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2018 Opponent Scouting Report: Titans Offense and Derrick Henry’s amazing streak

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New England Patriots v Tennessee Titans Photo by Silas Walker/Getty Images

Overview

On December 30, 2018 the Indianapolis Colts will travel to face the Tennessee Titans. In this Week 17 match-up I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our 9-6 Colts.

Since moving to Nashville, the Colts all time record against the Titans is 25-9. Last year saw the Colts drop both games to the divisional foe for the first time since 2002. This is a new year and both teams have completely new coaching staffs and schemes. Hopefully Frank Reich and the boys will repeat their Week 11 success and lead us into the playoffs.

Let’s figure out what we can expect in Week 17.


Offensive Scheme

Titans Offensive Coordinator Matt LaFleur has worked with and for some of the best football minds in recent history. Gary Kubiak gave him his first NFL job with the Texans back in 2008. Since then he has gone on to work with Mike and Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay. Given that his biggest influences in the NFL have been those coaches, it shouldn’t be surprising that LaFleur employs a west coast offense that is heavily reliant on a zone blocking scheme and often looks to capitalize on effective play action passes.

John R. Kinsley over at Music City Miracles took a look at some of the things LaFleur brought to the table as a play caller earlier in the year:

LaFleur was brought in to bring life to a passing game that had been entirely predictable under the previous Mike Mularkey/Terry Robiskie regime, and despite the loss, I think the design of this offense will be better than the one that preceded it...

Under Mike Mularkey the Titans’ receivers ran isolated routes that attacked the same level of the field, so the receivers often failed to create separation and Marcus Mariota more often than not was required to be perfect.

From the start of this game, however, things were different. Mularkey wasn’t offering this route combination here; Tajae Sharpe’s route is designed to clear up space for Delanie Walker, successfully I might add. Mariota sees this and has an easy throw to Walker, who takes the pass and converts a first down.

Another staple of the Kyle Shanahan offense that LaFleur took with him is the quick screen pass, which was most notably used by Shanahan and LaFleur with the 2016 Atlanta Falcons. If executed correctly, it can catch the front seven off guard and lead to lots of open space for the receiver.

On this play, LaFleur’s design makes the play look like a run to the right or a play action fake. But the play, as it turns out, is a quick screen pass to Corey Davis, who takes the pass from Mariota and has a lot of open space ahead of him. Davis gets blockers ahead and converts the first down on an impressive play call.

Finally, let’s take a look at yet another Kyle Shanahan staple: The tight end throwback.

The tight end throwback is designed to have the quarterback deploy a play action fake on a zone blocking scheme, allowing the quarterback to rollout to the opposite area of the zone blocking, as shown here. The receiver on this play, tight end Luke Stocker, sells his block incredibly well, and races completely uncovered.

Now, this should be a touchdown with a better throw, but Mariota under throws Stocker. Nevertheless, it’s a big completion that shows off how effective LaFleur’s play calling can become.

If you need or want a refresher on what zone blocking is, what it looks like and everything in between, this is a good breakdown. If you wanted more info on the west coast offense this is yet another good breakdown, though some of the videos embedded seem to have vanished.

Matt LaFleur has brought with him years of experience working with some of the best in the business given his preferred brand of football. So far, the results have been mixed, but if you’re a Titans fan, you have to be excited about any offensive system that isn’t described as “exotic smashmouth”.


Quarterback:

Marcus Mariota is an interesting quarterback. He was taken with the second pick in the 2015 NFL Draft and members of the national media all seem to love him, year after year, yet he just doesn’t produce.

2016 was Mariota’s most successful season, from a statistical standpoint, he threw for 3,426 yards, 26 touchdowns and only 9 interceptions in 15 games. He also completed 61% of his passes in his second professional season. A lot has been made about Mariota and the various excuses as to why the production hasn’t come and to be fair, he was playing in a terrible offensive system. He hasn’t had great weapons around him and he’s had to play through a number of injuries.

Those excuses, however, don’t hold up this season. The Titans have used a top five pick on a wide receiver, they’ve gone out and signed an all pro free agent running back and they’ve upgraded their offensive system to one that consistently succeeded in today’s NFL. So if he is surrounded by more talent than he’s ever had, why has he only thrown for 2528 yards, 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions in 13 games this season?

I have an answer: Marcus Mariota isn’t very good.

Mariota is also injured and may or may not play. If he can’t go Blaine Gabbert will start in his place. Gabbert is 3-3 all time against Indianapolis. Two of those wins coming in the 2011 season that brought us Andrew Luck. Gabbert isn’t an upgrade.

The Titans could still pose a threat in the passing game with plays like this:

The run action up front holds the linebackers inside, the tight end that cuts from right to left looks as if the Titans are running a split zone which matches the fake to the running back. So all eyes are inside leaving tight end Jonnu Smith open in the flat.

These are the types of throws Mariota/Gabbert will need to make to move the ball and find success through the air.

This was a well designed play ran against man coverage. The Colts defense gave Mariota a huge window and an open receiver to throw to. He made the play he should have made, but he didn’t have a ton of success on the day.

Specifically against zone coverage, Mariota either completely misread Quincy Wilson or he just threw a terrible ball or some combination of both. Had Wilson stayed underneath to cover the slot receiver running the out, Mariota probably would have completed this pass. Quincy Wilson, instead played this perfectly and stepped in front of the pass, creating the turnover.

The Colts defense bit hard on play action all day against these Titans. It worked out in the end, but these kinds of opportunities will be present for the Titans no matter who is playing quarterback. The Colts are an excellent run stopping team (I honestly can’t remember a Colts team I could say that about, but here we are) and it’s no coincidence they bite hard on play action against a team like the Titans. I would want to force them to throw too.

At this point in the game Mariota was out and Gabbert was in. Sure this play looks bad for Gabbert, and it is, but I understand it. At the snap Leonard and Walker are stacked behind Tyquan Lewis. That’s a lot of defenders to keep straight in your mind, you’re working your progressions, you’re under pressure, you see a white jersey you just might be able to fit a ball in, you let it fly and right as the ball is leaving your fingers you feel a wave of regret wash over your entire body as Darius Leonard comes out of nowhere!

I don’t think the Colts intended to stack like this at the snap, they were just adjusting to the Titans pre snap motion, but it worked, Blaine Gabbert was lost and it resulted in a big turnover for our Colts.

The Titans had more success throwing the ball against the Colts man coverage. When the Colts gave a quarters (cover 4) look, neither quarterback had an answer other than to dump the ball off. If Anthony Walker and Clayton Geathers are healthy enough to play, I’m not sure either Titans quarterback will be able to overcome the Colts well executed, but entirely basic, zone coverage concepts.


Running Back:

We all know Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry. Until three weeks ago I would have told you that Lewis is the far superior back, he may still be but Derek Henry has been on quite the run. More than half of Henry’s 966 rushing yards this season have come in the last three weeks. I wanted to understand why and how a former Heisman trophy winner who has largely been a disappointment in the NFL, could rush for nearly 500 yards in three games.

I did look back at the Colts vs. Titans matchup in week 11 and this was his most successful run of the day:

This split inside zone worked due to the wide alignment the Colts defensive line found themselves in and if nothing else Derrick Henry is really big and really fast and when he gets going he is a load to bring down.

To answer the question of how someone runs for almost 500 yards in three games:

It helps to gain 99 of those yards on a single play. You’ll hear a lot of people talk about players and say something like “well if you take away that one run...” it’s a fun game. I enjoy that game and if you play that game with this run and Derrick Henry’s day against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Derrick Henry still had a great day.

Without that carry, Henry goes for 139 yards on 16 carries. So yeah, even without that one run he had a great day.

So what is Henry doing that is making him so much more effective than ever before?

Like I said Derrick Henry is really big and fast and he’s running decisively, for the first time I can remember. Good things happen when you’re big and fast and you’re seeing the holes your line is opening.

Another thing to note, Henry made a living at Alabama off of their famed inside zone runs, at its heart most of these long interior runs are inside zone. The Titans line is blocking effectively (most of the time) and Henry is seeing what he saw under Nick Saban.

Then, other times, being big and fast is just enough to get the job done.

Something else to note, Derrick Henry shouldn’t be as good at bouncing runs outside as he is. He’s just too big, but I noticed several times on film where his inside options were taken away and Henry showed great discretion getting around the edge.

For the sake of time I only picked clips from weeks 14 and 15 where Henry rushed for more than 15 yards. There were far more runs of 8 to 13 yards showing more or less what is above. Henry is running really well right now and it’s going to be strength against strength come Sunday. One thing I’m sure of; this isn’t the same Derrick Henry we saw in week 11.


Pass Catchers:

Taywan Taylor, Tajae Sharpe, Anthony Firsker and Luke Stocker have all received targets in this Titans offense, recently. The stars of the show are Corey Davis and Dion Lewis. Davis leads the team with 60 catches for 843 yards and 4 touchdowns. Lewis is second on the team with 56 catches but is third with 377 yards, Taylor is second with 458 yards of his own.

If those numbers didn’t tell you the story let me help, this is no where near a prolific passing attack. If Corey Davis were in another offense with a different quarterback, maybe he would look special, but we can’t know. Looking back at the week 11 matchup, these receivers couldn’t get open and the blame for that should be shared by several people.

First I need to show you where Lewis is at his best. Lewis has a near 89% catch rate which is ridiculous, even for a running back. This clip shows why, Mariota checks down and Lewis hulls in a bad pass.

Outside of Lewis there’s just not a lot of separation:

The only reason Mariota had a lane to throw is because Darius Leonard ran toward the mobile quarterback in an effort to contain him. True to form Mariota felt the pressure from a rapidly approaching Maniac and threw the ball into the dirt near his receiver. This is a ball that could have easily resulted in a first down but that throwing lane is one you tend to give up with a mobile quarterback. The good news is, no Titans quarterback is that great of a passer.

No one is open except for the check downs.

This play works if the Colts aren’t disciplined to play the deeper receivers first. They did a great job of taking away the Titans deeper options and instead made them complete passes underneath and then did a good job tackling.

Remember what I said about staying disciplined? Here Clayton Geathers doesn’t do that. He follows the tight end into the flat, just a step or two and that gives the quarterback enough of a window to fit the ball in.

If I’m Matt Eberflus, I’m not changing a thing until these Titans receivers either figure out how to get open or Matt Lafleur starts scheming them open. Until one of those things happens, the Colts would be wise to continue to stay in quarters coverage and make the Titans beat you with check downs all day long.

I don’t think they can do it.


Offensive Line:

The Titans had absolutely no answers for the Colts pass rush and if they hope to win this game and get to the playoffs, that has to continue. The good news for Colts fans is that Josh Kline and Quinton Spain will once again be starting at guard and Ben Jones will be back at center. In their Week 11 contest this interior offensive line simply couldn’t figure out the speed of the Colts interior defensive linemen.

To go one step further, their starting right tackle Jack Conklin was placed on injured reserve. The bad news; pro bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan will play. The Titans line hasn’t been good this season and I don’t think they’re just going to turn it on in week 17.

I’m not going to offer analysis for the next few clips, I just want you to enjoy them for what they are.

That was beautiful.


Final Thoughts:

Once again, the Colts have no idea who will suit up at quarterback for the Titans. If things go as well as they did last time, the Colts don’t have anything to worry about. If Eberflus and his staff go into this game with the exact same plan they had last time out against these Titans, I believe it will be enough to win the game. It will be on the players to execute at a high enough level to replicate the results of Week 11.

No matter what happens this year, I feel it’s important to point out that this team will finish with a winning record. No one gave them a chance to do that. Very few believed they would finish even 8-8. There are a lot of people to give credit to, but rarely does anyone mention Jim Irsay. It’s no coincidence that the Colts have now had only three losing seasons in the last 20 years. That’s insane, no matter who is coaching or playing. The one constant during that time span has been the guy writing the checks. Sure, he has his quirks and we all have our issues, but I for one am really thankful that the owner of my favorite team prioritizes winning over almost everything else.

I can’t wait for Sunday.