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2019 Opponent Scouting Report: Week 13 Titans Offense, Tannehill Vastly Superior to Mariota

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NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

On December 1, 2019, the Indianapolis Colts will host the Tennessee Titans. In this Week 13 match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

Since moving from Houston to Nashville these two teams have met 36 times and the Colts overall record in that span is 27 wins to 9 losses. And in the last decade, the record between these two teams is 18 wins to 3 losses. You might hear people say that division opponents are the toughest games on every team’s schedule, history shows us, that’s just not true. Hopefully, the Colts can continue this run of dominance over the Ti-toons.

Let’s figure out what we can expect in Week 13.


A Note From Weeks 1 and 12.

I wrote this section before the week two match-up because the week 1 overreactions were coming on strong. The Browns were believed to be a super bowl contending juggernaut and they were “dismantled” by the Titans, so the thought was that the Titans were an amazing team. I, a person with a brain, realized that wasn’t true after watching the game and analyzing what actually happened. Well, history has repeated itself and the Colts will face the Titans following a blowout win. First I’ll recap my week 1 comments and give you my thoughts on their week 12 game.

From week 1:

If you’ve come here expecting a fearful reaction to the Titans week one blowout of the Cleveland Browns, you’ll need to look elsewhere. I want to address this first because I assume every talking head literally everyone on Music City Miracles will be is pushing this narrative and I want to destroy it before I start talking about the Titans offensive system and the players that will attempt to execute it.

I was right MCM and Titans-Twitter lost it’s mind

The Titans vs. Browns week one game was ugly, but not because it was a blowout. In fact the score was 15 to 13 with 2:10 left in the 3rd quarter. Neither team played very well, not bad, but not great until somewhere around 1:50 left in the 3rd quarter. Derrick Henry caught a screen pass and took it 75 yards for a touchdown, after that Baker Mayfield did his best Curtis Painter impression and on the back of his terrible performance and nearly 200 penalty yards that the Browns wrapped neatly (I assume with plenty of tissue paper and decorative bows) and gifted to the Titans along with the game.

All of this is accurate and Titans fans didn’t like it.

The Browns weren’t blown out by a vastly superior team, they gave the game away and never gave themselves a fighting chance. This Titans team isn’t bad but based on what they showed last Sunday, that will be their most lopsided win of the season, by far.

Yep. Accurate.

Now here’s my assessment after the Titans week 12 drubbing of the Jacksonville Jaguars:

We saw it last time, a deceptive final score against a team that’s maybe not that good. Same thing this time, right? Well, not really, no.

The Titans vs. Browns game was ugly from the start, both teams were pretty bad with a huge explosion of points off of unforced errors from Baker Mayfield. That’s not how this game went at all for the Titans.

This game did start off slowly, both teams tried to establish the run and the game was scoreless for the first 23 minutes. Going into halftime the score was Titans 7, Jaguars 3. It was anyone’s game. Then the third quarter rolled around and the wheels came off. The Jags committed pass interference in the end zone on a ball thrown by Derrick Henry which set up a 1-yard touchdown pass to an offensive lineman (this happened in week 2 so this fact is kind of relevant). The Jags did what the Jags do and went three and out. The Titans had the ball on their own 26 yard line when they gave it to Derrick Henry for a 74-yard touchdown run.

On the ensuing kick off the Jags fumbled the ball and gave it back to the Titans on their own 7 yard line. The very next play Derek Henry ran it in for 6. But wait, there’s more. The Jags go three and out again, punt the ball back and on the Titans third play of the drive throw a simple dig route to A.J. Brown who takes it 65 yards for yet another touchdown.

In a matter of 8 minutes of game clock, this went from a slow-moving 7-3 game to a 35-3 blowout on the back of a turnover, a few big plays, and some three and outs.

So, how is this different than the Browns game? Well, the Titans played well throughout. Yes, they made a few mistakes with flags or lost fumbles but this looked like a much better football team than the one we saw in week 2. Ryan Tannehill looks like a real NFL quarterback, as opposed to college star Marcus Mariota and even though their explosion of points in the 3rd quarter isn’t repeatable, the turnovers and defensive stops were forced.

This Titans team is playing good football.


Offensive Scheme

The first few paragraphs here are left over from my week two piece on this Titans offense. I’m leaving them in, mostly, for reference and a refresher on what the basis of this offense is. Once we get into the specifics I’ll be breaking down what the Titans did in week 2 as well as what we can expect with a different QB at the helm this week.

Last season the Tennessee Titans hired Matt LaFleur to become the great offensive coordinator that Marcus Mariota always needed. This season the Packers hired LaFleur to become the great head coach that Aaron Rogers doesn’t think he needs. In an effort to replace him, head coach Mike Vrabel elevated tight ends coach Arthur Smith to the offensive coordinator role.

So what schematic changes will be made under Smith? None, according to Smith as noted in this article from Music City Miracles. From the article:

Smith was asked of all the offenses and coordinators he’s coached under, which one most closely aligns with his beliefs.

“Well it’s this one. I like this system a lot. You know, there are different variations. You can go through this and call things your ‘system,’ but whether this was Paul Brown to Mike Shanahan to Mike Heimerdinger, Gary Kubiak to Kyle Shanahan — and you’ve seen the people who worked under Mike Shanahan: Kyle, Sean McVay, and obviously Matt LaFleur — there’s a lot of different variations, but at its core, I’m a big fan of it... The first offense I ever coached in was similar to this... When Dowell [Loggains] took over, obviously he had been with Mike Heimerdinger, that was in 2013, we integrated a lot of that stuff. The keeper game, how you teach the quarterback, how he’s going to read the progressions, and then obviously when Matt came in here, it was a little bit different... So to answer your question, I’m a big fan of this offense. This is kind of the third time I’ve been in it, so to speak.”

So if you’re unfamiliar with the names on that list, Arthur Smith is telling us he likes the West Coast offense and what he’s put on tape so far confirms that, but we’ll get to that in a minute. In the article, he goes on to say that the language the 2019 Titans offense uses is the same as the 2018 offense under LaFleur. Everything, save for him actually calling the plays (aka his tendency) is the same.

So what can we gather from LaFleur’s offense based on his history? LaFleur’s first coaching job in the NFL came with the Houston Texans where he was a quality control coach and Kyle Shanahan was a receivers coach. From that point on LaFleur followed the young Shanahan to Washington and Atlanta as the quarterbacks coach before leaving in 2017 to become the offensive coordinator under Sean McVay in Los Angeles. McVay himself had been an offensive quality control coach under Mike Shanahan during the time that LaFleur and the younger Shanahan were there. In hindsight, it’s possible we will one day talk about the 2010-2013 Washington Redskins coaching staff in the same way we talk about the 1995 Cleveland Browns staff.

So what did the Titans under Arthur Smith do against our Colts? Smith used a lot of zone run concepts in an attempt to set up all of the play-action passes that he uses. Smith, like many who came before him, likes to use bootlegs off of play-action to get his quarterback away from pressure with an open view of the field in order to make a throw downfield. In short, Smith hasn’t done anything that everyone in the Shanahan coaching tree already does.

So what did the Titans do well in week two?

They ran the ball well

The Titans motion a tight end over and give Derrick Henry a fullback for lead blocking purposes. At the snap, the center and right guard combo block the defensive tackle, allowing the center to work his hips around the Colts defender, allowing the guard to get to the second level to take Anthony Walker out of the play. It looks as if the right tackle was trying to hook block the defensive end, meaning he wanted to try to get outside to block him down and open a running lane outside for his back. The tight end initially tried to block the end’s outside shoulder, showing that he was trying to help the tackle gain outside leverage. Instead, Ben Banogu makes his job easy and runs inside, effectively taking himself out of the play. Meanwhile, the tight end gets a hat on Darius Leonard while the fullback blocks safety Khari Willis.

We tend to make football really complex and it can be, but sometimes it’s just a numbers game. The Titans came out with 8 possible blockers, the Colts with 8 defenders in the box. The Titans did a great job executing their blocks and were able to move the ball well with good run blocking for the majority of the day.

Second verse, different from the first

At first glance, this play and the run above look like the same play. If you’re following the ball they seem identical but they’re very different.

Just like before the Titans motion in a tight end to the right side of the formation (you’ll see a lot of motion). The Titans are in 11 personnel, meaning one tight end and one running back, traditionally teams pass the ball out of this set. The Colts line up six men in the box, which matches up perfectly with the six potential blockers the Titans have. If the first play taught us anything it’s that the Titans like their odds when the count is even.

At the snap the Titans line all take a zone step to the right, this, unlike the last play is a zone concept designed to get the defense on the move and abandoning their gaps. The Titans line all make contact with a Colts defender and Derrick Henry cuts the ball upfield where the hole emerged.

I wanted to start with a couple running plays because the Titans try to use the outside running game to set up their passing attack and it works due to the fact that many of their passing plays start with a play-action bootleg look but we’ll get more into those details below. Leading up to the Falcons historic Super Bowl collapse, Matt Bowen of ESPN took a look at some of Kyle Shanahan’s favorite offensive concepts and after watching week two a couple of the things Bowen breaks down are very relevant. Matt Bowen’s article is worth a read but I will give you what I think some of the most relevant parts.

Boot

Working off the outside zone scheme look, Shanahan will lean on the boot concept. This allows Ryan to set the bait for the linebackers with a play-action fake before rolling away from the initial play side on the boot action.

The idea is to take advantage of poor defensive eye discipline (failure to read run-pass keys) while giving Ryan (and his underrated mobility) a two-level read and clean throwing windows outside of the pocket. Sanu (Z) runs the deep out (or comeback), Taylor Gabriel (W) works back on the crossing route and tight end Austin Hooper (Y) releases late to the flat. Ryan’s initial read is to the front side of the formation off the play-action, as Jones (X) likely will occupy two defenders downfield on the post.

The route combination the Titans use is more effective than the one Bowen details above but the idea is the same. The play-action gets the entire defense flowing to their right while Mariota rolls to his right finding his slot receiver who ran a twist with the outside receiver before running the deep comeback.

This is a really effective concept that’s simple for a quarterback and will help to open things up in the ground game as well. It does help to have a mobile quarterback to use these concepts and since week two Marcus Mariota has been benched in favor of Ryan Tannehill.

Will we continue to see these looks in week 13?

From last Sunday’s game

It seems likely.

Working the middle of the field

This play came on 3rd and long so the Titans just ran deep comeback routes close to the sticks against the Colts zone coverage. There’s nothing remarkable about the play design but it was obvious the Titans were trying hard to work the middle of the Colts defense in the passing game.

In the middle again

This is just a levels play that ends up attacking the linebacker who stays with the tight end running the vertical route just a little too long. The slot corner releases the receiver inside to the linebacker who should be there waiting in coverage. Instead, the Titans find a hole in the middle of the defense.

Once again, over the middle

I love this play design, it’s perfect because it’s simple. The Colts are in zone coverage, the play action pulls the linebackers towards the line of scrimmage while the tight end working from right to left helps to seal the deception. The result is a huge window for Marcus Mariota to make this throw.


Quarterback:

In week two the Titans offense wasn’t hugely successful. They had a good day on the ground and while Mariota limited them passing the ball, they were able to create some big plays through the air given well-timed, well-designed plays. Having watched their week 12 win against the Jaguars, I don’t think their offense will change much with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, it’s just going to be much more effective.

What does he do well?

He’s accurate

Tannehill drops this ball in giving his receiver room to come get the ball while running underneath the safety but over top of the corner. It may not seem like much but Tannehill’s ability to make this wide-open throw sets him apart from every Titans quarterback since Matt Hasselbeck.

Hits his receiver in stride

The first play of the week two match-up saw Maroita throw over the middle to a similar route and miss his receiver by throwing it behind him. Even if the receiver had been able to catch that ball he would have had to slow down and adjust to the ball and would have ended up losing out on yards he could have gained with a pass like this.

This ball probably could have been out in front of his receiver a little more but it hit him in stride none the less. A.J. Brown didn’t have to slow down which means no one behind him was going to have a chance to catch the dynamic rookie.

Throws with touch on the move

Here we see yet another play-action bootleg, this time to his left. Tannehill sees the linebacker underneath, fitting it over him and still delivering it to his open receiver near the sideline.

A good athlete

This wasn’t a designed run, there were receivers running routes, this was another PA boot, obviously he was probably coached to run the ball if he had the room but here we see him beat a safety (who spends a lot of time getting beat but that’s neither here nor there) to the pylon on 3rd and 1. Tannehill is a dual-threat quarterback and those are, like, so hot right now.

I realize I’ve probably made Ryan Tannehill sound like Steve Young in this article and he’s not that. He really isn’t great but what he is, is an NFL quarterback working with a good offensive coordinator with very good athleticism and a big, accurate arm. Watching this Titans team compared to the Titans team I watched to start this season is apples to oranges and number 17 is a big reason why.

Part of me hopes the Titans stick with Tannehill going forward because we’ve seen him in Miami and he wasn’t great, but part of me wonders if he wasn’t great because he had offensive coordinators who didn’t know how to call a successful NFL offense in the 2010’s. Arthur Smith has impressed me with every Titans game I’ve watched and I don’t love that he has Tannehill playing at this level.


Running Back:

Derrick Henry is at home in Arthur Smith’s, Shanahan-esque zone blocking scheme. Before I get too far into this breakdown I do want to make it clear, this team will use some traditional gap blocking schemes as well. They aren’t completely a zone team, but they mostly are.

The zone run works to set up so many of the other aspects of this offense, from the play-action bootlegs to the screens, both play side and on the backside, the zone run is the engine that makes this whole thing go and Derrick Henry has the ability to make it go.

If you want to take a deep dive into zone blocking and how it is different than man blocking concepts this is a great resource from sometime before ESPN stopped producing quality sports-related content.

Where he’s most dangerous

Derrick Henry is fine when he is able to run around the outside edge where he has blockers, where Derek Henry excels is when he has to cut his run to the backside of the formation. The reason is, he is so big and so fast, if he makes the first defender miss he’s likely to outrun trailing linebackers and he outweighs most defensive backs by at least 30 pounds. The Colts have to make sure they’re maintaining their backside gap responsibilities in this game or Derek Henry will absolutely destroy them with long runs.

Not a cut back but...

The biggest knock on Derrick Henry coming out of school was that he didn’t have much, if any, ability to move laterally. For some backs, whose running style incorporates a lot of lateral movement to beat would-be tacklers in college, this would be a death sentence in the pros.

For Henry, being really big and really fast is kind of all he needs.

I don’t think Henry is a great back but he is in the perfect system to make the most of his abilities as a runner and great back or not Derrick Henry produces week in and week out for this Titans team.

This is a great play

The last-second motion of Henry from left to right takes Malik Hooker out of the play altogether. That motion meant that on the left side of the line the Titans had three blockers to three Colts defenders and on the goal line that’s almost always an advantage for the offense. Here we see the Titans execute their blocks and the Colts backside linebacker is unable to get to Henry before the massive back rumbles into the end zone for 6.

Derrick Henry isn’t Bo Jackson but he’s big, fast and in a good system for what he does well. Henry needs just 9 yards to go over 1,000 on the season and I don’t see any way he doesn’t hit that milestone for the second time in his career this Sunday.


Pass Catchers:

For the first few years of Marcus Mariota’s career, excuse after excuse was made for him due to the lack of pass-catching talent the Titans had managed to surround the young signal caller with. To the credit of those excuses, the receiving cupboard was bare. However, this isn’t the case anymore.

The Titans have made a strong push to provide Mariota with talent at receiver and tight end. Corey Davis was taken with the 5th overall pick in the 2017 draft and last season he showed signs of life snagging 65 balls for nearly 900 yards. Realizing that one talented receiver is rarely enough the Titans drafted receiver A.J. Brown with the 51st pick in 2019 and they signed Adam Humphries in the offseason.

Humphries has become a reliable target pulling in a team-high 36 passes for 361 yards and a touchdown. Rookie A.J. Brown has 31 catches, 581 yards and 4 touchdowns. Corey Davis has caught 30 passes for 403 and 2 touchdowns of his own.

The Titans still have talented tight end Delanie Walker on the team and they drafted Jonnu Smith with the 100th pick in 2017. Smith has hauled in 22 passes to Walker’s 21, though Walker has missed several games this season due to an ankle injury.

This is a deep and talented group of receivers.

Corey Davis:

This isn’t a play that highlights Davis’ amazing ability, but it is something we can expect to see against man coverage. Davis cuts to the middle of the field which has been cleared out by the safety that drops down to cover the back if he happened to escape into the flat. Kenny Moore had outside leverage and wouldn’t be getting beat deep, but Davis didn’t need to beat him deep when there’s that much green in front of him without a defender close. If Mariota leads Davis with this pass he’s easily picking up another 10 yards before any Colts are able to get their hands on the receiver.

The Titans finally have a talented receiving corps and it will get them as far as their quarterback is able to take them and Tannehill is able to take them much farther than anyone before.

Working the tight ends

This is zone coverage and while Leonard releases to the corner who should be there, he was drawn near the sideline by an outside release. This was an intentional design by Arthur Smith to create space for his tight end.

It’s a smart design and solid execution. Darius Leonard struggled earlier in the season but has been playing much better of late. With Walker possibly missing this game due to injury it will be interesting to see how the Colts linebackers match up with Jonu Smith who is one of the twitchiest tight ends I’ve ever seen. That may be a low bar for tight ends on the twitchiness tight end scale but regardless the guy is quick and will be a good match-up against the Colts ultra-athletic linebackers.

This play could be used in a couple sections of this breakdown but it winds up here

This is the type of throw that made Titans fans hold on to hope that Mariota was something other than a decent back up and a really swell guy. Here, he extends the play and is able to find his receiver on the sideline who makes an amazing toe-tap catch on the come-back route.

Hey look, it’s the same play only now it’s later in the game

This play looks almost identical. Mariota creates extra time again and hits his receiver on the comeback route, again. This is the kind of stuff that worries me, not because they run it two times and it works two times but because they did it twice, the Colts know they did it twice, Arthur Smith knows they did it twice and they finally have a quarterback who I believe can run this play once on Sunday and then take advantage of a double move on that outside route that winds up going for a massive play.

Tannehill has that kind of arm, Smith is a good enough play-caller and A.J. Brown has enough juice to make it happen.

It may not even be this play specifically but Art Smith is in his first season as a play-caller. In game two he probably wasn’t on top of everything nearly as well as he is now. Now, he’s going to start to get good at things like setting up those shot plays with multiple plays like this one. Smith’s play designs are really good, if he shows growth in this way on Sunday, Colts fans better hope he gets a head coaching job soon because these Titans might... actually... be ... good... ugh, that hurt to type.


Offensive Line:

Marcus Mariota was sacked 25 times in 6 games played. Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 18 times in 7 games played. Sacks really are a quarterback stat, yet we put them on the offensive line. To be fair to both quarterbacks and offensive linemen, a good line will almost always give up fewer sacks than a bad line but quarterback play can make a huge difference.

We’ll start with the offensive line by talking about a personal win. I’m fairly proud of this one, so you’re going to have to listen to it -ha! The starting right guard position has been filled by rookie Nate Davis, who took over for an injured Kevin Pamphile. Here’s what I had to say about Davis leading up to the 2019 NFL draft:

It’s in 2 parts because I don’t want to take the time to figure out formatting. You’ll live.

My tape on Davis was limited given that he went to Charlotte, that said I thought he could contribute early in a zone blocking scheme. Davis has started 7 games so far this season and while I’m not always right about a prospect, it’s nice to give myself a pat on the back from time to time.

Now with all of that said, Davis has struggled early in his career. Like I thought he has been better on the ground but in the passing game, he has struggled. This is to be expected making the leap from Charlotte to the NFL, watching who the Colts line up in front of these guards will be interesting, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Ben Jones will start at center as he has for the past 59 of 60 games in a row, Jones missed his first game as a Titan earlier this season. As a center, he’s average at best but he is almost always available. At the left guard spot, free-agent signee Rodger Saffold will get the nod. Saffold is a good guard who has plenty of familiarity playing in a similar system as a former member of the Los Angeles Rams. Starting next to him is Taylor Lewan who missed the first four weeks of the season to what I believe was a bogus PED suspension and who left last week’s game, briefly, with what appeared to be some sort of core injury. I haven’t been able to find any injury information regarding this weeks game but I fully expect that if Lewan can walk, he’ll be out there.

Over at the right tackle spot, Jack Conklin will do his best to contain Justin Houston again this week. As a rookie, Conklin earned 1st team all-pro honors. Since then he has faced numerous injuries and his play has declined, seemingly in concert with those injuries. Word on the street before the season was that he was finally healthy and was poised to have a bounce-back season. And that has been mostly true. Conklin has played well, even if he never regains his all-pro form, he appears to be a very good starting right tackle.

I would be surprised to see much pressure from the Colts off the edges in this one, but the interior, well the interior is another story.

In week 2 Saffold really struggled against Denico Autry

This may be attributed to the fact that this was his second game with new teammates and he was playing next to a backup left tackle, but I hope not. I hope that Autry is able to continue his dominance over the left guard this Sunday, Matt Eberflus would be silly to not try to repeat the results.

Giving the interior fits

Grover Stewart has been playing very well this season. He’s a guy that has taken some time to develop, but has been an unheralded stud this season on the inside. With the Colts able to throw a deep rotation of rushers at a line that struggled to stop them before this could make for an interesting game for Colts fans in the trenches.

Leonard with the spy

Four years ago had you asked me how many coverage sacks I had seen in my time as a Colts fan, I literally would have tried to count them. Here the Colts employ a spy in Darius Leonard who is responsible for preventing Mariota from picking up the first down with his legs. The secondary does a great job not giving him any windows to throw into and Leonard feels his way into the backfield where he is able to accelerate and sack Mariota.

I believe it’s safe to assume that the Colts will continue to give these kinds of looks, especially on third down as Ryan Tannehill is a gifted athlete all on his own.

This Titans line has a couple of very good tackles, a good left guard and two guys who can be beaten. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Colts test the right interior side of the Titans line with stunts and blitzes to see if they can get Davis and Jones to make a mistake.


Final Thoughts:

These Titans are not the same Titans we faced in week 2. This is a much better team on offense capable of putting up a lot of points, averaging over 29 a game over their last five outings. The best defense they faced during that span was the Chargers top-five unit where they were only able to score 23 points.

To be fair to the Colts, this isn’t the same defense that took the field in week 2, either. This unit has been stellar since their week 4 loss to the Raiders. If the Colts offense is able to get anything going at all against the Titans defense (that I’ll cover tomorrow) our Colts will have a real chance to sweep these Titans. Without the offense showing up and putting at least 24 points on the board, I just don’t think the defense will be able to keep these Titans off the scoreboard long enough to secure a win.