On November 26, 2017 the Indianapolis Colts will host a division rival, the Tennessee Titans. In this week twelve match-up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of what we’re up against.
Coming off of a 36-22 win in week six, the Titans hope to continue the success they found and grow it by way of finally healthy quarterback, Marcus Mariota. In our first game the young signal caller was battling a bad hamstring, this week he appears completely healed and ready to give us everything he has. How that will impact the game is yet to be determined. Let’s figure out what we can expect in week twelve by taking a look back at week six.
First, we’ll recap the scheme to give you a refresher on what the Titans like to run:
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. Here’s a link showing the G-Lead, instead.
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.
What Happened Last Time:
Normally I give you reports on the QB, RB’s, pass-catching threats and offensive line. Instead of going back over those same details I’ve decided to go back over how the Titans attacked our Colts earlier in the year.
If you missed the scouting report from week six and you want to see more detailed information on the Titans personnel you can do so by clicking here.
I’m going to sample heavily from Brett Mock’s week 6 recap of our last matchup, if you would like to read the entire thing click here.
We’ll jump right into the first quarter of the game:
The first Titans offensive drive was highlighted by the fact that Delanie Walker can abuse the middle of the field. Mariota’s weaknesses as a pocket passer were on display and there was a hold that went uncalled against Nate Hairston. The Colts defense forced the Titans to settle for a field goal. Titans led 0-3.
All things considered, the game started pretty well, we kept the Titans out of the end zone and moving forward we were able to limit Walker.
When the Colts defense had a chance to get a great stop on third down, with impressive pressure up the middle and a would-be sack, Darius Butler was called for defensive holding away from the play. In typical fashion, when a penalty occurs in a situation like that it almost always results in a long drive. Teams are too good to throw away a good stop which give coaches and professional football players second chances. The defense stiffened up in the red zone, led by an impressive pass breakup by rookie safety Malik Hooker, and forced Ryan Succop to continue his dual with Adam Vinatieri to put the Titans up 6-3.
Penalties kept the second drive alive and allowed the Titans to score three more. Not ideal, but absolutely better than it could have been.
Brett goes on to describe the next drive that results in yet another field goal. Let’s take a look at some of the ways the Titans moved the ball down the field early in the game.
- Extra Tackle In:
If you notice the Titans have an extra tackle in on the left side of the line which allows both the LG and LT to pull outside and it lets the TE, Walker work to the 3rd level.
If you watch closely on this one Henry Anderson is the reason this run doesn’t go for 15-20. He pushes that extra tackle #71 Dennis Kelly so far that the LG is unable to get around him to go put a hat on Antonio Morrison. This play results in a nice gain, but if not for Anderson’s effort would have gone for much more.
- Presnap read:
This play was a simple numbers game for Mariota. The Titans have two potential receivers running routes on the left side of the field, the Colts are showing blitz. If the DB showing blitz in the slot comes, DeMarco Murray will be one on one and will likely have a mismatch.
Mariota knows where he’s going with this ball as soon as he sees the CB come, he knew that matchup was to his advantage and it results in a nice gain.
- Sheard shouldn’t be blocked by a TE:
The pulling guard misses Jabaal Sheard because Sheard isn’t supposed to be there. The guard is trying to get to the ILB standing in the hole, instead, Sheard messes that up by beating his block and rerouting the back for a short gain.
The first half featured a lot of good Colts football. We limited their run game and kept Mariota in check. We were tough on our side of the field and kept an opponent out of the end zone on multiple occasions.
Brett summarizes the final drive of the first half:
On third-and-three Matthias Farley displayed outstanding hustle to stop Henry short of the first down and force Tennessee to make a tough decision in field goal range, but with a chance to keep a drive going for a touchdown. The result is another field goal for Ryan Succop and the Colts kept the lead 10-9.
The first half ended with our Colts up 13 to 9. It was an encouraging start to a game many believed would be out of Indy’s reach early. The second half started with a bang. On Tennessee’s first offensive play of the second half this happened:
...John Simon made a great defensive play to intercept a Mariota pass at the line of scrimmage and return it for a touchdown. The most impressive part of the return is that while it was only 20 yards, DeMarco Murray was all over Simon and couldn’t run him down.
As Brett said, the most impressive part is the fact that Murray couldn’t catch him. Murray is nearing 30 but he led the league in rushing in 2014. John Simon won a footrace against a good NFL running back. I don’t want to see anyone call Simon “sneaky athletic” or “a real gym rat” this is just pure athleticism.
This play put our Colts up 19-9 early in the 3rd quarter.
The next few drives resulted in a punt and a couple more field goals from the Titans. Again more good showings from our D. We’ll look at some of the ways the Titans continued to have limited success with.
- Simon and Murray again:
Once again Murray can’t outrun John Simon as the OLB gets off his block and makes a nice diving stop that resulted in a 4-6 yard gain. A good stop to be sure, but Simon should have done a better job of setting that edge to force Murray back inside.
Holes in Zone:
The play action freezes the defense and pulls the linebackers forward which creates room for Mariota to fit this ball in. By the time Matthias Farley breaks on the ball, it’s too late the young QB has found his target and puts a pass on his numbers for a first down.
- Dual Running Backs:
This formation features both DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, the number of run concepts that can be used with this formation is silly. In this case, it’s just a sweep to the outside. Sheard should have played this deeper in an effort to push Henry back to the inside, instead, Sheard was beaten by a superior athlete to the edge and was able to pick up 7-8 yards on the play.
- A coverage LB has to be a priority this offseason:
A linebacker who is better in coverage may not have prevented this play from happening but it would have been stopped for a short gain. Instead, the back picks up a first down.
Brett goes on to describe the most important Titans drive of the game. Let’s follow along:
...a good punt from Sanchez was rewarded by a Titans penalty on the return team that pinned the Titans back at their own 13 yard line.
Despite great pressure from Simon, Mariota completed a pass to Eric Decker on first down for over 20 yards...
...Having apparently found his favorite target, he went back to Decker for another 7 yards.
After a DeMarco Murray run led to another first down...
Watch the hustle from John Simon on this play.
...Mariota missed on a deep shot and the Titans finally got called for holding.
A screen pass to Murray gained some of the yards back to setup a second and 15, when Tennessee chose to go back to the tight end in the middle of the field for 10 yards to setup 3rd and a manageable 5. A short pass to Eric Decker was stopped one yard before the marker by rookie nickel corner Nate Hairston. Marcus Mariota ran a sneak up the middle for the first down.
It is at this time the Titans decided to try a deep attack that fails due to good coverage and Mariota had to slide down the line of scrimmage. A shovel pass to Delanie Walker didn’t fool John Simon and set up a 3rd and 12. Despite the good early down defense, a rare breakdown in coverage from Rashaan Melvin allowed Rishard Matthews to make a first down grab on the right sideline
This ball was an absolute dime. Great protection, great throw, great catch. Tough to defend.
Heading into the red zone the Titans chose to punch DeMarco Murray up the middle for a five-yard gain. They repeated their last play with Murray up the middle to push them to 3rd and 1. Another run to Murray pushed Tennessee to first and goal from the three yard line. Finally, they decided to not change the game plan and ran for a final time for a touchdown. Tennessee takes the lead 19-22.
One thing I put in my notes after watching this sequence was how the Titans continued to run the ball throughout the game despite their somewhat limited success at times and this drive was the result of that commitment to the run. This was their fourth run in a row and the Titans line was physically dominating our Colts for the first time all day.
The Titans started their next offensive drive with Derrick Henry gaining one yard up the middle. On second down, Mariota went back to Decker for a first down to his left. Another consecutive first down play to Decker who crossed through the middle of the field while the Colts pass rush couldn’t get Mariota off of his spot. The next play was a deep dagger to Taywan Taylor who burned rookie safety Malik Hooker and teaches him that playing “center fielder” means not allowing a free running receiver to beat you for a touchdown. Titans lead grows to 7 for the first time, 22-29.
Malik Hooker played like a very good rookie FS before getting hurt. The keyword there is rookie. Even if he was expecting help underneath he got turned around on this play, expecting the post and surprised by Taylor’s speed, Hooker was unable to catch up to the speedy WR after a nice, subtle route from the rookie out of Western Kentucky.
This play all but ended the game. The Colts failed to score and gave the ball back to the Titans.
Brett finishes his commentary on the game:
Of course, this put the Titans in a position to simply run the football and force the Colts defense to stop them from getting first downs in order to get another shot at the game. The Colts defense sold out to stop the first down, which always makes you vulnerable to a big play on the back-end...
That is how the Titans end it with Derrick Henry rushing for a 72-yard touchdown. Succop put in his extra point opportunity for the final score:
Colts 22 - Titans 36
The Titans offense didn’t beat the Colts defense until late in the game and they were able to do it because they stayed true to the run game. With that said, the Colts did a really good job keeping the Titans rushing attack in check for the vast majority of the game.
Before that 72 yard TD run the Colts allowed only 96 yards on 33 carries which breaks out to 2.91 yards per attempt. Before that run, Derrick Henry had 18 attempts for 59 yards and DeMarco Murray ran 12 times for 40 yards, neither back averaged more than 3.34 yards per attempt for 98% of the game, so what do I mean when I say that the Titans won with the run game?
They didn’t have much success with it but they kept pounding the ball, which did two things, it kept the defense honest and made them respect the run game. It allowed play-action passes to have their desired effect, holding linebackers and safeties in place long enough for the Titans receivers to gain separation and allow Mariota windows to throw.
The second thing it did was soften the defense by wearing them out. Our Colts have a good run stopping front seven for the first time I can remember as a Colts fan. Really these guys are good, there are a lot of reasons they rank poorly vs. the rest of the league and one of those reasons is a lack of quality depth. Don’t get me wrong, this is the deepest unit on the roster, but the fall off from our 1st to our 2nd team is significant.
By the time the Titans started to finally, actually, win downs consistently there was 3:25 left in the 3rd quarter. Our front seven had already defended 22 runs. That 15 play 87-yard drive that took 8 minutes off the clock, featured runs of 7, 9, 4, 2 and a 3 yard TD. With the final 4 runs coming back to back to back to back. You don’t discover that kind of success by chance. They found it because there’s only so much you can ask of a defensive front seven and it turns out when the other team has the ball for 36 minutes to your offense’s 24, that’s the limit.
I don’t expect our matchup this weekend to feature a game plan that is much different. I expect the Titans to look to pound the rock and if we’re lucky our offense will find a way to hold on to the ball a little more to give our front seven some rest.
One thing that will be different; Marcus Mariota is healthy. That means we could see some long runs from the QB position, something we didn’t have to deal with in our last meeting.
“Run the ball, stop the run“