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All-22 Review: How Arthur Smith used play action to make offense easy for the Titans in Cleveland

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A smart, analytical approach to offense with some real creativity behind it. Please tell Arthur Smith is here to stay.

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Tennessee Titans v Cleveland Browns Photo by Kirk Irwin/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.

When the Titans promoted Arthur Smith from his long time post as tight ends coach to offensive coordinator, the move was widely met with apprehension locally and a “who?” nationally. It’s not that anyone had a terrible opinion of him as a coach — Smith’s position group had been largely successful under his watch and he’d impressively survived three separate regime changes while in Tennessee — people just didn’t know much about him.

We know a little more now. Smith is a head down grinder type who has never sought out the spotlight despite his relatively well-known family (if you haven’t heard by now, he’s the son of FedEx founder Fred Smith). He’s worked his way up from a defensive quality assistant with the Redskins in 2007 to NFL offensive coordinator the old-fashioned way. We know a little bit more about Smith now.

I’m not here to declare Smith the second coming of Sean McVay after just one regular season game, but the results — and more importantly the process — from game one of the Arthur Smith era were extremely encouraging for Titans fans who have yearned for a modern offense in Nashville since... well... the team arrived in 1999.

With Taylor Lewan suspended and expected starting right guard Kevin Pamphile out with a knee injury, Smith knew he would need to protect some guys on his offensive line from getting left one on one with the Browns talented pass rushers too often. Despite giving up four sacks and allowing Marcus Mariota to be pressured on a higher percentage of dropbacks than all but four Week 1 passers — more on that later — Smith’s offense was highly effective, scoring 34 of the team’s 43 total points.

That 34 number just so happens to equal the 2018 Titans season high for single game scoring set against the Patriots, so it took Smith all of one game to match Matt LaFleur’s biggest offensive output. Yes, two turnovers forced by the defense helped give the offense some short fields in the second half, but the Titans capitalized by being extremely efficient in the red zone, scoring three touchdowns and a field goal on four trips inside the Browns 20-yard line. Last year’s Titans finished 24th in red zone efficiency, converting just 53% of their trips into touchdowns so a 75% pace — tiny sample size obviously, but hey, that’s all we got to work with right now — would represent a massive improvement.

The wildest part of Sunday’s offensive performance was the fact that Corey Davis and Adam Humphries — the team’s top two wide receivers — were virtual non-factors in the passing game and Marcus Mariota, while not outright bad, certainly didn’t have his A-game from an accuracy standpoint... and they still put up 34 offensive points. That’s the mark of a well-designed offense. So how did Arthur Smith scheme up the successful Titans attack? We’ll take a quick look at some stats and then jump into the tape below.

The Numbers

Let’s start with the personnel usage. After an offseason of speculation that they’d be moving towards a base offense regularly featuring three wide receivers, the Titans lined up in 11-personnel (1 back, 1 tight end, 3 receivers) on just 30% of snaps in Cleveland, fourth lowest among all NFL teams in Week 1 per Sharp Football Stats, ahead of just Arizona (who were in rarely used four wide sets for two-thirds of their snaps), Minnesota, and Chicago.

The reasoning seems pretty simple in retrospect. Rather than expose an offensive line missing two starters against Myles Garrett and a strong Browns front four, Smith opted to keep his tight ends in the game to help slow the pass rush. The Titans led the NFL in both 12-personnel usage (43%) and 13-personnel usage (18%) in Week 1. Cue the jokes about a former tight end coach loving his old position.

However, Smith was less predictable based on personnel packages than his predecessor, particularly out of 13-personnel. When the Titans had three tight ends in the game together in this game, their run-pass ratio was 50-50, five runs, five passes. Under LaFleur, they were almost 80% run in that personnel package.

From a success rate standpoint, the Titans passing offense got more effective, the more tight ends they put on the field. In 11-personnel just 20% of their pass attempts were successful, in 12-personnel it jumped to 40%, and in 13-personnel it jumped to 60%. The opposite was true for the Titans rushing success rates. They were most effective running the ball out of 11-personnel (57%) and less so in 12 (50%) and 13 (20%).

The other number with the playcalling that I want to point out is the Titans use of play action. Arthur Smith dialed up play action on 43.3% of Marcus Mariota’s dropbacks during this game. If you exclude third downs — where play action is rarely used for obvious reasons — and the final hurry up drive before halftime, the Titans used play action on a stunning 13 of 17 passing attempts.

The Titans were one of five teams to use play action to an extreme degree in Week 1 according to PFF charting. Outside of these five, no team used play action on over 35.7% of dropbacks:

  1. Ravens (50.0% play action), won 59-10
  2. Cowboys (46.9% play action), won 35-17
  3. Vikings (45.5% play action), won 28-12
  4. Chiefs (45.5% play action), won 40-26
  5. Titans (43.3% play action), won 43-13

Now obviously, using a bunch of play action doesn’t guarantee a blowout win every game — it’s not that easy — but play action has statistically been shown to boost passing efficiency by 1.39 yards per attempt in 2018 according to this Five-Thirty-Eight study by Josh Hermsmeyer. His research, along with that of Ben Baldwin for Football Outsiders, also suggests that using play action more frequently does not reduce its effectiveness as defenders, especially linebackers, are still taught to read their run keys first before worrying about dropping into coverage.

For a team like the Titans, who boast a constant home run threat on the ground in Derrick Henry as well as a highly mobile quarterback, defenses who don’t flow quickly to the ball will be made to pay in short order. Couple that with an outside zone based running scheme that is particularly well-suited to complement the play action passing game and you have a scheme and personnel marriage that works.

The result of the heavy play action passing on Sunday was spectacular. Marcus Mariota was 7 of 11 for 217 yards (19.7 YPA) and 3 touchdowns on play action attempts. Even if you want to throw out the 75-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Henry that came off a play action screen pass, you still wind up with 142 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 10 attempts for a YPA of 14.2. That’s extraordinary efficiency.

The Titans probably won’t be quite this play action heavy in every game this year — it’ll be hard to match that rate game to game even if game scripts remain positive — but it’s encouraging to see an offensive coordinator that is willing to take a modern approach to offense.

The Tape

Beyond the numbers, there was a lot to like about Arthur Smith’s plan as well as the Titans execution of that plan. Let’s start up front with the offensive line performance since that was considered to be a big question mark heading into this game.

The Titans allowed four sacks during the game and Mariota was pressured on 43.3% of his dropbacks per PFF, the sixth highest rate in the NFL. However, there is a lot of context that needs to be considered with those two numbers.

First, no quarterback held the ball for more time in the pocket on average than Mariota’s 3.02 seconds per dropback in Week 1. We know that time spent in the pocket and pressure rate are two very closely correlated statistics thanks to studies by, again, people like Ben Baldwin. It’s common sense, but that’s a point that is too often ignored when studying statistics like pressure rate. After all, when PFF is charting pressures, it doesn’t matter if the pressure arrives in one second or ten seconds, a pressure is a pressure to them.

In reality, the difference between pressure arriving in one second or ten makes a world of difference from an analysis standpoint. Does a team have an offensive line problem or do they have a scheme/quarterback that’s putting themselves in harm’s way? In the Titans case on Sunday, it was mainly the scheme. Just one of the Titans four sacks allowed came in under 2.5 seconds, the widely accepted threshold for how long an “average” pass attempt should take to get off.

One of the few downsides to play action passing is that it requires a little more time to develop than your straight dropback passing game, particularly if you’re going to use the under-center outside zone based action that the Titans trend towards. Instead of getting a pass off in 2.2 or 2.3 seconds, you might give the opposing pass rushers closer to 3 seconds to get to the quarterback. In a game as fast as the NFL, that fraction of a second can make a world of difference.

Below are the four sacks the Titans allowed on Sunday in one clip. Sack No. 1 is a safety blitz off the edge that they didn’t see coming — Arthur Smith would make the Browns pay for this tendency later in the game so remember that one — and it is the only one under 2.5 seconds. Sack No. 2 and Sack No. 3 were straight dropbacks that saw Mariota get through at least one read before the defense got to him. Dennis Kelly was beaten by Myles Garrett on Sack No. 2 while Rodger Saffold was beaten by Larry Ogunjobi on Sack No. 3 (though that one was more of a coverage sack than anything. Sack No. 4 probably shouldn’t count as a negative at all. The Titans were up 36-13 at that point with four minutes remaining. Mariota could have hit Anthony Firkser who is wide open on the corner route, but chose to play it safe and slide down rather than risk a pass attempt that likely would have resulted in him taking an unnecessary hit from the hulking Myles Garrett. Smart play by 8.

Every sack allowed by the Titans in Week 1.
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That’s not to say that the offensive line played a perfect game. There were certainly instances of missed blocks and guys getting beat. I’ll show a few of those here as well.

The snap below was one of Dennis Kelly’s poorest snaps of the game. The Browns primarily ran Garrett against Kelly and Olivier Vernon against Jack Conklin in this game, but they have them flipped here. Conklin handles Garrett with ease, but Kelly gives up a quick inside pressure to Vernon despite the help of a chip block from Adam Humphries. If you’re a tackle, and you know you have a chip coming, you absolutely cannot give up the inside that easily. Kelly was mostly solid on the day — especially for a backup tackle — but this and the Garrett sack were not great reps for him.

Dennis Kelly can’t get beat inside here with the benefit of the chip.
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For the most part though, the Titans offensive line was better than expected in pass protection. Ben Jones pitched a shutout, allowing no sacks, hits, or hurries on the game and Jack Conklin very nearly did as well, allowing just one hurry with no sacks or hits. His primary matchup during the game, Vernon, can’t be found on the official box score because he recorded zero sacks, zero quarterback hits, and zero tackles despite playing 56 snaps. Conklin was absolutely dominant, a continuation of his very strong camp and preseason performances.

Let’s take a look at some of the offensive line’s work in the run game. As expected, the Titans leaned heavily on the outside zone throughout the game, particularly when Derrick Henry was the back. Despite some shuffling of the pieces from Week 17 of 2018 to Week 1 of 2019 (only Ben Jones started both games at the same position), it didn’t take long for them to get in sync with Henry, though I felt like the big back made a rare misread on the run below early in the game. There was daylight on the backside so I understand the instinct, but the playside blocking is gorgeous here from Dennis Kelly, Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, and MyCole Pruitt (lined up as the fullback) and Henry might have gotten more than 6 had he stayed just a little more patient on this one.

The Titans offensive line controlling the line of scrimmage.
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After his first 4 carries went for just 3 yards total, Henry’s final 15 went for 81, a crisp 5.4 yards per carry clip. The vast majority of those yards came on one of two playcalls, outside zone and the zone read. Those remain the staples of the Titans rushing attack, but stopping them is easier said than done. This was a particularly well-executed version of the outside zone. Right guard Jamil Douglas — a major source of concern for many Titans fans heading into the game — does a great job of absolutely burying Vernon while Conklin slides up to the linebacker level and Pruitt cleans up the force defender with a lead block. Henry reads it perfectly, puts his foot in the ground, and gets downhill for a nice gain.

Jamil Douglas buries Olivier Vernon on an outside zone run.
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One of the beautiful things about the outside zone run is that multiple options are built in. Left tackle Dennis Kelly’s primary objective here is to reach Vernon’s outside shoulder and pin him inside to allow Henry to gain access to the edge, but Vernon overplays outside in an effort to contain so Kelly just takes him where he wants to go and Henry’s read makes Kelly “right”. However, the inside of the offensive line is where this running lane is really made. Saffold bullies Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey, knocking him five yards towards the sidelines while Jones and Douglas execute an extremely difficult combination block on the shaded nose tackle. It might not look like much, but Douglas’ block here is absolutely fantastic and a testament to his athleticism. Henry follows the blocking and nearly scores if not for an excellent tackle by Browns safety Damarious Randall.

Picture perfect blocking from the Titans interior offensive line on this outside zone run.
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As on of their many counters to the outside zone, the Titans will occasionally mix in a windback run like the one below. This example is expertly blocked by Conklin, Pruitt, Jonnu Smith, and Corey Davis to get Henry access to the edge where he’s so dangerous.

Derrick Henry gets the edge on a big windback run.
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Here’s an example of the Titans other run game staple, the zone read. One thing I like about this one in particular is the late shift by Henry from one side to the other. The Titans are inside the 10-yard line where it’s increasingly difficult to create space, so brute force becomes more critical. Henry’s late move causes the entire defensive front to shift just before the snap, giving the Titans offensive linemen a little extra advantage in getting off the ball and getting downhill. Douglas and Conklin do a nice job of washing down the defensive tackle while Smith — whose blocking appeared much improved in this game — takes care of the defensive end one on one, giving Henry enough space to power down to the one yard line.

Derrick Henry found a lot of success running behind Jack Conklin on Sunday.
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The very next play the Titans managed to punch it in with a nicely designed goal line call. There are two things that make this an easy touchdown for Henry. First, is the TE jet sweep/screen action from Delanie Walker. The Titans have given the ball to Walker on the end around for touchdowns in recent years so that’s a tendency that they know teams have on tape. The Browns react accordingly as not one, but two players follow Walker to the flat, leaving 9 to defend 10 in the box. From there, the Titans just need to get some push at the point of attack and they get that from Jack Conklin who bulldozes Sheldon Richardson three yards into the endzone, leaving a huge gap for Henry to dive through.

Jack Conklin clears the way for Derrick Henry’s 23rd career rushing touchdown.
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It’s hard to overstate how good Jack Conklin was in this game and how huge it is for the Titans to have him operating at All-Pro levels again.

Let’s take a quick look at the Titans screen game which was another tool they used to slow down Cleveland’s pass rush this week. Arthur Smith dialed up five screen plays of different varieties throughout the game with mixed success. They only completed two of the five screen attempts, but the two that they did hit both went for touchdowns. We’ll get to those in a minute, but let’s look at what happened with a couple of those failed attempts first.

The first was the final play of the Titans first drive of the game. After a rush for a loss on first down and a short completion on second down, Tennessee faced 3rd and 9 just inside the red zone. Anticipating pressure — 3rd and long in the red zone is virtually begging defensive coordinators to blitz — Smith lines up his three most dangerous pass catchers (Delanie Walker, Corey Davis, and Adam Humphries) to one side and runs a screen for Dion Lewis the other way. It’s perfectly set up. Lewis has two offensive linemen ahead of him and just one Browns defender between him and the first down marker, but he drops the well-placed pass. If he hauls it in, there is a really good chance that he picks up the first down.

Dion Lewis has to catch this ball.
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The Titans next screen attempt was also well set up. This time it’s a play action throwback screen to Derrick Henry. The Browns blitz the corner off the short side of the field again against the Titans tight split — just like the first sack in the clip above, often called a “cat” blitz — which rushes Marcus Mariota and costs Henry a chance at a touchdown. There isn’t a single defender beyond the line of scrimmage between the hash and the sideline on that side of the field and Jack Conklin has an angle on the only linebacker who would even have a shot at chasing down Henry. If Mariota doesn’t get hurried — or if Henry doesn’t get held up on the way out of the pocket — this is probably 6.

This screen to Henry might have scored if not for the corner blitz.
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The third screen attempt of the game was a play action throwback to Delanie Walker, who is lined up as the slot receiver to the wide side of the field. Again, Browns safety Damarious Randall makes a great play to close quickly on Walker, but you can see again the set up of this screen is close to popping if Dennis Kelly could have reached Randall before he got to Walker. You have to think that the uber-athletic Taylor Lewan might have a better chance of making this block once he’s back. I’d suspect we’ll see this look again.

Near miss screen attempt to Walker.
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Here is the first of the two touchdowns on screen passes. It was the single biggest play of the game in both yardage and impact as an immediate answer after the Browns cut the lead to 2 points was just what the doctor ordered for the Titans. It’s a similar design to the one that they just missed above, but this time, Mariota and Henry are able to connect. Rodger Saffold makes the first key block, picking off Kirksey in space and putting him on the ground. We should also give credit to Pruitt who peels back off his delayed release wheel route — I’m guessing we’ll see that version of this play soon — to make a nice block and Corey Davis who hustles all the way to the end zone while walling off Denzel Ward from the backside. Henry’s home run speed handles the rest.

Henry goes completely untouched for 75 yards thanks to this screen design (and his incredible speed).
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The final screen of the game was another creative design from Arthur Smith. Mariota gives a play fake to Henry before pulling the ball back and finding Walker in the flat for an easy touchdown. How Walker gets that open is the interesting part of the play. He fakes like he’s going to down block while Darius Jennings follows him down and effectively sets a pick to free up Walker. Because Jennings is making contact with the defender within a yard of the line of scrimmage, this is a completely legal action. All Walker is left to do is beat the backside pursuit to the corner of the end zone.

Clever design to free up Delanie Walker for his second touchdown of the game.
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One of the big questions coming out of this game was “what happened to Corey Davis?” The Titans leading receiver from 2018 was held without a catch for the first time in his NFL career, but he did draw multiple penalties and found ways to contribute as a blocker (something he consistently does whether he’s catching passes or not).

I kept a close eye on Davis throughout my review of this game and there are a few reasons for his lack of production. Let’s start with stuff that is outside of his control. Mariota only attempted 24 passes in this game so there was relatively limited opportunity to begin with. Out of those 24, 5 were packaged screens so that leaves just 19 pass attempts downfield.

Davis was a victim of timing in a few cases. On this 3rd and long early in the game, Mariota was looking for Davis on this deep dig against the Browns Cover 3 look and he has him open with a window to put the ball in, but this is the play where Kelly gave up quick inside pressure to Vernon highlighted above and the quarterback was forced to flee the pocket.

Davis was wide open on this 3rd and long, but Kelly gave up quick pressure and forced Mariota to scramble.
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He also had the misfortune of being the intended target on a few of Mariota’s misfires during the game. Here’s one. Davis isn’t wide open by any means, but he’s open enough for a play to be made. This is one of the more difficult throws a right-handed quarterback can make — rolling left, needing to release with anticipation, and having a defender closing in your face — so it’s hard to fault Mariota much for this, but it’s also tough luck for Davis to have one of his opportunities to make a play squandered.

Davis was didn’t get great separation here, but he was “NFL open”.
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Another opportunity with Davis wide open is missed here. This is a designed roll out, but again the Browns cat blitz blows up the play. Mariota makes an athletic attempt to avoid the tackle and eventually does a great job of throwing the ball away to prevent the sack.

A well-timed blitz forces a throwaway here with Davis open.
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This was another play that was a missed connection between Mariota and Davis on a 3rd and long. Watching live I thought this was just a simple overthrow from the quarterback — and in a sense it still is — but there is a little more context that the All-22 angles provide. As you can see best on the endzone view, Mariota appears to hesitate before cutting the throw loose. There is a reason for that. Denzel Ward, the Browns excellent young corner who shadowed Davis for much of the game, grabs Davis at the top of his route, throwing off the timing for the quarterback and causing him to throw it a bit flat footed. It’s hard to complain about a no-call when the Browns were whistled 18 times, but this should have been defensive holding and you can see Davis looking for the call after the whistle. Obviously, you’d still like to see a more catchable ball even with the timing being disrupted, but there is some explanation for why this pass floated on Mariota.

Mariota misses high on an attempt to Davis.
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Ward mugging Davis at the tops of his routes was a consistent theme in this game and a big part of why the stat sheet ended up empty for 84. Here, Davis has him dead to rights on the deep out so Ward grabs and takes the flag, giving up the automatic first down.

Three other things to point out on this snap:

  1. Jonnu Smith is left to block Myles Garrett one on one and while I don’t love any play that calls for that matchup, Smith does an admirable job holding up against an elite pass rusher. Again, I was very impressed with Smith’s development as a blocker in this game.
  2. Marcus Mariota choosing to go ahead and throw this ball in the direction of Davis is smart football. It draws attention to the hold and virtually forces the refs to call it.
  3. Watch A.J. Brown’s route on the opposite side. We’re going to get to Brown’s game in a minute, but the refs could have called a hold on his man just as easily because he was toast if he didn’t grab his waist here.
Davis draws a defensive holding call against Ward.
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Here’s another hold on Ward as he’s trying to cover Davis. It’s an obvious call and it tacked on extra yards to the 3rd down conversion that Mariota picks up with his legs here.

Another holding call on Ward trying to cover Davis.
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Alright, let’s move on from Davis and get to the Titans “other” talented young receiver, second round pick A.J. Brown. Despite missing a big chunk of camp with an injury, Brown was way ahead of where I expected him to be in Week 1 and it started right off the bat with a chunk play on the Titans first drive of the season.

Tennessee lines up in 13-personnel with Brown as the lone wide receiver split out to the top of the screen (Brown was the lone wide receiver on the field on almost every snap of 13-personnel in this game which is interesting). He’s matched up with Denzel Ward in press coverage, but he wins a clean release at the line of scrimmage, presses hard vertically, and then snaps off the post to create separation. Mariota puts a perfect ball out there and you can see Brown’s outfielder tracking skills come into play. He easily locates the ball, makes a strong hands catch, and then shows off his strength after the catch, tossing Ward off him and pushing forward for extra yardage.

Mariota to A.J. Brown for 47 yards.
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Brown’s other big play shows off his route running and run after catch ability. He beats press coverage again, getting easy access to the middle of the field which had been vacated by the play action fake. From there, it’s an easy throw for Mariota and Brown does the rest, stiff arming the corner with ease, picking up a block from Davis, and then showing off some outstanding open field ability to make guys miss. If he doesn’t cut it back inside a second time, it’s possible that he scores here.

A.J. Brown is a handful after the catch.
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Mike Renner of PFF wrote an excellent review of Brown’s first game that I would recommend checking out.

“I’ve already seen enough from him in college and in the pros to believe that the rookie will become the Titans’ number one option sooner rather than later.”

— Mike Renner, PFF

Unlike Renner, I still expect Davis to end up as the Titans top option for 2019, but Brown showed what his ceiling can look like in his very first game and it’s elite. Arguing over who should be considered the WR1 among two qualified options would be a first world problem for receiver-starved Titans fans.

Finally, let’s take a look at three of my favorite play designs from Week 1 by Arthur Smith. The Titans offense boasts a load of different ways to create mismatches with size and athleticism. Delanie Walker (6’-2”, 248 lbs, 4.49) has been a walking mismatch for years, but Jonnu Smith (6’-3”, 248 lbs, 4.62), A.J. Brown (6’-0”, 226 lbs, 4.49), and Corey Davis (6’-3”, 209 lbs) are big, athletic pass catchers who have a rare mix of physicality and speed.

Arthur Smith showed some of the ways he can use them to get mismatches in Week 1. Here, he lines up in 13-personnel again with A.J. Brown split out wide right. Walker and Smith are both lined up tight to the line on the left with Walker essentially functioning as a wide receiver. He draws a corner in coverage is able to beat him inside for a nice gain. Even if the coverage is tighter here, Walker’s big body gives Mariota a big, protected target to hit in the middle of the field.

Play action pop pass to Delanie Walker.
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Because they’ve struggled to identify and develop successful professional wide receivers for so long, the Titans franchise has always struggled to execute rub routes. The rest of the NFL has had immense success running these types of plays for years while the Titans would always either miss the rub or slam into the defender and get called for offensive pass interference.

However, that may be changing with the new set of receivers and this coaching staff. Here, Davis executes a rub perfectly, freeing up Humphries to be wide open on the sideline for Mariota.

Well-executed rub route to free up Adam Humphries on 3rd and medium.
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The Titans success with play action was outstanding and here is another example. It’s 13-personnel again and Walker fakes a block before slipping behind the linebackers for Mariota to hit for a nice touchdown.

Another nice play action design to find Walker for his first touchdown of 2019.
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Overall, I felt like Mariota was just OK in this game. He made most of the throws he should have, but made very few WOW plays. The good news is that the Titans didn’t need Mariota to make WOW plays to score 34 offensive points. The quarterback will have better days and so will Davis and Humphries. That’s really promising for an offense that can suddenly beat you in multiple ways with multiple combinations of weapons. I’m looking forward to seeing how Smith and the Titans offense choose to attack the Colts in the home opener this weekend.