace — the corner matched up with Brown — peeks into the backfield when Brown makes his break inside and sees the ball coming out. He peels off Brown and comes back to help break up the pass.

The ball is slightly underthrown and with two defenders converging, it would have taken an unbelievable play from Davis to haul it in, but I like the fact that the Titans, and Mariota, took this shot. This should have been one on one with Davis — who had a step on this route early as well — and I like the odds of getting the ball to him in those situations.

The pass protection here is excellent. Mariota has plenty of time despite a blitz from Buffalo that is picked up nicely by Derrick Henry.

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Unfortunately, missing that throw left the Titans with a tough to convert 3rd and 7. Mariota appears to be looking for Davis on a little angle route to the top of the screen, but great coverage from the Bills takes him away. The middle of field robber takes away Humphries and by the time Dion Lewis gets into his route, the pocket is collapsing on Mariota. Saffold gets pushed back by Jordan Phillips, who was a problem for the Titans interior all day. That being said, this sack is primarily a product of coverage. Mariota cycles through a couple reads before the pressure gets there.

The sack is particularly damaging here as it moved the subsequent field goal attempt back from a 42 yard attempt (a 78.4% kick over the last 20 years) to a 50 yard attempt (a 65.6% kick over the same time frame). While we all know what happened with Cairo Santos on this day and you may think he would have missed from any distance, his first kick was the closest to going through and the miss seemed to rattle him. If the Titans don’t get sacked here and Santos makes the 42 yarder, maybe this game turns out completely different. We’ll never know, but that’s just one of several “what if” moments from this game that continue to haunt me.

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Nate Davis wasn’t terrible in this game, but when he missed, he missed badly. That’s really the case for the entire Titans offensive line in this game. There were more good snaps than bad — Mariota was pressured on just 35.5% of his drop backs in this game which is less than 18 other NFL quarterbacks in Week 5 — but the bad snaps were really bad.

Here is an example. Davis gets whipped by Trent Murphy right at the point of attack. This is a perfect illustration of the old football mantra “low man wins”. Murphy fires out low and takes away Davis’ leverage. It’s a great play by the veteran defensive end and he stops Henry for a 4 yard loss on 1st down, immediately throwing the Titans into a negative down and distance on this drive.

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After a Mariota scramble for 3 yards — good coverage again from the Bills — the Titans are facing a 3rd and 11 deep in their own territory. Not good.

This is one of the sacks where Mariota has zero chance. Saffold gets destroyed by an excellent spin move from Lorenzo Alexander who quickly is on top of Mariota. This is not meant to excuse Saffold — he’s getting paid $11M a year and got beat like a drum, that’s not acceptable — BUT... you can see some of the ripple effect of having a rookie in at right guard here. Watch Ben Jones. He doesn’t even scan to his left here after the mug front drops out. He goes directly to helping Davis on the right side. That leaves Saffold on an island against a much quicker player in Alexander — a linebacker — who is a very good player in his own right. It’s a bad play from Saffold, but it’s also a team that’s putting him in a bad situation here.

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The Titans next drive was more of the same. A 2 yard run on 1st down, followed by an off-target pass from Mariota to Jonnu Smith (hard to tell if that was just a misfire or if the two weren’t on the same page about where the route needed to go), led to this 3rd and 8.

The pressure isn’t quite as immediate this time, but Lewan and Saffold fail to get an E-T stunt passed off correctly — an issue that can be directly traced to a lack of work together during preseason and the previous four weeks — and Mariota ends up taking another sack. He probably should have taken the check down to Walker here. His tight end is open and might have a chance to pick up the first down, but ultimately, this is on Lewan and Saffold who have to do a better job of passing this stunt off cleanly.

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Two consecutive drives that saw the Titans offense move backwards finally yielded a short field for the Bills and they took advantage with a touchdown with 2:36 left to go in the first half. The Titans would come out in the two minute drill after the following kick off. A couple nice pick ups by Dion Lewis — one through the air and one on the ground — got the Titans out to midfield.

That set up one of the Titans better plays of the game. Mariota drops and hits Corey Davis on a 10 yard stop despite taking a dangerous low hit from Bills linebacker Matt Milano who went hurdling over Dion Lewis’ cut block and into Mariota’s legs. Excellent job here of standing in and getting the throw out with pressure coming. Davis makes the catch, makes Tre’Davious White miss and picks up some nice yards after the catch. Getting the ball to 84 is a very good thing.

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A roughing the passer penalty tacked onto Davis’ run put the Titans at the Bills 13 with 1:08 remaining, giving the Titans plenty of time to get points on the board. However, the very next snap broke the offense’s momentum as Nate Davis gets beaten badly by Jordan Phillips. The unfortunate thing is that Mariota would have had a pretty easy short completion to A.J. Brown who is running a shallow crossing route. It probably doesn’t score, but it’s a positive play that keeps the Titans in a rhythm offensively. Instead, the Titans are forced to burn a timeout and get behind the sticks.

NFL Game Pass

The next play is nearly another sack. The Titans spread things out and have a mirrored set of Smash-7 combinations on the outside with Adam Humphries sitting things down in the middle. Mariota seems to be locked in on the corner routes from the snap rather than reading the corners as he should be. The Bills are playing off coverage across the board, trying to keep things in front of them and not get beat for a touchdown. That means that the stop routes on the outside to Anthony Firkser (bottom of the screen) and Tajae Sharpe (top of the screen) are wide open.

It’s 2nd and 15 so picking up a guaranteed 5 and likely closer to 10 isn’t the worst result. Instead, Mariota stares down the corner route even as his pocket begins to crumble. He eventually chucks it towards the sideline and a smart play by Firkser to run to the area of the ball saves an intentional grounding call.

This is an example where the offensive line could be better — obviously — but if Mariota makes the correct read quickly, the ball is out and it’s a positive play well before the pass rush arrives. After Dion Lewis dropped at 3rd and 15 check down that was going nowhere, Cairo Santos missed his second field goal of the game and sent the Titans into halftime down 7-0.

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The Titans first drive of the second half featured two positive Henry runs, setting up a 3rd and 3. Again, the Titans spread things out. Mariota is looking for Lewis all the way and he gets settled into a hole in the zone quickly.

Here is where I’d love to know exactly what the route is supposed to look like. It appears that Mariota might expect that Lewis is going to shut his route down quicker, but it’s possible that this is just a poor throw. It’s not that the ball isn’t catchable — it is and Lewis should have had it — but the ball being behind his receiver makes it harder than it needs to be. I don’t know if that’s on Mariota for an inaccurate ball or Lewis for a poor route. Either way, it ends the Titans first drive with a far too common three and out.

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The Titans catch a break when Kevin Byard picks off a Josh Allen pass and sets the offense up with a short field. A couple short runs set up a 3rd and 6, but this time the Titans convert with Mariota doing a great job of recognizing the slot corner is coming and throwing right into the space vacated by the blitz for a first down to Humphries.

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The Titans got the offense on track after that conversion. This punishing 17 yard run from Derrick Henry behind nice blocks from Ben Jones, Rodger Saffold, and Taylor Lewan sets them up with 1st and goal at the 8 yard line. Jones did some nice work getting star Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds on the ground with cut blocks multiple times in this game. He’s quietly had a pretty good season despite some of the poor play around him.

Henry is just fantastic on this run though. The cuts to get through the hole and then the power to run through contact is just so fun to watch in action. A great effort from Bills rookie Ed Oliver saves this from being a touchdown.

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A great effort from Mariota a play later on a play action boot nearly put the Titans into the end zone, but the quarterback was ruled down just short of the goal line, setting up a Henry 1 yard plunge to tie up the game.

Yet another stop from the Titans defense leads to a chance for the offense to go sieze control of this game. After a first down from a penalty, the Titans come out with this tight end screen look on 2nd and 8.

It’s a nice design to take advantage of a Bills front that was very much keyed in on stopping Henry at this point in the game. The play fake draws all the linebackers and defensive linemen up field. At the point that Jonnu Smith catches the ball, there are just four Bills defenders between him and the end zone with five Titans blockers downfield to help. Another good open field block from Ben Jones helps get Smith started and then the young tight end’s athleticism takes over. He might have even scored if he doesn’t cut it back towards the end of the run.

NFL Game Pass

The Titans would convert a rare 3rd and long on a nice strike from Mariota to Sharpe on the sidelines, setting the team up for the most frustrating 1st and goal sequence I can ever remember watching.

First, we have an absolutely outstanding run from Derrick Henry assisted by a great combination block from rookie right guard Nate Davis. Davis’ block is timed up perfect and that lets Henry take care of the rest.

Honestly, the shoulder shimmy he puts on Pro Bowl safety Micah Hyde at the 3 yard line should be illegal in all 50 states. Henry’s stats might not jump off the page right now, but he’s playing at an extremely high level.

Unfortunately, all that hard work doesn’t count due to a largely unnecessary holding penalty on Jack Conklin. Conklin has a key block on the play and seems to have Bills rookie Ed Oliver under control, but he reaches that right arm around and grabs the back of the jersey — almost always an automatic flag from the back judge — and negates a play that should have put the Titans up 14-7.

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Another missed opportunity for a dumb reason follows. This play as been pointed to as a bad play for Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan who both get beat around the edge, but it’s not. This play is botched by the snap coming before Mariota or three-fifths of the offensive line is ready. You can see in the freeze frame that by the time the ball hits Mariota’s hands — and the QB clearly wasn’t ready for it either — Lewan, Conklin, and Davis are all still in their stance. The Bills edge rushers are already a yard upfield, giving the tackles no shot at recovering.

Mariota does a very good job of salvaging the play by stepping up and hitting Dion Lewis on a check down for 10 yards. However, if the snap hadn’t been botched, this could have been a touchdown. A.J. Brown — outside receiver to the top of the screen — wins inside leverage with his release and has a chance to be open right at the goal line. Delanie Walker — split out by himself to the bottom of the screen — is also running into space with a step on his man. Mariota and Lewis do a good job of avoiding disaster here.

NFL Game Pass

The Titans then go into the Wild Tractor look and run what appears to be a pitch option with Henry and Dion Lewis. Lewis has a massive lane, but Henry keeps it and tries to get the corner instead of pitching (if that, in fact, was part of the design as it appears to be).

If this was designed to have a pitch option for Henry, he made the wrong read, but I also have to question why Henry is being asked to make that kind of read. Is that something he’s done before? Was he comfortable with it in practice? Couldn’t you just as easily run this play with Mariota?

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What should have been 3rd and goal from the 6 then turns into 3rd and goal from the 11 due to a false start from Taylor Lewan. Something very strange was happening with the Titans up front in this game. They had four false start penalties — one each from Lewan, Saffold, and Davis on offense plus one from Jamil Douglas on Cairo Santos’ lone extra point attempt — in addition to that weird early snap from Jones a couple clips ago. Coming into this game, they had just three false starts all year. I don’t know if Bills fans were actually loud enough that the offensive line was having trouble hearing — truly embarrassing if so — or if something was off with the cadence. Whatever it was, it caused major issues up front in this game.

Let’s get to the next near miss touchdown on this drive: the illegal forward pass penalty. This play has been discussed quite a bit for the question of whether or not Mariota’s right heel is actually across the line of scrimmage when the ball is released, but I want to point out something different.

A.J. Brown — who has been amazing pretty much from snap one — wins his route with another beautiful release right at the line of scrimmage and is open immediately. He even throws up the “hey, I’m open” hand. Mariota is looking right at him, but chooses not to cut it loose despite the fact that his receiver has inside leverage and a step on his defender and there is no credible threat of the safety getting over in time to make a play if the ball leads Brown towards the back of the end zone. Mariota needs to throw this ball on time.

Instead, he holds it, does a nice job maneuvering the pocket, and then finds Brown late. Just a little too late unfortunately. It looks like he gets caught between wanting to run or throw towards the end here. Credit to him for seeing Brown late and making the play. If this isn’t called on the field, it likely isn’t overturned on review because it was painfully close on all replay angles. The Titans would settle for what should have been an easy field goal, but we all know how that turned out.

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The inability to score and take the lead on that drive felt like it really deflated the Titans defense. The Bills quickly marched down and scored the go-ahead touchdown that the Tennessee offense had failed to muster.

Mariota and the offense still had time to recover with 9:46 remaining and down just one score, but things got off to a bad start immediately after the Bills score. The Titans try to go with their bread and butter play action game on 1st and 10, but the Bills have it pretty well covered. Mariota might have been able to fit the ball into Brown, but the corner to the bottom of the screen does a good job of maintaining his outside leverage which causes Mariota to pull the ball down and forces the sack. This is a pure coverage sack. The player that actually sacks Mariota here isn’t even a pass rusher, he’s the force defender, responsible for containing any naked boot action.

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However, the Titans do rebound from this negative play, completing a 13 yard pass to A.J. Brown the next play and then picking up 3rd and 1 on a speed option to Derrick Henry that got 10 yards plus a 15 yard penalty for a horse collar tackle. Suddenly the Titans were in Buffalo territory again.

The Titans very nearly popped another big Henry run on the next play. They get good blocks from Saffold and Jonnu Smith along with a great peel back block by Lewan. Ben Jones is targeting Edmunds (No. 49) originally, but he’s clearly not going to get there. At the point that I freeze this clip you can see Jones scan back and take a look at Alexander (No. 57), but for some reason he chooses to continue to pursue a block on Edmunds. If he changes targets and cuts Alexander — or at least slows him down — Henry would have been left one on one with the safety. That’s generally a good thing for the Titans.

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A 2nd down Henry run for 4 yards sets up 3rd and 4 at the Bills 35 yard line. Mariota looks for Walker on the quick stop route, but his trusty tight end drops this one, leading to a bad decision by Mike Vrabel and yet another missed kick from Santos.

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The Titans would get the ball back one more time with a chance to go tie the game. After a quick pass to Humphries for 6 yards and then a loss of 1 on a run by Henry, the Titans are facing 3rd and 6. Mariota picks his matchup and decides he wants to work it to Humphries again. Humphries runs a nice route and is open, but for some reason Mariota double clutches and that extra time allows Edmunds to get into the passing lane and tip the ball away from the Titans slot receiver.

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I really have no idea what caused Mariota not to cut it loose on time here. The still shot below shows the look he’s got before he pulls it back and reloads. If the ball comes out here, it’s likely a complete pass and a new set of downs.

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Instead, they’re forced to punt — I think I might have gone for it here as well with just 4:21 remaining, but I can at least understand Vrabel’s potential reasoning this time — and they never see the ball again.

This was a very strange game. Obviously, if Cairo Santos goes 3 for 4 — pretty reasonable considering his career averages for the distances the kicks were attempted from — the Titans likely win the game. You can also point to poor timing with penalties. Almost every call against the Titans came at the absolute worst possible time.

I actually didn’t think the offensive line was quite as bad on rewatch as I thought it was live. It was a strange game from that group. The pressure rate that Mariota faced during the game was very reasonable. The problem was that when they did give up pressures, it was too often immediate. Then you have whatever was going on with the cadence during the game (your guess is as good as mine there, but it was clearly a problem).

Things will get better from Lewan — who largely looked good outside of a couple penalties and the bad stunt exchange with Saffold — and I thought there was still a lot to be excited about from Nate Davis. This group should benefit from some continuity moving forward.

If you want to brightside this thing you can chalk it up as a Murphy’s Law game against a good defense. However, some of the season long stats that we ran through up top are still very concerning when considering the long term prognosis of this football team. The Titans are out of time to get things figured out at this point. This offense needs to be much better in Denver and find a way to be consistent moving forward if this team is going to have any hope of reaching the playoffs in 2019.