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All-22 Review: Marcus Mariota and the Titans offense roar to life in Atlanta

A.J. Brown and Corey Davis shined with an aggressive Marcus Mariota as the Tennessee passing attack dominated early against the Falcons.

Tennessee Titans v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/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.

The rollercoaster ride that is the Tennessee Titans offense made another sudden change of direction in Week 4, racing out to a 24-7 halftime lead on the back of a 14 of 19, 189-yard, 3-touchdown start from Marcus Mariota before packing it in and riding Derrick Henry and a stout defense to a much-needed 24-10 bounce back win over the Falcons. I have some concerns over the “packing it in” part of that equation, but that first half performance was just what the doctor ordered for an offense that looked lost for much of the previous two games.

Wide receivers A.J. Brown and Corey Davis were Mariota’s favorite targets, combining for 7 catches, 169 yards, and 3 touchdowns before halftime. We will get to several of those in the tape review below, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen receiver play like this from players dressed in two-tone blue.

The offensive line has gotten a lot of credit for shutting out the Falcons pass rush, allowing zero sacks the week after they gave up nine to the Jaguars front. While, I do think this group was better in Atlanta than they were in Jacksonville, they weren’t the primary reason for the massive drop in sacks allowed.

The biggest contributor to that protection was the quarterback himself (with an assist from his playcaller). After averaging the 4th longest time in the pocket over the first three weeks of the season, Mariota averaged the 3rd shortest time in the pocket in Week 4. It was a difference between an average of 3.05 seconds against Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Jacksonville versus 2.40 seconds against Atlanta. That might not sound like much, but that’s a massive difference in NFL terms.

Teams that run a lot of play action — the Titans run the 4th highest rate in the NFL through four weeks at 34.0% behind just the 49ers, Chiefs, and Cowboys — sometimes have longer average times in the pocket due to the time it takes to carry out the play fake, but that’s not always the case. Jimmy Garappolo (2.39 seconds) is the 4th quickest trigger in the NFL through four weeks despite leading in play action rate. Patrick Mahomes (2.69 seconds) and Dak Prescott (2.81 seconds) were both still significantly lower than Mariota’s 3.05 seconds in those first three games.

The Titans actually upped their play action usage in Week 4 compared to Weeks 1 through 3. Mariota used a play fake on 41.4% of snaps against the Falcons. The difference was that we saw the quarterback hit his back foot and get the ball out in this game, throwing with anticipation and confidence. We will look at some examples of that below, but if that is something that continues, the Titans offense will be a much different animal moving forward.

I didn’t think the playcalling or personnel usage was significantly different either. In the explosive first half, the Titans used 11-personnel on 53% of snaps, 12-personnel on 38% of snaps, and 21, 13, and 20 personnel groupings made up the final 9% per Sharp Football Stats. Those rates largely line up with the team’s season totals: 49% 11-personnel, 36% 12-personnel, and the remaining 15% split up between 21, 13, and 20 personnel with 13 making up the biggest slice at 10% of the total.

The run-pass ratio in the first half was 44:56 in favor of passing, actually the second highest run rate among the four first halves the Titans have played in 2019.

The big difference was the execution of the plays. So let’s take a look at some of that execution. We will set the article up a little differently today with two big topics — Marcus Mariota’s play and Nate Davis’ debut — before finishing with some odds and ends.

Marcus Mariota played an elite game on Sunday

I’ve been hard on Mariota in this piece the last few weeks, but he was excellent against the Falcons. The tentative, hesitant quarterback we saw against Indy and Jacksonville was nowhere to be found. The No. 8 that we saw in Atlanta looked confident and decisive, regularly throwing the ball with anticipation and conviction.

Let’s start with the very first offensive play of the game. The Titans come out with a trips look in 11-personnel before motioning Corey Davis across the field to give Mariota a man-zone read. Nobody travels with him, confirming zone and based on alignment, the quarterback can safely assume this is some kind of Cover 3 look. It’s a play action look, but Mariota doesn’t even really carry out the fake here. He’s going to Davis against the off coverage all the way and hits him with a well-timed throw. Davis does a nice job of making a play after the catch to pick up some extra yardage and give the Titans a first down on first down. Great start to the game.

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The first touchdown of the game didn’t take a ton from Mariota and it came from a very familiar look from the Titans. It’s 13-personnel with tight end MyCole Pruitt lined up as a fullback in front of Derrick Henry. Tennessee is running one of their favorite passing concepts — Yankee — which features a deep post clearing room for a crossing route. In this case tight end Jonnu Smith is supposed to be running the deep post, but he gets held up getting off the line of scrimmage and really doesn’t get to the spot where he needs to be on the route.

A.J. Brown makes all that not matter though. He absolutely roasts Desmond Trufant with his release and subsequent in-cut, turning the Falcons corner around and creating a good 7 yards of separation.

Mariota carries out the play fake and whirls to find Brown. He hits him with an accurate ball — seems easy when a guy is this wide open, but it’s crucial to setting up Brown for the run after catch — and allows AJB to do the rest. We’ve seen this a couple times from Brown now. His instincts, physicality, and speed when he has the ball in the open field are a lethal combination.

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The Titans deserve a ton of credit for what they did in this game, but there were moments where the Falcons made it way too easy on them. Here is one of those instances. It’s 3rd and 15 and Atlanta chooses to play what I like to call the Red Rover defense. They back their coverage players off just in front of the line to gain and have them wait for the Titans receivers to run to them. For some reason, the middle linebacker leaves a huge gap in the middle of the field and the Titans are able to hit Corey Davis on a quick slant and allow him to work his way through for a first down. Great play by Davis to make a couple guys miss, but this is also terrible defense from the Falcons.

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Here’s another quick, decisive throw from Mariota. Pay attention to the play design here because we are going to see this one again later. The Titans bring Walker in motion once again to give the QB a man-zone read. Knowing that he’s got man coverage, he picks his matchup that he wants to work. In this case, he goes for Walker against a linebacker with Corey Davis running a rub to help free him up. The ball is out quickly after the play fake and hits Walker in stride for his 500th career reception.

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Mariota was confident and accurate throughout the day even when his receivers weren’t wide open (they rarely will be at the NFL level). Here, he hits Adam Humphries on a simple out cut on 3rd and 7. It’s a good route by Humphries, but the key is the pictures perfect ball from the QB which allows his receiver to make the grab just past the marker for a key conversion. Credit to the offensive line for a nice clean pocket here as well, though Mariota’s quick throw significantly reduces the chances of a breakdown becoming a problem. This third down conversion was a big one, keeping the drive alive and putting the Titans into scoring range.

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Remember that play design we talked about before on Walker’s catch? Here it is again. This time Mariota chooses to work the other side of the field. That side features a little flare route for Adam Humphries with a go route for A.J. Brown. Mariota knows he’s got man coverage again and chooses to trust his rookie receiver against Trufant. Again, the throw comes out very quickly and is absolutely inch-perfect, allowing Brown to bend back towards the sideline and make a great catch. Beautiful ball from Mariota here.

Let’s talk about Brown for a moment though too. The release is nice to start with. He gets outside leverage without having to drift too close to the sidelines, leaving a nice pocket of space for Mariota to work the ball into. At the top of the route, he gets away with the subtlest of push offs — a move that DeAndre Hopkins has mastered — and then has the body control to not only make a tough over-the-shoulder catch, but to drag his feet through to make sure he stays in. The nuance of his entire play is incredible for a rookie receiver who many thought was “just” a slot guy at the NFL level. A.J. Brown is a baller.

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Here’s another Yankee concept from the Titans. This one is modified a bit as Corey Davis — who is running the deep post at the top of the screen — actually bends his route back as almost a deep corner route (something the Titans build in as a counter to keep the middle third safety from cheating to the post). However, the route that comes open is A.J. Brown’s crosser again. This time Mariota hits him a little later in the route, but it’s still an easy chunk play. Again, the Falcons secondary looks a little mixed up. It appears that Trufant — lined up over Brown pre-snap — is expecting the opposite corner to bite down on the crosser instead of chasing Davis deep. Easy pitch and catch as the offensive line does a nice job protecting again.

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One of Mariota’s best throws of the game didn’t result in a completion. This is a 3rd and 5 with the Titans in field goal range. They spread things out and go empty, drawing one on one matchups all over the field. Protection breaks down here as Conklin gives up a quick pressure off the edge to Takk McKinley and Jamil Douglas gets beat late by a spin move after Mariota steps up to avoid McKinley. Instead of dropping his eyes and looking for a running lane as he had in recent weeks, Mariota keeps his eyes downfield and finds Davis with a perfect ball, off platform, while taking a hit. It’s A+ quarterback play and exactly what I’ve been asking for in recent weeks. Davis lets him down this time by dropping a catchable pass and the Titans are forced to settle for a field goal to go up 17-7.

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Davis would redeem himself later in the first half. Here, he’s matched up with Trufant, the Falcons best corner. Trufant looks like he knows exactly what’s coming and almost runs the deep comeback route for Davis.

Mariota is under a little bit of pressure as Vic Beasley is coming off the left edge. Jonnu Smith does a decent job of bothering Beasley enough to allow Mariota to step up and avoid the rusher and the quarterback does an outstanding job of sensing the pressure. Despite the fact that Davis isn’t really open here, he cuts it loose and puts an accurate ball on his receiver. Davis rewards Mariota’s trust by coming back to the ball and making the catch despite Trufant being all over him. He’s even able to tack on a few extra yards after the catch again. This is the kind of trust throw that I’ve been wanting to see Mariota make with Davis.

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Here’s an example of what I mean by a different Mariota this week. Remember this play from Week 2?

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Mariota has Davis open on the stop route with plenty of cushion. At the time the ball should be coming out of his hand — see the still shot below — the pocket is still in good shape, and again, Davis is open by NFL standards. However, instead of hitting his receiver, he checks it down to Humphries in the flat who is tackled for a loss. Could Humphries have had a play if he makes the linebacker miss? Sure, but I was struggling to understand why Mariota wouldn’t hit his first read when it’s open.

For comparison, here are the screen shots of the two plays at the time Davis is about to come out of his break. The ball should be coming out of Mariota’s hand at this point on each play. Davis is very clearly more open on the play against the Colts than he is against the Falcons. That’s the difference in quarterback play that I’ve been wanting to see. Trust your receivers and let it rip. If they don’t make plays, that’s on them.

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Mariota’s best throw of the day — in my opinion, though there are plenty to choose from — is this touchdown pass to Davis. Look at the timing of when the ball is released here. Davis hasn’t even started to make his break and the ball is out of Mariota’s hands. When the receiver gets his head around, the ball is arriving right in stride. All he has to do is put his hands out and catch it. This isn’t bad coverage by the Falcons, it’s just a great route and an even better throw from the Titans. Davis then finishes the play with some nifty footwork to stay in bounds and score.

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That’s another pure trust throw from the quarterback, and again, Davis rewards him by A) being in the right spot at the right time and B) making the catch and scoring. This is what high level passing offenses look like and it’s pretty fun to see from a Titans team that hasn’t had many of these type plays over the past couple years.

Mariota did get a touch more conservative in the second half, along with the rest of the offense, but that’s understandable to some degree. There isn’t need to take unnecessary risks when you’re up two touchdowns or more late in the game.

I don’t point this play out to criticize Mariota. I really just want to highlight another excellent route by A.J. Brown that could have resulted in another big play. This was a 3rd and 20 situation and given the game situation, advancing the ball and setting up Brett Kern to pin the Falcons deep isn’t a bad result, but Brown’s double move has the corner roasted for a home run ball over the top. You can see Mariota load up like he wants to throw it before thinking better of it and checking down to Dion Lewis for a short gain. Brown as a deep threat isn’t necessarily something I saw coming based off his college tape, but I think it’s a reality based on his early work at the NFL level.

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Finally, let’s look at the fumble late in the game. Obviously, the ball security needs to be better here — it’s not a heavy hit that knocks it out — but I want to credit Mariota for his read on the play. Again, pre-snap motion tells him that the Falcons are in man coverage and the positioning of the safeties suggests that Atlanta is in 2-Man which means no spy and nobody with eyes on the quarterback outside of the pass rush within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. With it being 3rd and 8, 2-Man would give Mariota more than enough room to pick up the first with his legs.

After a quick confirmation of the coverage, he takes off through the first hole he sees and would easily converted if not for the ball getting knocked out on the way through. It’s a great read and Mariota might have even scored. Two things went wrong here:

  1. Rodger Saffold gets pushed back too far, allowing his man to get an arm on Mariota as he tries to sneak through.
  2. Mariota lets the ball get knocked out too easily. This is just an arm tackle attempt that barely slowed him down, but it pokes the ball loose.

Mariota does well to recover and set up the 4th and 1 that Mike Vrabel inexplicably went for.

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Nate Davis’ debut was encouraging, but not perfect

After missing all of preseason and much of training camp with a mystery injury, third round pick Nate Davis finally suited up in a Titans game uniform for the first time against the Falcons. After being inactive on the first three game days, he got a chance to rotate with current starter Jamil Douglas at right guard throughout this game with the rotation going like this:

  • Possession #1: Douglas
  • Possession #2: Douglas
  • Possession #3: Davis
  • Possession #4: Douglas
  • Possession #5: Douglas
  • Possession #6: Davis
  • Possession #7: Davis
  • Possession #8: Douglas
  • Possession #9: Davis
  • Possession #10: Douglas
  • Possession #11: Davis

At the end of the day, Douglas ended up leading in possessions (6 to 5), but Davis led in snaps, getting 40 compared to just 24 for Douglas. Obviously, Davis was a part of longer drives. This isn’t really a great way to compare the two players because it leaves out a ton of context — and what the other 10 players on the field were doing while they were in the game — but if you’re interested in how the offense performed with each of them in the game, here is how that broke down:

  • Douglas: 6 series, 24 snaps, 10 points, 171 total yards, 7.1 yards per snap, 9 designed run calls for 35 yards (3.9 yards per carry)
  • Davis: 5 series, 40 snaps, 14 points, 194 total yards, 4.9 yards per snap, 23 designed run calls for 92 yards (4.0 yards per carry)

Pretty even overall. The Titans tended to pass more frequently with Douglas in the game (15:9 pass to run ratio) than they did with Davis in there (17:23 pass to run ratio). However, those numbers are pretty misleading since Davis was the player in the game for the final Titans drive in which they called for runs on 10 of 11 snaps as they tried to run the clock out (with a good deal of success). If you remove that drive, the team was still slightly more run heavy with Davis in the game, but it’s so close that it’s negligible from a takeaway standpoint.

When you remove that final drive from the equation, the Titans did have more success on the ground with Davis at right guard. During his first four series, the team had 13 carries for 64 yards — good for a healthy 4.9 yards per carry average — and had just one negative play compared to three negative runs in nine run plays with Douglas in the game. Again, those numbers clearly aren’t all on Douglas, but I do think it’s somewhat interesting to look at.

Maybe the best stat for Davis though is the fact that he played 17 pass snaps and didn’t allow a single sack, hit, or hurry on the quarterback. Douglas allowed one hit and one hurry in his 15 snaps of pass protection.

The tape for Davis was pretty good and certainly showed some of the traits that must have enticed Jon Robinson and his scouting department during the pre-draft process. The first thing that jumps out to be — besides the largely improved stance (RIP frog stance) — is the power that Davis plays with. He has heavy hands and can really move defenders when he locks on.

Let’s start with a read option that Mariota (correctly) chose to keep in the first half. Davis starts by helping Conklin get a reach on the 3-technique defensive tackle and then moves off to go climb to the second level, except this time instead of finding the linebacker, he finds a stunting defensive end trying to crash inside and levels him with a quick, powerful punch.

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There were some really promising moments in pass protection as well. This next particular snap was praised by Mike Vrabel in his Monday press conference.

“I saw them working on last week in individual where they were replacing their hands in individual. They were working on a bull rush and replacing their hands and sitting down... and sure enough it showed up on tape. At least something that we did from that one practice showed up on tape and it helped Nate and some of those other guys with the speed to power rush.”

—Mike Vrabel

Davis’ initial set against Falcons pass rusher Allen Bailey is just a touch high and Bailey is able to get into his chest plate with a good initial push, but Davis doesn’t panic. He simply resets his hands and drops his hips to lock Bailey out and keep Mariota’s pocket clean. This is excellent technique work from a young player and a credit to both him and the coaching staff.

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Davis showed good power and finish consistently throughout this game. Here, he’s working a combo block with Ben Jones and he gets Falcons defensive tackle Tyeler Davison on roller skates with his initial push before climbing to find linebacker Foyesade Oluokun, eventually helping put both defenders on their backs.

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Here, the Titans are running outside zone. Davis’ responsibility is to reach and pin the 3-technique defensive tackle (Allen Bailey #93). Bailey tries to beat Davis by knifing inside quickly — a common approach to beating outside zone blocks — but the rookie guard does a nice job of recognizing it and pinning him inside which opens up a huge lane for Derrick Henry.

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Davis had some misses as well during the game as you’d expect from a rookie making his first NFL start. Here, Bailey gets the best of him and nearly blows up the run. Henry does a great job running through contact though and making this play work despite suboptimal work up front (though he needs to do a better job of hanging onto the ball late here as well).

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Quick sidenote... not to rain on anyone’s parade, but the Titans have been fairly fortunate when it comes to turnovers so far. Adoree’ Jackson’s muffed punt in Jacksonville is still the lone giveaway of 2019, but the Titans have fumbled eight times, including three in this game. Generally speaking, fumble recoveries are almost exactly 50-50 between the offense and the defense so the Titans getting back seven of these is very lucky. There’s nothing wrong with being a little lucky sometimes, but they need to get their ball security cleaned up quickly before the recovery rates inevitably regress to the mean. Two fumbles per game is entirely too many.

Davis also got beat by Falcons star Grady Jarrett later in the game. Jarrett is one of the game’s best interior defensive linemen so this isn’t necessarily surprising, but it blows up any chance of this play working for Henry (though I don’t think it was going anywhere even if Davis stones Jarrett’s inside move).

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Overall it was a very promising debut for Nate Davis. It wasn’t perfect, of course, but you can clearly see some traits that are translating from his college tape which is encouraging. He looked like he belonged on an NFL field which is more of an accomplishment than what you might think for a young offensive lineman.

It’s obviously too early to make wide sweeping judgments about what he will become as a player, but I do know that I want to see more of him moving forward and that’s a good thing. It will be interesting to see if he gets the start against the Bills or if the Titans choose to continue rotating him and Douglas. Davis will get a tough test with a Buffalo interior that features veterans Star Lotulelei and Lorenzo Alexander — a linebacker in the mold of Rashaan Evans who frequently lines up as an interior rusher on passing downs — along with first round pick Ed Oliver who already has 11 pressures on the season according to PFF charting.

A few things I didn’t like

Let’s start with some of the stuff I didn’t like. As good as the Titans offense was in the first half, there were a couple plays that they kept coming back to that had no chance of working against an athletic Falcons defense. These play action boot plays are a staple of the Tennessee attack, but they rely on the backside edge defender to bite and chase the play action fake to Henry. When they don’t, you get plays that look like this. Credit Mariota for quickly getting rid of this thing and avoiding a sack, but they ran a few of these and all of them looked pretty much exactly like this.

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The Titans also ran a wide variety of screen looks at the Falcons — something they’ve pretty consistently tried to do each week since having great success with them in Cleveland — but Atlanta looked ready for them all. I know a lot of people are down on Dion Lewis about these plays, but I’m not sure what exactly he’s supposed to do here. The irony about this one is that the screen that they faked to Corey Davis is actually more available than the screen they wound up throwing to Lewis. They got to the screen in a ton of different ways throughout this game, but all of them had the same result.

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There was a lot not to like about the 4th and 1 call late in the game when the Titans passed up an opportunity to go up 27-10 with just over 13 minutes remaining in the game. It was a poor coaching decision and Mike Vrabel has since admitted that he’d like to have that one back. I think Vrabel got caught up in the success the Titans were having on the ground — they had runs of 15, 13, 5, 2 and 7 on that drive prior to this play — and just thought that his team would be able to pick it up.

The actual design of the play is kind of interesting here. It’s actually a triple option out of a shotgun set. Mariota ends up giving the dive to Henry here, but if he keeps it, he has a lot of space and Corey Davis as a pitch man to his left. Either Mariota or Davis probably score here if he pulls it, but I’m not sure he was even reading this one. It looks like this was going to Henry no matter what.

The Titans actually get very good push in the middle here, but the breakdowns come from the edges. Jack Conklin gets blown back into Henry’s lap by Bailey while Jonnu Smith gets beat inside by a slanting Takk McKinley. Not great from either of those guys here.

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A few things I did like

Derrick Henry continues to be excellent. His ability to get the edge at almost 250 pounds against cornerbacks never ceases to amaze me.

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Here’s Henry working from the Wild Tractor. Note Rodger Saffold taking Falcons defensive lineman Jack Crawford and throwing him face first into the turf along with a great block from Delanie Walker on Takk McKinley. The rest is mostly Henry who just plows through arm tackles and picks up a big play.

The design here is kinda interesting as well. Marcus Mariota is the player coming across in motion. I wonder if we will ever see him take a handoff or shovel from Henry from this look.

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Here’s the very next snap. The Titans are back in a traditional formation and Henry picks up another chunk behind another Saffold face plant of Crawford. Dennis Kelly has a nice block here as well, but that left side is going to be really fun to watch with Taylor Lewan coming back this week.

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This Titans offense looks like the one we expected to see heading into this season. Corey Davis and A.J. Brown making big plays downfield with a confident, healthy Marcus Mariota. Derrick Henry chewing up yards on the ground behind a strong offensive line. If this turns out to be a turning point and this is close to what we get — plus Lewan — for the rest of the season, I would fully expect this to be a playoff team.

However, before we get too carried away, there are two things that should be noted.

  1. The Falcons are a bad defense, especially without Keanu Neal. They’ve allowed 28, 20, 27, and 24 points in their first four games so it’s not like the Titans just took it to the ‘85 Bears.
  2. We’ve seen games like this from the Titans offense before. Last year, we saw them look like they were figuring things out against the Eagles, Cowboys, and Patriots, only to turn around and see them fall apart in other games.

The Titans will face a much stiffer test against the Bills defense this week. Buffalo ranks 4th in Football Outsiders’ Defensive DVOA metric and has yet to give up more than 17 points in a game this season. They’re coming off a close loss to New England in which they made Tom Brady look as bad as the Titans made him look last fall. I suspect the Tennessee defense will be up to the task of keeping them in this game, but it would be great to see the Titans offense come out and perform at a high level against a much tougher opponent.

The one thing that I do strongly believe about this group is that the talent is there to become a very good offense. Corey Davis, A.J. Brown, Adam Humphries, and Delanie Walker are a very nice group of weapons for the passing attack, Derrick Henry is an absolute stallion in the backfield, the return of Taylor Lewan and potential emergence of Nate Davis should leave the Titans offensive line looking pretty strong across the board, and the play of Marcus Mariota in Atlanta was about as good as you could ask for from any quarterback in the NFL.

If the Titans can get all of that talent working together with some consistency, they could be in the conversation to be a top ten offense, but as we’ve seen with this group before, that’s a big IF.