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2017 Opponent Scouting Report: Week 6, Titans Defense, Is That... Erik Walden?

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Tennessee Titans v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Overview

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.


Defensive Scheme

When I google “Dick LeBeau Scheme” the sixth result is the Wikipedia entry for “Zone Blitz”. The seventh result, is the Wikipedia entry for Dick LeBeau.

That’s all you really need to know about the guy.

The Titans DC is a legendary NFL coach. He is a pioneer of the zone blitz and has put together some of the best defenses the league has ever seen. With that said, so far this year his defense has yet to find its way. They have some talented players but lack linebackers and defensive backs who can consistently make the types of plays that win games. They do have some young players that could develop into play makers, but they just aren’t there yet. Let’s get into his scheme and the players you will see on Monday night.

All you’ll probably need to understand about zone blitz concepts can be found here:

That’s only a 15 minute video and you should watch it. It covers a lot of what LeBeau wants to do. If you want to know more about the history of this defense, and it really is interesting I’ll give you this really cool piece from Grantland. That articles gives you a great overview of the history and basics of the zone blitz. An excerpt:

What makes the zone blitz successful is that it allows the defense to bring outside linebackers and safeties to one side or both sides without using man-to-man blitz coverage. Normal blitzes use man-to-man coverage. The offensive line and one or two backs are assigned to block the defensive line and linebackers. In the zone blitz, the linebacker blitzes along with a secondary player, but the offensive pickup is different. It is different because defensive linemen who usually rush are now dropping out to short inside zones to replace the linebacker and secondary player that blitz. Because of the blitzer’s path, it is difficult for the offensive linemen to adjust.

The article goes on to explain that the weakness of these zone blitz schemes eventually became the zone packages themselves.

The answer that Saban, Belichick, and many others developed was “pattern-match” coverage — essentially man coverage that uses zone principles to identify the matchups. As Saban explained at the 2010 Coach of the Year Clinics Football Manual clinic:

You can play coverages in three ways. You can play zone, man, or pattern-match man. Pattern-match man is a coverage that plays the pattern after the pattern distribution. That means you pick up in man coverage after the receivers make their initial breaks and cuts. We number receivers from the outside going inside. If the number-one receiver crosses with the number-two receiver, we do not pick up the man coverage until they define where they are going.

The most common modern zone blitz is the “fire zone,” a five-man blitz behind which the defense plays coverage with three defenders deep and three underneath. The only limit to the countless arrangements of the five blitzers is a defensive coordinator’s creativity, but the coverage assignments are more finite.

To simplify all of this, with the zone blitz the defense wants to bring five pass rushers. Nothing amazing about that. More pass rushers means a greater chance to get to the passer. Cool. This allows defensive coordinators to disguise what role each player has before the snap.

A defensive end could rush the passer 25 times in a row and on the 26th pass of the game, he drops into coverage while a linebacker blitzes and for a moment it looks to the quarterback as if there’s a massive hole in coverage. Instead the DE drops to his spot and picks off the pass, 7 times out of 10 when a 275 lb to 325 lb player intercepts a pass it’s due to the zone blitz.

To talk about coverages, you can run any zone on the back end and pattern matching has been a game changer. These coverages are important to understand but you may not see them that often.

Here’s where I’m going to mess up your entire world:

The Dick LeBeau Titans defense is currently running a lot of man looks. Is what I told you about zone blitz coverages irrelevant? No. It’s still a Dick LeBeau defense. You’ve got to believe we’re still going to see zone blitz concepts used, just not as often as in years past. Adopting more man looks is an effort to play to his team’s strengths and ultimately adds another wrinkle to what is a complex system on its own.

As always, if a coach doesn’t have players who can cash the checks he writes, his scheme doesn’t matter.


Defensive Line

The Colts have faced a series of talented defensive lines so far this season, Monday night will be no different. The names to know here are DaQuan Jones, Sylvester Williams and Jurrell Casey.

We will start with the man in the middle, Sylvester Williams. Williams was taken in the first round of the 2013 draft and anchored the Broncos defensive line during their super bowl winning run. The Broncos made an attempt to re-sign the talented nose tackle but he took more money and an opportunity to be closer to home in signing with the Titans. Williams is good, he’s going to eat double teams and I expect to see a great battle up front between he and Ryan Kelly.

DaQuan Jones was a 4th round selection in the 2014 draft. He was a rotational player early in his career and has developed nicely into an above average starter in the league. He’s not usually a threat to rush the passer, he’s another guy that excels in eating blocks and clogging running lanes.

Finally we’ll talk about Jurrell Casey. A 2011 third round pick, Casey has become one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league. Though he only has two pro bowl selections to his name. I’ve said it before and I know I will say it again, pro bowl selections don’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of things, but good players tend to be chosen more than bad ones.

The crazy thing about the fact that he’s only been to two in his career; he was chosen as an alternate in 2013. He didn’t make the first cut, what’s “crazy” about that you might ask? The 6’1” 305 lb defensive tackle had 10.5 sacks. A DT had 10.5 sacks and couldn’t make the starting lineup of every conceivable all-star list of NFL players from that season? That’s crazy. Further, he turned down another alternate invite in 2014 and went to both the 2015 and 2016 pro bowls.

As a player, he’s a guy that needs to be accounted for on every snap. He’s good against the run and the pass and he will make us pay if we don’t double him up. Working against our guards, he might have a big day.

  • Football is easy when no one blocks you:

I didn’t include this play to show you the awful blocking the Texans displayed on this play, but rather watch Casey lined up in a 2 point stance. A 6’1” 305 pound defensive tackle lined up in a two point stance and he displayed the quickness and agility of a much smaller man.

There aren’t five other guys, that are his size, in the league world that can do some of the things he does, much like the clip above.

  • That bend around the edge:

Yes, technically that is a linebacker that gets the sack, but watch Casey who is lined up on the other side of Jags right guard A.J. Cann. He’s not normal. He’s going to give us those quick pass rush moves along the interior all night long. Also the guy who recovers that fumble should look pretty familiar to Colts fans.

  • Victims of the zone run:

Lynch should have hit this hole a lot sooner than he did. I don’t know that it would have gone for more yards, but he’s late to identify the hole that opens on the inside of the run. This cutback inside is (usually) the last read on an outside zone but I would have thought he would have hit it sooner.

Either way, even good defensive lines have trouble maintaining solid gap responsibility for an entire game when the gaps are moving with zone blocking concepts.

This is a talented group, that clip from the Raiders game is ugly, but remember that’s the Raiders offensive line. Those five guys are a far better unit than any assortment of linemen we can trot out. Is it possible we break a few longer runs off? Absolutely, but don’t expect to have holes like the one above very often. Ryan Kelly will continue to make a huge difference to what we saw during the first four weeks of the season, but there’s only so much one guy can do when all three defensive linemen need to be doubled at some point.

If we have to double multiple players on each down, eventually that’s going to create opportunities for flowing and blitzing linebackers.


Linebackers: A Deep Group

The Titans linebackers aren’t a top 10 unit in the league (probably not top 15 if I’m being honest). They probably won’t have anyone named to an all-pro team or even named as a pro bowl alternate, but what they are, is deep. You aren’t going to lose a lot of production or ability if someone goes down. I’m going to jump into the names you should know.

Derrick Morgan is a solid OLB who is a decent pass rusher and a good run stopper. OLB Erik Walden is alive and playing football in Nashville, we should all be familiar with him. OLB Brian Orakpo is a nice pass rusher who has dealt with injuries for a large portion of his career, he seems to finally be healthy as he turned in 10.5 sacks in 2016. He’s also the guy bending the edge in the strip-sack clip above.

ILB Avery Williamson is the definition of a downhill run stopper. If you want to see what a “thumper” looks like, it’s this guy. He is really solid against the run and a total liability in coverage. If we catch him on the field in coverage, he should be targeted.

ILB Wesley Woodyard is undersized for the position but is usually strong against the run and one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL. He’s a true three down linebacker in the modern NFL. He has the potential to cover our backs and tight ends in ways that most ‘backers can’t.

Kevin Dodd, the 33rd overall pick in 2016 has only played in one game this season. unfortunately for an otherwise talented outside linebacker, he has been unable to stay healthy to this point in his career. He’s someone I would have high hopes for if I were a Titans fan. He just needs to get healthy. If we’re talking about our game on Monday, I’m more concerned a drunken ball boy might accidentally stumble onto the field and trip up Jacoby Brissett in his drop back.

Surprising name to know: Jayon Brown. Brown is an undersized ILB who was taken in the 5th round of the 2017 draft out of UCLA. He’s played more than half of the Titans defensive snaps so far this season. He’s flashed plus athleticism and shown off some surprisingly good instincts. I expect him to make mistakes as a rookie but this is a guy we might have to worry about for a long time to come.

  • Thumper, thumping:

Here we see Avery Williamson take on pulling guard A.J. Cann. He does a pretty good job taking on the 315 pounder. He’s able to disengage and get a hand on the ball carrier.

At first it looks as if Wesley Woodyard makes a mistake and looks hesitant to stick his head in to make a tackle. That’s not really the case. Woodyard recognizes that the back has two holes to chose from on this play and he can’t see which path the back has chosen. Coming out of college a major knock on his game was that he’s small for the position. He’s been able to overcome most of the issues associated with being a little guy, on this play another 4 inches would have really helped.

  • Delayed:

This is the kind of blitz you expect to see from LeBeau, five rushers and a D-line stunt. This play from the Jags, was designed to beat it.

Leonard Fournette does a good job delaying his route while helping with the block. This buys him just enough cushion from the secondary to get out and make the short grab and turn it into a nice gain. Also, how is Fournette so strong?

This linebacker corps is one with a lot of depth. Their best player is Brian Orakpo and whatever tackle is responsible for blocking him is going to need a chip from a back or tight end more often than not. He isn’t unblockable but he’s a good player. Ultimately I expect these guys to be able to flow to the ball, but I don’t expect to see anyone make any amazing game changing plays from this position group. Hopefully Erik Walden doesn’t headbutt anyone this time around.


Secondary: Well These Guys Are Young

The Titans have some talent in their secondary, how much of it will translate to an NFL football field? I’m not sure. So far second year free safety Kevin Byard has played well and rarely leaves the field. Cornerback Logan Ryan signed with the Titans in the off season for a cool $10 million per year over three years. He has played well by all accounts and while part of me is happy he took his talents away from Boston, part of me wishes we didn’t have to play him twice a year. He isn’t a top 5 corner, but he’s very good in man coverage.

The Titans used their 18th overall pick in the 2017 draft on Adoree' Jackson. Many people thought it was a reach given that he seemed to be a raw prospect that would need time to develop into the type of corner he had the potential to be. Thus far those evaluations seem to have been partially correct. Based on what I’m seeing he’s played well at times and looked very much like a rookie at times as well.

The Texans game was rough for the entire Titans team, Jackson was no different having a really rough day. He’s going to be tested a lot this year and I expect him to make a few plays and I expect him to get beat fairly often, but his talent is evident and if he grows as a player he could end up being very good for a long time. Expect to see Jackson on the field the entire game as the Titans CB2.

Most likely, DB Curtis Riley will see some time on the field as a reserve safety. He has an interception off of a tipped ball this year but I don’t expect him to have a large impact on the outcome of the game. Cornerback LeShaun Sims will see plenty of time on the field. Sims is a talented but inexperienced player. The word on Sims is that he could develop into a good cornerback or he could end up being average. He has all the physical tools to succeed, he just has to put it all together consistently. Brice McCain will get some snaps at corner as well, the issue is, when targeted he gives up a lot of catches.

Da'Norris Searcy is someone else who will look to get some burn. The Texans targeted him in coverage with great success. Hopefully he plays a lot and we find similar success.

  • Coverage sack:

The Titans give a man 2 look on this play and they do a good job covering the Jags receivers. Watching both outside corners mirror their receivers is impressive. I’m not sure there are many QB’s in the league that could fit a ball in against either player. The Slot CB plays his man well down the seam and the ILB picks up the tight end on the delayed route. If Blake Bortles throws this ball anywhere there’s a really good chance it’s going the other way.

  • Ball don’t lie:

The slot wide receiver pushes off to gain separation on this play. Shockingly it totally worked. He got open. Bortles doesn’t care how he got open, he’s thinking “Cool, even I can make this throw.”

Turns out he can’t. He put the ball behind his target and a run of the mill tip drill ensued. Titans get right place, right time points for this one.

  • No defense for a perfect pass:

Which is true, and by some insane chance Bortles puts one on his receiver that only his receiver could get it. This wasn’t bad coverage. Sure you don’t want him to give up the catch, you would like him to get a hand in there, but for a group of young DB’s this is as good of a 15 yard completion as you can have.

  • Play action made this TD possible:

The Texans went to the play action pass time and time again in this blowout and the Titans defense did things like this consistently. The player to key on in this play is second year safety #31 Kevin Byard. He bites hard on the play action, which prevents him from dropping into his zone quickly. Just a note: the Texans give a very convincing run look on this play, watch the offensive line take a zone step at the snap as if they were run blocking, before dropping into their pass sets.

If Byard doesn’t bite and instead drops into his zone, Deshaun Watson probably doesn’t throw this ball and if he does, Byard has a chance to make a play on that ball.

  • Safety can’t get there:

Derek Carr could have thrown a touchdown pass to either slot receiver on this play. I believe this was cover 3 based on how the outside corners play, never taking their eyes out of the backfield. Meanwhile the slot CB’s appear to release the slot WR’s to the next level of coverage.

That leaves both outside CB’s and a safety to cover deep thirds. The Raiders run a 4 verticals concept (which is exactly what it sounds like). This keeps the outside CB’s wide and makes the safety cover a lot of ground in order to really have an impact on the play.

Carr sees the safety move towards his right, and he takes his shot. Ultimately this is a good call against cover 3, it’s hard to cover 4 deep receivers with 3 deep defensive backs. Carr realized this, keyed on the safety’s movements at the snap and took advantage of it.

  • These guys are better in man:

Ideally you would like to see the ILB closest to the bottom of the screen work his way to the TE that makes this catch. Instead you see him continue to drop deep with the WR that is covered over the top by the safety. The other ILB, effectively has the deep WR bracketed with the deep safety. The ILB in question doesn’t get out wide and that creates 4 Titans defenders covering a single slot receiver.

Sure 4 on 1 means that 1 guy isn’t making the catch, but both teams are only allowed to have 11 guys on the field, someone’s going to be wide open.

This is another really well designed play designed to beat zone coverage. Marshawn Lynch is used as a decoy on this play. His presence means that a defender has to respect him standing there. If that DB were to drop deep to cover the TE, then this ball is going to Lynch and then you have a 220 lb wrecking ball of a man you have to try to tackle. That defender could have probably played deeper and it would have helped, ultimately this was a failure of a linebacker in coverage.

This secondary is young and shows promise. Their CB1 is good but not great (I think the Patriots are missing him far more than they thought they would) and Adoree Jackson is a talented rookie who will make mistakes from time-to-time and who might also lock guys down for an entire series or quarter.

I feel better about our ability to exploit their Safeties and their nickel and dime CB’s. With that said, can the Colts really throw the ball to a WR3 and WR4 with any confidence against their CB3 and CB4? I sure hope we can dial up well timed plays against their zone looks and Donte Moncrief and/or Kamar Aiken can have a nice day against an otherwise talented rookie.


Final Thoughts

This Titans defense is near the bottom of the league in most major defensive categories. Meanwhile, so are the Colts and this has been a very encouraging year for our defense so far. It’s important to remember that even though this Titans defense isn’t great, our teams are in a similar position on that side of the ball.

There’s some talent, there’s some hope for the future, if guys develop, if the coaching is good, if they/we add a couple more pieces... if, if, if.

Bottom line I don’t expect a low scoring affair in this game. It isn’t that I think either team is going to look like an elite offensive power in this game, it’s just that neither defense is quite where they want it to be.