On October 16, 2017 the Indianapolis Colts will travel to Nashville, Tennessee to battle the division rival Tennessee Titans. In this week six match-up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea for what we’re up against.
Coming off of a 9-7 season in 2016 the Titans hope to build on the success they’ve found in star quarterback Marcus Mariota and the legs of their impressive stable of running backs. Last season our Colts swept the series, jumping out to early leads and keeping pace the rest of the way. A lot has changed in one short off season for our Colts and how that will impact the game is yet to be determined. Let’s figure out what we can expect in week six.
Exotic Smash Mouth. That sounds like a knockoff of an already bad late 90’s band. It’s also the name that head coach Mike Mularkey gave his decidedly old school hybrid scheme. If you failed to gather from the name of the scheme, Mularkey likes to run the ball, that’s the “smash mouth” aspect. Luckily for Mike, he’s found some All Stars and to his credit he hasn’t been left looking kind of dumb with his finger and his thumb in the shape of an "L" on his forehead, very often. Fine, I’ll stop with the Smash Mouth jokes, but seriously his scheme has been largely successful.
Mularkey’s offense is about moving the ball on the ground and making life easier for his quarterback. He likes to move a lot of his pieces pre-snap (in the nine games he was in charge last season, the Titans were third in the league in pre-snap motion or shifts) and he runs a hybrid zone/gap blocking scheme that’s akin to the one the Dallas Cowboys run. The system gets offensive linemen on the front of their feet, takes the fight to the defense and pounds the front seven.
I thought you said it was exotic? What’s exotic about running the ball behind a powerful offensive line?
The biggest creative question that looms over Mularkey and his staff is the kind of run-pass option plays (RPOs) they include in their offense.
RPOs, also called packaged plays, are as they sound: a combination of a running and passing concepts packaged into one play.
There are two forms of RPOs: pre- and post-snap.
Pre-snap RPOs are as simple as getting two play calls — a run and a pass — reading the alignment of the defense and how many defenders are in the box, then opting which play to run. Coaches often refer to them as “kill” calls as the quarterback will “kill” one of the plays after surveying the defense.
Post-snap RPOs involve the quarterback reading the defense on the fly and deciding what to do with the ball. The design works because, in theory, the defense can never be right: if they do X, the quarterback does Y; if they do Y the quarterback does X. A defensive player simply cannot be in two places at once.
Early last season, the Titans built in a number of RPO concepts.
That’s kind of exotic, I guess.
In Week 1 vs. the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mariota made the game look easy with a series of second-level RPO plays that isolated linebackers and eliminated them from the play.
Below: The Titans run a packaged play that pairs two very simple concepts. They build in a basic inside-zone handoff, with a quick slant. Mariota reads the linebacker; if he crashes down to play the run or freezes, Mariota throws the quick slant. If he backpedals into a zone, Mariota hands the ball off.
As the play develops, Mariota reads the linebacker, while the offensive line and boundary wide receiver block as though it’s a run play.
Against the split-safety look, Mariota freezes the linebacker, throws the quick slant, and Kendall Wright runs it in for a touchdown.
By design, RPOs are simple; the quarterback only has to read one player. It’s a big reason why they’ve been such a huge success at the college level. With RPOs, it’s a one-read-and-go system. They look complex, and require complex solutions, but the design is straight-forward
The issue with simple one-read plays is that defenses can begin to set traps. As the Titans continued to run out RPOs that read linebackers, the league began to disguise and bluff their coverages to confuse Mariota and force him into making mistakes.
Against the Miami Dolphins, the Titans had the same packaged play called as they did a few weeks earlier vs. the Bucs. It’s the same design, an inside-zone handoff packaged with a quick slant.
Again, Mariota reads the linebacker.
Yet this time, the Dolphins disguise their coverage and attack the option, luring Mariota into a bad mistake.
After reading the linebackers, he opts to throw the quick slant. Once again, he’s anticipating the receiver being wide open in space. Instead, the nickelback has been coached to read the option himself; if his linebacker crashes, as he does, the nickelback drives to the inside shoulder of the receiver and makes a play on the ball.
Unlike the first week, when defensive players were frozen and unsure whether to play the run or pass, now they’re attacking both as they know it’s likely to go to one of two areas. Mariota throws the pass right at the cornerback.
So we know he Mularkey wants to run the ball and he enjoys his RPO’s. But other than RPO’s what can we look for specifically in the ground game?
I found that the Titans under Mularkey really only show a handful of run concepts but they run them from a multitude of formations. This article from Mike Tanier of Bleacher Report gives us a simple but great insight into what we will see on Monday night:
Tennessee Titans: A 'G' Thing.
Many snickered when Titans head coach Mike Mularkey referred to his offensive concept as "exotic smashmouth" at the scouting combine. It turned out to be a fairly accurate assessment of a scheme that has made the Titans one of the most effective rushing teams in the NFL.
"They only run six or seven actual run plays, but they do a ton of stuff with it," Duke Manyweather, the offensive tackle scout for Bleacher Report's NFL1000, said. "They put a lot of window dressing on it."
One core Titans running play is usually called "G-Lead." It's a zone-blocking scheme on the back side of the play, with a power-blocking concept on the front side. "They want to get full flow on the back side and make it look like zone," Manyweather explained. That creates a false read for many of the defenders. "All of a sudden, they are out-angled on the play side."
The diagram shows the Titans running G late in the game against the Jaguars, when Derrick Henry (No. 22) replaced nicked-up DeMarco Murray. The left guard and left tackle cut-block their defenders. This makes the back-side defenders think it's a zone-stretch run, changing their angles of attack. But on the front side, Josh Kline (64) is pulling to the edge, with Jack Conklin (78) and Anthony Fasano (80) down-blocking, and fullback Jalston Fowler (45) leading Henry on a sweep.
In the article there is a clip associated with this breakdown, it won’t let me embed here. Please forgive me.
The Titans ran this play twice in a row, once with Fasano and a receiver in motion to disguise the look, once without. The disguised formations and zone-man mix provide the "exotic" (as do the options and direct-snap plays the Titans mix into their game plans). The commitment to repetition provides the "smash mouth."
With all of these zone blocks, pull blocks and second-level blocks working together, strong offensive line play is essential. Manyweather noted that left tackle Taylor Lewan is playing outstanding football, center Ben Jones is underrated and the guards have done a fine job filling in for injuries.
This is a good base of what to expect from the Titans and their “exotic smash mouth” scheme. Though I gave you an example of Marcus Mariota throwing a pick above, he has adjusted well as evidenced by his better than 2/1 TD to INT ratio in his first 3 seasons in the league.
The question and controversy that has surrounded Mariota to this point have been scheme related, is he a “scheme quarterback” and is Mularkey’s scheme possibly holding him back?
Quarterback: This Guy Won a Heisman Trophy
This entire section may be proven to be irrelevant as Mariota sat out last weeks game against the Miami Dolphins nursing a hamstring injury. Reports stated that it was an injury that would keep him out 2-4 weeks, leaving his return for our Monday Night match up a possibility based on those reports.
Marcus Mariota sure looks pretty good and people are starting to notice. His prowess in the redzone would be amazing for a long tenured veteran. Posting an insane 30 TD’s to 0 INT’s coming into 2017. So I mean sure, he’s good but if he’s so good, why are his throwing numbers so low in comparison to the rest of the league?
Last season Mariota threw the ball 451 times which ranked 24th in the league. The only quarterback who threw the ball less and finished with more yards is some guy named Tom Brady. In short, the Titans lean so heavily on their run game that they limit Mariota’s ability to put up numbers.
The argument that their scheme is limiting their ability to win games, can be made. Is it true? I’m not sure and this isn’t the place to hash all of that out, it’s simply not important to our two match-ups we’ll play this year. The bottom line is, Mariota has been successful and the Tennessee Titans won more games in 2016 than the Indianapolis Colts.
- Showing the exotic:
A lot of teams around the league have worked zone read run plays into their offense. Andrew Luck took part last season as well. The difference between Mariota and most of the quarterbacks that call this play in the huddle: Marcus Mariota can actually run.
No one is concerned that Phillip Rivers might keep the ball and break contain. No one’s worried about Jameis Winston “getting loose” on the second level of the defense. Not a single defensive coordinator is losing sleep about Matt Ryan impersonating Mike Vick.
I would be shocked if we don’t see the Titans test our defense on the edge with these options.
- So he’s a running quarterback, got it:
Not quite. This play shows him look to his first option, the wide receiver on the left. He obviously doesn’t like what he’s seeing and he looks to his next target, his tight end. A lot of QB’s would have seen that TE and the coverage the DB had and considered him covered.
If that ball is slightly behind or slightly ahead of his TE, this is a turnover. Instead Mariota threads the needle. It goes down as a completion, but this throw and the guts it took to make the throw are special.
- I wonder when that defensive end realized Murray didn’t have the ball:
Smart play all around. The QB makes the correct read on the crashing DE and manages to slide down safely after a nice gain.
- Need to respect his speed:
Jadeveon Clowney should have stayed outside and forced Mariota to hand the ball off. Instead he played the running back and nobody’s catching that guy.
- Confused by the linebacker:
He’s good but he’s not perfect. Here he believes his tight end has beaten his man and the linebacker is trailing the drag route from left to right. Unfortunately for him the backer fell back into his zone, dropping off of the crossing route Mariota believed he was covering.
This was a mistake but it was a mistake based on a missed read, not on an inability to actually make reads (IE. Brian Hoyer).
He tried to drop this one in the bucket and he missed. Ultimately a bad throw but again, the confidence to even throw this ball is amazing. I think if he had another shot at this one, he picks up the deep completion.
- With the look off:
In his drop he’s scanning the left side of the field, when I say scanning I really mean he’s just staring that direction. If you notice Raiders linebacker Tyrell Adams drop into coverage and he bites on the Delanie Walker route as soon as Mariota begins to step up in the pocket. He knew where he was throwing this ball and he knew when he took those steps he would manipulate the LB to clear a throwing lane to the target he wanted.
This is an uncommon ability. The timing this requires with his receivers is special. Mariota has already begun his throwing motion before he ever looks at his target. I really hate the fact the Titans have this guy.
The only big knock I can find in his game is his ability to stay on the field. Granted he played 15 games last year, but given his frame and play style it is a long term concern. He’s currently dealing with a hamstring that is giving him some trouble. Healthy or not, the Titans are going to rely on the ground game. Unfortunately for us, their running backs are good too.
Running Backs: The Backup Won a Heisman Trophy, Too
The Heisman Trophy doesn’t guarantee that a college football player will be good at anything else in life other than playing college football, but man is it difficult to win. Think about all of the guys you have known that played football in high school, now think about all the guys you have known that played major division one college football. The number drops significantly. Now think about all the guys you personally know that have won a Heisman.
Sure the NFL MVP award is ultimately more difficult to win, as the Associated Press has been dishing out the award for 60 years and only 47 players have received it. Meanwhile the Heisman Trophy has been given out since 1935 and only Archie Griffin has won the award twice. It’s kind of a big deal and the Titans have two winners in their offensive backfield.
Derrick Henry is the guy that won the award and has looked really good in his first 19 games in the NFL averaging 4.5 yards per carry thus far. He’s a massive back at 6’3” 250 lbs and he ran a 4.54 40 yard dash during the draft process. For reference Kareem Hunt, who is currently leading the NFL in rushing, came in at 5’10”, 216 lbs and ran a 4.62 40 yard dash. 40 times are over rated, sure. Either way, Henry is a big man that can really move.
Even with everything Henry has shown, he isn’t the starter. DeMarco Murray is the guy that gets the call on Sunday’s with the ones. Murray has had an interesting career, starting with Dallas where he exploded in 2014 with 1800+ rushing yards only to head to Philadelphia after Frank Gore didn’t sign with the Eagles in 2014. After what was an awful season for the entire city of Philadelphia, the Titans made a move and traded for the talented back.
2016 saw Murray featured as a lead back and he produced, gaining nearly 1,300 yards at 4.4 yards per carry. Murray is a one cut downhill runner who doesn’t make many mistakes. In watching him play he doesn’t look as explosive as Henry but he doesn’t need to be, to succeed in this system.
What’s really cool about this play is how the line fires off the snap. If you notice the line takes a zone step to their left. Generally speaking this would indicate an inside or outside zone to that side of the field. Instead Phillip Supernaw (89) runs across the formation to get a nice block on Khalil Mack.
The Raiders all read zone and begin to step that way to fill those gaps. As a result Murray has a nice hole. If Taylor Lewan does a better job blocking Mario Edwards Jr. on this play Murray probably picks up another 5-10 yards.
- Large man running the ball:
This play is well blocked but Derrick Henry is big and fast and used it on this 19 yard TD run. Sometimes all you need to be is big and fast.
- And sometimes you need more:
Why or how he didn’t see that hole I’ll never know. If he is just a little more patient and take the lane he’s given, we’re talking about a smaller safety having to tackle Henry in the open field and I’ll give the advantage to the former Heisman Trophy winner.
These Tennessee backs are good and we’re going to see them running the ball a lot. Through four weeks they are second in the league with 5.0 yards per carry and sixth in total rushing yards. If you’re averaging a first down every other run, I would probably do that a lot too.
The Houston Oilers/Tennessee Oilers/Titans have never had a truly great receiver. Their franchise all time leader is the immortal Ernest Givens. Givens finished his career in 1995 with 571 catches 8,215 yards and 49 touchdowns. A great career, without a doubt.
This isn’t an indictment of Givens but he finished his career with more than 1,000 fewer yards than the Colts 3rd all time leading receiver, Raymond Berry. For context, Berry began his career in 1955 when the Philadelphia Eagles led the league in passing with 2,472 yards. Which is probably the last time the Eagles led the league in passing.
As I’ve said, Givens was a fine player but for a modern day NFL team to fail to have ever had (and retain) a player with a more prolific career than a man who began his career less than 40 years after the forward pass was legalized, well that’s not good.
Apparently the Titans front office realized this and drafted three pass catching targets for their young franchise quarterback.
Corey Davis is a 6’3” 210 lb receiver from Western Michigan. The Titans took him with the fifth overall pick in last years draft. Davis, the Titans hope, will be the guy to break the streak of less than stellar wide receivers.
Taywan Taylor was selected with the 8th pick in the 3rd round. He is a shifty 5’11” 205 lb receiver from Western Kentucky and tight end Jonnu Smith was taken 28 picks later with the 36th selection in the third round out of Florida International.
To add to this bolstering of targets the Titans went out and signed veteran Eric Decker to add him to veterans Rishard Matthews and tight end Delanie Walker. After this off season of receiving threats, Marcus Mariota’s options have a lot more talent than ever before on paper, but how do they play on Sunday?
- Big hit, nice catch:
Rishard Matthews is the guy that makes this catch. Nothing about this route or catch is particularly impressive, it’s the fact that he secured the ball while taking a big hit. As a receiver you hope your QB won’t put you in that position and the QB knows he did it. Holding on to that ball builds trust from the QB, the receiver, not as much.
- Corey Davis:
Davis shows off his ball skills, winning this 50-50 ball against Raiders cornerback David Amerson. He timed his jump well and did a nice job using his hands to pluck the ball out of the air. Davis hasn’t put a lot of snaps on film this year but plays like this suggest the Western Michigan star’s ability to make plays isn’t limited to competition in the MAC.
- More of that exotic talk:
I remember the last time I saw a tight end, end-around. I was in 8th grade and my best friend, Jarrod was the guy that got the call. The play worked out more or less exactly like this except it was called back for holding. It was my buddy’s last chance to score a TD, as he stopped growing sometime around the time he ran that ball in, but he did turn into a quick penetrating DT.
I digress, this isn’t something every team has in the playbook, for good reason. But the Titans execute it well and the Jags didn’t see it coming. Neither did the cameraman.
- Tight end screens are great when they work like this:
This is Titans 3rd round rookie out of Florida International, Jonnu Smith. He’s quick, but all he had to do was follow his blockers all the way to the end zone. This is another wrinkle we could see, but Smith isn’t a guy that concerns me.
It is worth noting through four weeks he only has three catches, two of them for touchdowns. Obviously that ratio won’t hold up as he gets more balls his way, but early in his career it seems they’ll look to use him on their side of the field.
Through four games this season the Titans leading receiver is tight end Delanie Walker who has reeled in a team high 18 catches, though Matthews isn’t far behind. On thing to note is that Corey Davis has missed the past three weeks with an injured hamstring. If he is able to play I would look for him to be factored heavily into the game plan as he was targeted 13 times in his first two NFL games.
Ultimately this receiving corps is more talented than they’ve been in recent memory, but thus far it has yet to translate to much on field production, in part due to the scheme and in part due to injuries and Mariota having established rapport with holdovers from years past. If our young secondary is healthy again this week, we could give these receivers all they can handle and force the Titans line to beat us with the ground game.
And yes, they can totally beat us with the ground game. I know it’s a departure from the running game, but it helps demonstrate the growth and quality of the Titans line; according to PFF in 2015 the Titans allowed a league worst 37 sacks allowed, fast forward to last year and they only allowed 15. Which was good enough to be in the top five after being dead last the year before.
A lot, actually. The Titans traded up in the 2016 draft to select Jack Conklin with the 8th overall pick. His rookie season was solid. He was selected first team all pro at 22 years old. So I mean you know, he’s okay.
In addition to adding an instant 10-15 year starter on their offensive line, general manager Jon Robinson wasn’t done. He went out and signed center Ben Jones away from the Texans and nabbed Josh Kline away from the Patriots. So anyway, that’s how the Titans went from bottom five to top five in one off season.
Meanwhile the Colts are once again going to start Jeremy Vujnovich. Why haven’t we seen Le’Raven Clark? Seriously, Vujnovich? Is that guy so good, we can’t even throw Clark in for a half?
Now back to the Titans:
- Working to the second level:
This is another option. On this play you see the DE Dante Fowler Jr. get blocked by Taylor Lewan. I’m not sure if this was a mental mistake by Lewan or if it was designed this way, but you can see at the end that Lewan tries to get to ILB Paul Posluszny but gets held by Fowler. This allows Posluszny to flow to the ball and make the tackle. If Lewan gets to Posluszny, we’re looking at another DB vs RB in the open field situation.
On the play side you’ll notice a really nice combo block from right guard Josh Kline and right tackle Jack Conklin. Conklin does a great job of ensuring Kline is in good position to open the hole before leaving to put a hat on a linebacker. Then once he does leave to get to the second level he gets a nice block on Myles Jack. Jack is in on the tackle but I don’t think he is if the back isn’t trying to avoid Posluszny.
- What happens when they have a below average down:
This falls more on the coaches for using a third round rookie tight end from Florida International to block an NFL defensive end. Even though they didn’t execute this play the way they would have liked they still gained 4 or 5 yards.
- The Raiders pass rush is insane:
Credit where it’s due, the line failed in several elements of this play. For starters the RG lunges at Mack who is running a stunt, the center can’t handle rookie DT Eddie Vanderdoes’ bull rush alone. Since the right guard is busy chasing Mack, he can’t help and even if he would have helped the LG, Kline is late to adjust to Mack’s stunt. The tackles do a good enough job here, but there were failures at both guard spots and center Ben Jones just gets overpowered by a rookie.
This line is really good. They aren’t perfect, no line in the league is. I fully expect them to push us around and lean on our improved front seven all day. We’ll win some downs but ultimately they’re going to win more than they lose.
The one match up I am interested in is anyone who lines up against center Ben Jones. Don’t get me wrong, Jones is an underrated player but I feel like we can scheme the A gaps to get some pressure. I could be wrong, we don’t have the pass rushers that Oakland does but those types of errors are either corrected quickly or they tend to stick around forever. Monday night we will find out who Jones is.
This offense is good. The Titans recently signed Brandon Weeden while Mariota is working back from a hamstring injury. Mariota is listed as “day to day” with a week and a half from the time of this writing to our Monday night kick, I don’t foresee anyone other than Marcus Mariota taking snaps.
With that said it is puzzling that they would sign Weeden, a guy who has failed repeatedly at being a good NFL QB. You can’t even claim it was about scheme fit. Weeden is as mobile as a vending machine and as I’ve pointed out, this offense needs an athlete at the QB position. There is a highly mobile option that is still available that’s started a super bowl that seems to be a far better fit schematically and who finished last season with a 19 TD’s to only 4 INT’s while also rushing for nearly 500 yards. Seems weird that Brandon Weeden was signed before that guy...
I digress, if Mariota is a full go you can expect this team to dominate time of possession. It wouldn’t be shocking if the Titans had two players finish the day with more than one hundred yards rushing. I don’t like it, but this one could be ugly for our defense.
If Mariota can’t go, I expect us to focus on their run game and keep it in check all day. Without their signal caller this team isn’t going to run a lot of read options, the Titans won’t be as effective passing the ball. Without Mariota this game could play out much like our game against the 49ers, hopefully without the late 4th quarter collapse but I would expect a similar result.