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All-22 Review: Titans offense continues to look like a mess in Jacksonville

There are problems.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

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.

First, I know that nobody really wants to revisit the horror show that was the Titans 20-7 loss to the Jaguars in Jacksonville last Thursday night at this point. Unfortunately my schedule this week has delayed me being able to get this article together, but better late than never, right?

This was another bad performance by the Titans offense. Some of the issues that started to pop up during the Colts game were more prominent on the road against a very good Jaguars defense. In some sense, that’s to be expected. Not to make excuses, but the Titans were traveling on a short week after an emotional home loss. They only got one “real” practice in between games so there wasn’t much time to work on correcting issues that showed up on tape. It’s not shocking that the problems we saw against the Colts were still present four days later.

Still, the Titans must find a way to fix this offense if they want to contend in the AFC South or play in the postseason.

(How many times have we said those words over the last 20 years?)

So let’s dive into the tape and take a look at some of the good and a lot of the bad that we saw on the field in Jacksonville.

Let’s start with the sacks since that has largely been the biggest point of discussion coming out of this game. The Titans gave up just one first half sack.

It was mostly an excellent play by Jaguars corner D.J. Hayden, but we will get to that in a minute. First, let’s set up the build up to how the Titans arrived at 3rd and 24 because it’s become a disturbingly familiar sequence for this offense:

  1. 1st and 10 — holding penalty on Jonnu Smith negates a 6 yard gain for Derrick Henry.
  2. 1st and 19 — Marcus Mariota misses an opportunity for a completion, ends up throwing the pass away (we will come back to this play later).
  3. 2nd and 19 — Derrick Henry gets stuffed for a 5 yard loss as Calais Campbell beats Ben Jones’ block (2nd and 19 run calls drive me absolutely insane).

To make matters worse, this series of plays followed one of the Titans best plays of the first half, a beautiful 30-yard completion from Marcus Mariota to Adam Humphries on a well-designed, well-executed passing concept. The Titans had 1st and 10 at the Jaguars 26-yard line with their first real chance to get on the board.

With that in mind, I don’t hate the wide receiver screen call from Arthur Smith here. Converting 3rd and 24 or longer is extremely rare. No NFL team has converted a 3rd and 24 or longer attempt since 2017. Teams are 1 of 133 in this situation since the start of the 2017 season so the lesson is to not end up in that spot to begin with. However, since they found themselves here, I don’t mind being a little conservative and trying to pick up the 5 or 6 yards they needed to get into a reasonable spot for a field goal attempt. Maybe A.J. Brown breaks a tackle and makes something big happen, but the first priority is giving yourself a chance at 3 in this spot.

This is the rare sack that I really can’t fault anyone for. The offensive line is supposed to invite the Jaguars defenders up field so they can get out and block for Brown and if this play goes off as planned, there is no way that Campbell gets to Mariota before the throw. Mariota chooses not to throw the ball and it’s the right call here. Jaguars slot corner Hayden looks like he’s coming on a blitz, but his route takes him right into the path of Mariota’s throw to Brown. If the pass comes out as designed, there is a decent chance this turns into a pick-6. It’s an unfortunate result, but I really don’t see much that the Titans could have done to avoid it. Sometimes the defense just has the right call and makes the right play.

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Protection wasn’t perfect in the first half, but it really wasn’t bad overall. The dam broke in the second half though.

We will go through the eight (!!!) second half sacks here. If you’re tired of looking at them, feel free to skip ahead, but I think it’s worth looking at how this disaster happened.

The first sack of the second half — Sack No. 2 overall — comes on the first snap of the second half. This one is simple. The Titans are looking to be aggressive and take a play action shot out of a run look. Neither guy was wide open, but Mariota would have had a chance to hit Delanie Walker on the crossing route or take a deep shot to Jonnu Smith on the wheel route if he’d had time, but Rodger Saffold gets beat quickly by Calais Campbell and Mariota has no chance. This one is squarely on Saffold.

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The Titans were able to recover from that 1st and 10 sack — a true rarity — and put together a nice drive deep into Jaguars territory keyed by chunk plays to Jonnu Smith and Tajae Sharpe. However, after a 4 yard run on 1st and 10 at the Jaguars 15-yard line, Marcus Mariota missed two golden opportunities to get in the end zone on 2nd and 3rd downs. You can see those below.

The first play is excellent from Mariota up until the throw. He senses pressure coming off the edge and steps up into an open spot in the pocket. He manages to keep his eyes downfield — something he hasn’t done nearly enough lately — and finds a wide open Delanie Walker standing alone in the end zone. Unfortunately, he doesn’t put enough air under the throw and it gets tipped by the Jaguars linebacker.

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On the very next play, the Titans quarterback gets another opportunity to hit Walker in the end zone. This time, the Jaguars bring a zero blitz, leaving each of the Titans pass catchers downfield in one on one man coverage. Jamil Douglas gets beat by Campbell — this will be a theme from here forward — and Mariota throws under pressure looking for Walker, but leaves it short, nearly getting intercepted. Walker had leverage and a step on his defender and a better throw scores here. Yes, throwing under quick pressure is tough, but you have to make some tough plays in the NFL.

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That leads to Sack No. 3. The Titans choose to go for it on 4th and 6 which felt a little bit like a desperation move from Mike Vrabel. I can understand it to some degree. It was 14-0 Jaguars and the Titans offense had really struggled to move the ball up to this point. Touchdowns were going to be needed if this team was going to win the game. However, taking 3 and at least getting on the board still feels like the right call on 4th and 6 to me.

The Titans are looking to flood the left side of the Jaguars zone defense, but Jacksonville does a nice job of taking away the deeper options and leaving just A.J. Brown — who is two yards short of the first down marker with a couple defenders within striking range — open underneath. However, the real culprit here is Douglas. He gets beat cleanly by Campbell for a second straight play and Mariota is left with nowhere to go. Campbell is a monster, but Douglas is a total mess here.

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If you’re keeping score to this point, I’ve got one sack on nobody (good defense), one sack on Saffold, and one sack on Douglas. Sack No. 4 goes on the quarterback. The Titans are running another play action shot play, this time on 2nd and 8 following a short run by Henry. Jonnu Smith and A.J. Brown are combining to run a “Yankee concept” with Smith running a deep post while Brown cuts underneath with a crosser.

It’s a pretty simple read for Mariota against the Cover 3 look the Jaguars defense is playing. If the single high safety stays over top of Smith’s post — as he does here — you hit the crosser to Brown. If the safety crashes down to cut the crosser, you throw the deep shot to Smith. The underneath linebackers are taken out of the picture by the play action fake leaving a very clear picture downfield.

Mariota hits the top of his drop and senses the edge rushers coming around, but he has a clean pocket to step up into. He climbs in the pocket, but doesn’t cut the crosser to Brown loose for some reason, eventually running into a sack. Brown is wide open by NFL standards and this should be an easy completion for 20-plus yards instead of a 2-yard loss. Mariota simply has to make this throw.

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Sack No. 5 is also on Mariota in my opinion. This is later in the same drive after the team, again, recovered from the previous sack. It’s 3rd and 9 on the edge of field goal range. Mariota is reading the right side of the field where A.J. Brown is running a deep comeback over top of Adam Humphries’ 10-yard out.

Humphries is open pretty quickly if the ball is thrown on time and the pass protection holds up well enough initially. Yes, there is a defender underneath and another one closing from the top, but there is more than enough room for a good pass to hit Humphries for a first down conversion. Mariota doesn’t pull the trigger which gives Jaguars first round pick Josh Allen time to beat Jack Conklin back inside and knock the ball out. Mariota recovers the fumble, but the Titans miss another opportunity to get on the board.

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Sack No. 6 is similar. It’s 1st and 10 with the Titans down 17-0 in the 4th quarter so they’re now effectively in hurry up mode. Josh Allen wins against Conklin again on the right side, but Conklin does a nice job of recovering enough to push him past Mariota, giving his quarterback a chance to step up in the pocket. Yannick Ngakoue is coming through on an inside twist with Campbell, but Saffold is also able to run him past the quarterback.

The protection could certainly be better here so I’m not completely letting them off the hook, but when Mariota steps up (as he should), he has a clear chance to hit Corey Davis who has a couple steps on his defender coming across the field. However, the quarterback’s eyes drop when he steps up and instead of looking to make a throw, he looks to run and ends up running right into Calais Campbell, who Dennis Kelly actually handled quite well on this play.

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Sack No. 7 is more of the same. Titans remain in catch up mode and Aaron Stinnie — who replaced the ineffective Jamil Douglas by this point — gives up some pressure to Jaguars defensive end Lerentee McCray, but Mariota doesn’t help his protection either. It’s 2nd and 19 and it looks like the Titans are trying to get a pick for Adam Humphries on the out route. They manage to get him wide open and if the ball is released when it should be (ball should be coming out of Mariota’s hand no later than the point at which the clip below is paused), it’s an easy completion. Instead, Mariota’s eyes drop to the pressure and he looks to run out of it, running into another sack.

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The very next play sees the Titans face another 3rd and 24. Again, this is virtually impossible to convert. The pass protection is largely OK at first. It’s a strong pocket inside, but Jack Conklin eventually gets walked back near Mariota and the quarterback trips over his right tackle’s feet and goes down for the sack.

There isn’t really anyone wide open downfield, but given the game situation, I wouldn’t mind seeing Mariota take a deep shot to A.J. Brown in one on one coverage. He’s got Jalen Ramsey on him and that’s not a great matchup for the Titans, but it’s one on one and the team is down 20-7 with 5:23 remaining. Take a shot and see what happens. Maybe you draw a cheap pass interference penalty. The downside — a possible interception — isn’t much worse than a punt in this situation. Both would realistically end the Titans hopes of making a comeback.

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Finally, we have Sack No. 9. There are just over two minutes remaining and the Titans are still down 20-7, so it’s desperation time. The Titans are trying to go deep down the field, but an inside stunt between Dawuane Smoot and Calais Campbell isn’t picked up well by Saffold, resulting in another sack. This one is on Saffold to me. Mariota hits the top of his drop and is nearly immediately swarmed under. The painful part of this one is that Corey Davis — the receiver at the top of screen — is one on one against A.J. Bouye running a deep post. It looks like Mariota might be gearing up to cut it loose to him, but he never gets the chance. A big play to Davis here almost certainly doesn’t change the result of the game, but it would have been nice to see nonetheless.

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Before we move on from the sacks, let’s recap what we saw above. My opinion is that the fault breakdown should be as follows:

  • Mariota: 4.5 sacks (Nos. 4, 5, 6, 7, and half of 8)
  • Saffold: 2 sacks (Nos. 2 and 9)
  • Douglas: 1 sack (No. 3)
  • Conklin: 0.5 sacks (half of No. 8)
  • Nobody: 1 sack (No. 1)

It’s fair to say that the protection was less than perfect on several of the ones that I’m assigning to Mariota, but expecting perfect protection on every snap is unrealistic. On each of those plays, the quarterback had time to make a play and didn’t.

There are a couple of stats that show that this is a real issue. The first comes courtesy of a tweet from PFF Senior Analyst Steve Palazzolo.

The Titans offensive line should not be off the hook — even the 3.5 sacks I have assigned to them in the exercise above would be too many for one game — but Mariota is allowing the pressures to be converted into sacks at a rate that is far too high. That was a problem last season as well when Mariota was sacked the 8th most times in the NFL despite being hit the 5th fewest times among qualifying quarterbacks. That, again, was the highest ratio — by far — of any NFL passer.

To me, this has become THE issue with Marcus Mariota. The cause is a combination of things. For one, he holds the ball too long and seems unwilling to make throws unless the pass catcher is wide open (which is rare in the NFL). Compounding that issue is the fact that he has developed a tendency to drop his eyes as soon as he feels pressure and rather than throwing to beat the pressure, he looks to run and escape, often putting himself in more danger than he was in to begin with. Finally, he’s simply not very elusive which is surprising given his outstanding athleticism.

Here is another example that didn’t result in a sack on Thursday night. This is the play the Titans ran on 1st and 19 after Jonnu Smith’s holding penalty that eventually led to the first sack of the game. It’s another example of the oft-used Yankee concept. This time it’s A.J. Brown running the deep post with Delanie Walker running the crosser underneath. Walker has inside leverage and plenty of space to work with in front of him and Mariota has a very clean pocket at the point the ball should be coming out, but for some reason, he hangs onto the ball and eventually is forced to take a pressured throwaway.

Walker is absolutely open for a gain that might have converted the first down and definitely would have put the Titans in field goal range with a manageable second down. Mariota absolutely 100% has to make this throw. It’s an easy read and the play is there. I simply can’t understand why he doesn’t pull the trigger here.

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We’ve also seen some accuracy issues popping up so far this season with Mariota. That’s a little surprising considering accuracy hasn’t generally been a major issue for him. In this game Mariota missed a couple layups to Humphries and Smith, but the biggest misfire was this deep shot to a wide open Sharpe. A great route leaves 19 with a TON of separation against A.J. Bouye on the outside, and with the Jaguars in quarters coverage, there is no safety help coming from the inside. If you’re going to miss with this throw, it needs to be inside to give Sharpe a chance to bend into space and make a play. Instead, Mariota misses badly outside. There is no reason for this ball to be outside the numbers.

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All that being said, Mariota wasn’t the only one to blame for that disastrous performance on Thursday Night Football. He didn’t get a ton of help from his teammates or coaches either. You know it’s an off night when Mariota and Delanie Walker can’t get on the same page.

Take a look at this play. Mariota is looking for Walker (split out wide at the bottom of the screen) on a quick hitch route. Based on the similar routes from Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith at the top of the screen and the timing of Mariota’s drop/pump fake, it sure looks like Walker was supposed to be running a 5-yard hitch instead of the 8-yard hitch he ends up running. With his timing thrown off, Mariota takes off running and does a great job of making something out of nothing. This one appears to be on Walker and it’s a surprising mistake to see from a 14-year veteran who has been playing with Mariota for his entire career.

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The Titans also got another drop from Derrick Henry and this one cost the team a chance at a huge play. It’s a perfectly set up throwback screen off play action and Henry initially looked like he had it, but the ball slipped out as he goes to put it away. The ball was wet, but that’s no excuse here. You have to catch this ball. If he does, Henry pretty easily has a first down and possibly a lot more.

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There are also some structural issues with this passing game at times. Again, the first problem with this play is that the Titans are in 3rd and 13 to begin with, but the spacing on the routes out of this bunch set is terrible. Tajae Sharpe and Corey Davis are within 5 yards of each other all the way through this play, making it far too easy for the Jaguars to take away throwing lanes. For what it’s worth, it looks to me like Sharpe runs his dig route too deep here. I understand that you want to get to the sticks on 3rd down, but if your route has to be run in concert with another route, adjusting the depth can throw off an entire play, as it does here. I think Mariota could have possibly hit Sharpe in the first window despite the deeper route, but the spacing makes it tougher than it needs to be and he takes the checkdown to Walker instead, leading to a punt.

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This play also looks clunky. The spacing of the routes is good here, but the timing is way off. Brown is wide open coming out of his break, but Mariota’s throw is late and limits his receiver’s ability to make a play after the catch. I don’t know if Mariota rode the fake too long or if Brown’s route was too short, but the timing is not right one way or another. If it was, this could have been a nice gain.

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This was a poor offensive performance for the Titans, but it wasn’t without some glimmers of hope so let’s look at a few positive plays.

This was the first big play of the game and it was beautiful design and execution. Adam Humphries is running a stop-and-go, taking the time to sell the stop route before spinning out to take off downfield. Mariota, knowing that Humphries is matched up against a linebacker, hits him with a perfect throw.

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Jonnu Smith hasn’t put up crazy numbers this year, but I’ve been very impressed with his play as both a pass catcher and blocker — and occasional runner — this season. Here, he gets inside leverage up the seam and is able to make a tough catch over the middle despite contact and a hit from a safety coming.

This is the Marcus Mariota that I need to see more of. Smith is not wide open here. He simply has inside leverage — which by NFL standards is often all you need — and Mariota confidently lets it rip on time and is rewarded with a 20-yard gain. It’s not that Mariota can’t do these things, it’s just that he doesn’t do them often enough. More plays like this will make his offensive line and his pass catchers look a lot better.

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Tajae Sharpe had a couple outstanding routes in this game. Here is one of them. He gets an inside release and then works hard to bend Ramsey back towards the sideline before snapping back in to create separation. Mariota’s throw is on the money for a big gain. Great throw, great route, great catch.

I also want to point out that part of the reason that Sharpe finds himself with a one-on-one matchup here is the fact that the Jaguars are rolling coverage towards Corey Davis at the top of the screen. This is something Jacksonville did a good bit of throughout the game.

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We talked a lot above about Mariota’s tendency to take sacks in the face of pressure. Here is an example of him doing the opposite of that. Jamil Douglas is beaten badly by Calais Campbell again — tired of reading that yet? — but this time, instead of collapsing and taking the sack, Mariota stands in and delivers a dime to Delanie Walker into a tight window for a big gain. This is A+ quarterback play and proof that an offensive lineman getting beat doesn’t have to doom a play to failure.

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The problem is that Mariota can’t wait until the Titans are down 17-0 in the 4th quarter to start making plays like this. There is a fine line between aggressive and reckless, but Mariota’s play has been nowhere near that line this season. His overly conservative play is hampering the offense. Finding the sense of urgency that he showed in the 4th quarter of this game in the 1st quarter should be priority number one for this offense in Atlanta on Sunday.