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2019 Opponent Scouting Report: Titans Defense Week 13; Disappointingly Good.

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NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers 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 teams 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.


Defensive Scheme

I’ll start you off with a general recap of Mike Vrabel’s defense before getting into our week 2 match-up.

When Colts fans think of Mike Vrabel they tend to think about those awful January games played in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Games that those Manning led Colts teams walked into with so much hope and walked out of having been beaten by a superior team with superior coaching. The second thing Colts fans think of when they think of Vrabel and those Patriots teams is the 3-4 defense.

I can already feel the anxiety building in the chests of the three Titans fans who are furiously preparing their keyboards for a “masterful” retort, but there will be none, little man.

Vrabel made his way as a player in those vaunted 3-4 defenses that gave Peyton Manning so many issues early in his career. As a coach, Vrabel has wisely realized it’s not 2004, and the latest Titans coach has adjusted his defense accordingly.

I poked fun at a few Titans fans who came into the comments of my piece on the Titans Offense, those guys were something else, but not everyone from Music City Miracles is awful. This past July, Mike B. Herndon of MCM posted a story about the Titans defense under Vrabel and defensive coordinator Dean Pees. The article starts out a little funny talking about some sport they call “basketball” it was all a little confusing until about 1/4th of the way through when he started dropping solid insights into what these Titans will look to do on defense:

During the 2018 season, they dialed up a nickel personnel package on 73% of defensive snaps, ninth most in the NFL according to Football Outsiders and up almost 10% from their 2017 usage. The Titans had at least two games — against the Texans and Eagles early in the season — that saw them stay in nickel for the entirety of the game.

Well there goes our 3-4 idea. Herndon went on to mention that the Titans finished third in scoring defense and eighth in total defense a season ago. Those are very good numbers, our Colts finished tenth and eleventh, respectively. There are arguments to be made about the quality of those stats as they relate to team success, but I’ll save that work for Troy, I’m just going to say it’s highly unlikely to rank in the top ten in both of those categories and be bad as a team defense. The Titans have a good defense.

Next Herndon goes on to explain the role of the “moneybacker”, “rovers”, “monsters”, et. al. in modern NFL defenses. If you’re unfamiliar with the term(s) this is an interesting place to start. To make a long story short Herndon says it best:

...these players are hybrids who straddle the line between linebacker and safety and they’re absolutely critical to defending modern offenses. These are guys that can cover an athletic tight end or wide receiver and also thump in the box on run plays.

Herndon goes on to detail general manager Jon Robinson’s search for this type of defender and his success in bringing in multiple players who fit with the size requirement for these “big nickle” looks. He talks about the types of linebackers Vrabel prefers using and as it turns out it is an interesting mix of players who excel in multiple roles. Guys who can rush the passer as well as they can play coverage.

In short, the Titans have made a real effort to become the most versatile defense in football.

Back to Herndon’s article:

The Patriots have been among the forefront of the NFL in the use of big nickel looks, featuring safeties Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, and Patrick Chung. That approach has worked for New England because of the fact that Harmon, and especially Chung, are capable of effectively performing the function of a linebacker in the run game while offering the coverage skills you’d expect from a defensive back.

The Titans could have some extraordinarily flexible packages to put on the field without sacrificing quality. Here are a couple examples of some three safety looks that we could see this fall.

Big Nickle
Big Dime

It seems safe to assume that our Colts are going to be seeing a lot of five defensive back looks from the Titans on Sunday.

What else can we expect from the Titans defense? For more answers I went back to the well and found another article from Mike B. Herndon where he went DEEP trying to figure out what the Titans defense would look like before last season. Some of the insights are very interesting given what I’ve seen on tape while watching them and the notes I’ve already taken. From the article:

So what is the diamond front? You can check out a couple good reads on the concept here and here, but in general it’s not a terribly complicated concept. Its basically a variation of a zone blitz where the defense starts with 5 defenders on the line of scrimmage across from the offense’s 5 offensive linemen, dictating one on one blocking assignments pre-snap. After the ball is snapped, 1 or 2 of those defenders may drop off in to coverage while the others rush. They could also elect to bring all 5, or they could even drop 1 and replace him with a blitzing linebacker, corner, or safety. There are lots of options that can be built off this very basic look, but the beauty of the design is the ability for the defense to dictate blocking assignments to create mismatches in their favor.

I’m not going to show you a picture of my notes because you couldn’t make it out even if I did but multiple times I wrote “zone blitz?” and finally I saw it enough I wrote “ZB, possible, dig more.” So I would like to thank Herndon for saving me a little legwork there. This is very much something the 2019 Titans will look to do against our Colts, they will try to force one-on-one match-ups they deem favorable (looking at you Mark Glowinski). From week one against the Cleveland Browns:

Herndon goes on to talk about how well both Vrabel and Pees disguise coverage before the snap and many of the schematic similarities the two men share. This article is highly detailed and a must read for anyone that wants to really get into the weeds on this Titans defense. For the purpose of this scouting report, it would be impossible for me to provide a summary of all aspects of Herndon’s work and do it justice. If I were to try it would be this; the Tennessee Titans defense is made up of highly versatile players who will be asked to play roles that will change from play to play.

Now I’ll take a look back at week 2 and try to give you some of the looks we saw and some of the looks we can expect to see again, this week.

Zone Coverage

The Titans show quarters coverage and the Colts run three vertical routes in the middle of the field with a back escaping to the flat and Steelers superstar (this is sarcasm) Deon Cain “runs” a smoke route that you might miss if you don’t look at the bottom of the frame at the snap.

Could Brissett have gotten the ball to Cain? Probably but ultimately this play probably should have been checked out of but as it was called the pass rush got there before anyone was really open. The Titans just maintained their zones, no one blew coverage and the Colts had a bad play called against it. The Titans will use a combination of man and zone looks and they can do both, pretty well.

Man Coverage

Here we see the Titans rush five leaving a single safety free over the top. I’m not entirely sure what Ryan Kelly was doing on this play but he seems to have been confused about what his assignment was, which is surprising as he’s the guy who calls out assignments:

Someone should probably block 92.

“Hey, lookout!” -Ryan Kelly, probably.

Somehow, Brissett is able to escape sure disaster, he sidesteps the defender and manages to keep his eyes down field before scrambling to his right. Even if he did have a clean pocket there’s nowhere to throw this ball.

Another thing this look does, is it gets the Titans a match-up they believe they can exploit in the pass rush. Rushing five guys and moving them around the defensive line means if the Titans chose to they could always make sure Mark Glowinski is tested on passing downs.

Colts have a numerical disadvantage

Here the Titans used Kenny Vaccaro to cover Jack Doyle, when Doyle motioned inline Vaccaro came with him creating more men in the box (7) than the Colts had blocking (6). Normally that’s not ideal but the left side of the Colts offensive line isn’t normal.

This is just a simple inside zone run. The line takes a zone step to the right, the 1-tech lined up over Ryan Kelly feels the step and tries desperately to not get reach blocked, as a result Ryan Kelly just pushes him where he was already going. If you notice Quenton Nelson on this play you’ll kind of see him hesitate, his feet are active, he gives Anthony Castonzo a little help with his left hand and then he works to the second level. That slight hesitation is there because Nelson is taught to take a specific number of steps in his “zone” (I’ve always known it to be three steps but I’ve never been around a guy like Quenton Nelson) if no one presents themselves to block in that area he’s then safe to release to the next level. Once Nelson releases he finds a linebacker and takes him out of the play. Castonzo is busy winning his block and Vaccaro takes a bad angle to the ball.

In theory there’s almost no way this play doesn’t work as long as the Colts aren’t outnumbered. If they are outnumbered then they either have to count on something like a bad angle or the running back making someone miss in the hole.

Boxing the bunch

I’m just going to let Peyton Manning talk to you about this one:

Another Zone Run

I am almost positive that the Titans defensive line was running a stunt to their right while the left defensive end was taking a pretty standard pass rushing path and the goal was to isolate Mark Glowinski against a blitzing linebacker.

Instead the Colts caught them with a perfectly timed zone run call. Because the Titans were stunting to their right it made life really easy for the interior linemen, they simply used the defenders momentum to push them down field. Braden Smith and Jack Doyle do a great job working to the second level and they each use their defenders momentum against them which results in a pretty cool looking parting of the defense. Titans safety Kevin Byard (#31) is destracted by an Eric Ebron “block” and the cornerback who appears on the left side of the screen tries to fill the gap that appears further on the left side of the formation only to realize that Jordan Wilkins didn’t pick that hole and he’s now at full speed so that Corner’s angle just isn’t going to work. Everyone on the right side of the defense reads the Colts zone step and works to their right to defend against the outside zone run, meaning they take themselves out of this play.

All Jordan Wilkins has to do on this play is trust his blockers (easy to do considering they’re pretty good) and run as fast as he can towards the end zone. Don’t get me wrong Wilkins anticipation of that hole opening is really great stuff but the combination of the defensive play call with the Colts play call and execution of the blocks up front made this one of the easiest 55 yard runs you’ll ever see.

We’ve heard Matt Eberflus talk about the Colts defense and how he doesn’t want his guys to have to think, he wants them to be able to react and be athletic. This Titans defense isn’t that. In some ways I’m sure the Titans have tried to streamline the process as much as possible for their defenders but at the end of the day this is one of the more complicated defensive schemes the Colts are likely to face this year. Below I will get into the Jimmy’s and Joe’s that will have to execute these X’s and O’s:


Defensive Line

Coming into this season Jurrell Casey averaged nearly 6 sacks per season which may not sound like a lot when compared to elite pass rushers around the league but when compared to other top defensive tackles of his generation; Ndamukong Suh just over 6 sacks per year, Gerald McCoy 6 sacks per season and Fletcher Cox with just over 6 sacks per, it’s pretty easy to see just how good Casey has been. With that said Casey’s sack production has dropped off and is currently only on pace to rack up 3 sacks, his lowest total since 2012, his second year in the league.

I left out Aaron Donald because just looking at sack production, he’s peerless. The only guy comparable is Reggie White and I’m guessing that many people reading this don’t remember watching Carolina Panthers legend Reggie White play at an elite level.

DaQuan Jones will probably start at nose tackle but the big run stuffer is dealing with injured ribs. If healthy enough to play Jones is a good run defender and is surprisingly nimble for a man listed at 322 pounds. The next name is one that might surprise some to see, rookie Jeffery Simmons returned from injury in week 7 and has started every game since week 8. Simmons was taken in the first round of the 2019 draft despite tearing his ACL during a workout in preparation for the NFL combine. He is just 10 months removed from the surgery that repaired his knee and while he hasn’t exactly filled the stat sheet, Simmons is playing well and unfortunately for the Colts, if he continues to progress, the Titans might look very smart for taking a chance on the injured big man.

The Titans will likely rotate in Reggie Gilbert, Isaiah Mack and Austin Johnson but none are likely to have a big impact on the game.

For all but one game this season veteran defensive end Cameron Wake had been largely ineffective, yet he received the third most snaps of any defensive lineman for the Titans in week 12. Unfortunately for the 37 year old his season ended this week being place on Injured Reserve after being carted off the field with an undisclosed knee injury.

The Titans had 2 sacks in week 2

But it could have easily been more. Isaiah Mack came away with the only sack from the defensive line group, he was also credited with a QB pressure. Casey was credited with two QB pressures on the day. More than once Jacoby Brissett had to make defenders miss before attempting to make a play. I believe part of that is on the offensive line, part of it is on Jacoby and part of it is the fact that this Titans front 7 is really good.

Off script

I believe this play was designed to go to the right side of the line. It’s a designed counter run only once Mack gets the ball the Titans defenders do a great job filling their gaps and giving Mack no where to go. Instead Mack finds Quenton Nelson (almost always a good decision), gets behind the all-pro, makes a man miss (a hold probably could have been called on Ryan Kelly) and is able to pick up 11 yards.

The Titans line played their roles perfectly. Normally you don’t cut back on man blocking runs, it almost never works out unless you’re Marlon Mack, it seems to work out pretty often for him. He benefited from the safety on that side of the field almost playing his responsibility and expecting Mack to go the other way. It pulled him just far enough to the offenses right that once Mack changed directions the safety couldn’t adjust in time to prevent having to chance the talented back.

More often than not, this is what the Colts faced in week 2

On this play we see the Colts run the ball at two Titans defensive linemen. Initially both Mark Glowinski get good movement while Quenton Nelson pulls around and seals off a flowing linebacker. Jack Doyle was working over and ideally he would have taken on the next linebacker he saw but Isaiah Mack had other ideas.

At the snap Braden Smith pushed Mack (#97) the direction he wanted him to go, unfortunately Smith’s base was narrow, he bent at the waist and his center of gravity was too far over his toes and Mack was able to toss Smith aside and fill the hole that should have been there. Marlon Mack did all that he could to try to create something from nothing but he understandably came up short.

This Titans defensive line is stout. Jurrell Casey doesn’t seem to be the same guy he was just a few short years ago but it stands to reason that as Jeffery Simmons continues to regain strength and gain experience that the rookie may be able to provide the pass rush productivity that Casey used to while Casey’s play style changes as he reaches the home stretch of his playing career.


Linebackers

This is an eclectic group.

Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown, Harold Landry, Wesley Woodyard and Kamalei Correa are just a few of the versatile backers the Titans will trot out.

Evans is in his second season out of Alabama and is leading the team with 85 tackles, he also has 7 tackles for loss and 7 quarterback hits. He has the ability to shed blocks and the athleticism run sideline to sideline.

Jayon Brown is a really good sideline to sideline coverage linebacker. You should expect to see him in on a lot of tackles, blitzes, in coverage, basically everywhere you could find a defender, Brown will be there at some point in this one.

Coming into the season big expectations were placed on second year outside linebacker, Harold Landry, was expected to see an expanded role. So far he’s responded to that pressure with 8 sacks, 52 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 10 QB hits. He, uh, he’s pretty good. Watching how the Colts manage Landry will be interesting but I expect the Titans to try to get him in one on one match-ups on the right side of the line.

Wesley Woodyard used to be one of the NFL’s best coverage linebackers, now at 33 years old his veteran leadership is best suited for a rotational role something he’s done all season. You will probably notice him at some point but no longer will Woodyard be a featured part of the game.

Life is good when no one sets the edge

This isn’t one of Harold Landry’s best plays. He allows himself to get blocked by a former college basketball player. Mo Alli-Cox did a great job controlling his defender and preventing him from setting the edge. As a result Jordan Wilkins saw nothing but green grass ahead. A rare mistake from the young linebacker.

Titans get beat on blitz

This was a super simple read for Brissett. On the left side of the field Brissett had two options and three defenders who might cover those two. Two of the three defenders would be unable to get to Jack Doyle before Brissett could complete a pass to the tight end, as long as the outside linebacker on that side of the field actually came on the blitz.

The DB was too deep and would have to get through Parris Campbell and the inside linebacker was just too far inside to make it anywhere near the throw. This was just such a simple decision and it was created by a quick read of what the defense gave the Colts.

Miscommunication

Quenton Nelson looks like he just pushed the defensive tackle once and quit on the play but we know that Quenton Nelson doesn’t lose blocks in this way. My best guess is that Nelson believed he would be working in tandem with Ryan Kelly. Kelly believed he would be working to the right before getting to the second level of the defense.

As a result the play-side inside linebacker that Nelson would have blocked is able to shoot the gap and make the stop in the backfield.

After rewatching this game the Titans were doing things in the front seven that were confusing the Colts offensive line. They managed to more or less hold it together but clearly the Colts weren’t seeing the things they thought they would be seeing.

Harold Landry redeems himself

When I cut this clip I attributed it to the defensive line and while they were good on the play, Harold Landry was the guy who was able to knife inside of Anthony Castanzo and made the tackle for loss.

Make no mistakes, this is one of the best front sevens in football and that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is that outside of Woodyard the oldest member of this linebacker corps that will play a big role is Kamalei Correa who is just 25.

We’re going to have to deal with these monsters for years to come.


Defensive Backs

The names you need to know:

Logan Ryan, Adoree Jackson, Kenny Vaccaro, Kevin Byard and LeShaun Sims.

This group has been hit pretty hard with injury over the course of the season. Malcom Butler found his way to injured reserve. Adoree Jackson has been nursing a calf injury (Titans fans have no idea how absolutely devastating calf injuries can be to a fan-base) and cornerback LeShaun Sims has been unable practice with an ankle injury.

The Titans have given up the 24th fewest passing yards this season (that’s not good) but the defense as a whole has managed to allow the 9th fewest points on the year (that’s pretty good). Jackson has practiced and I do expect him to play on Sunday but the health of LeShaun Sims may or may not loom large as I’m not even sure the Colts can field three healthy receivers. Lets look back to some of what we saw in week 2.

Campbell is just really fast here

Watching this play live the pass was really impressive. Brissett threw a great ball with touch and accuracy. Watching this play from this angle and it’s amazing how little field that Parris Campbell needed to blow away this defender with speed. If Campbell can play (and is anywhere close to healthy) and they can get him matched up in the slot, we could see the rookie have a big day through the air.

So close

This pass missed by just a few inches. The Titans sent the blitz and left no one over the top to protect against T.Y. Hilton going deep and Brissett attempted to exploit that decision, a better pass and this is probably six points. This is a route that Campbell might be sent on if Frank Reich anticipates the Titans will call another zero blitz.

This isn’t where T.Y. normally excels

The defensive back wanted to push T.Y. to the boundary, which makes sense he’s 5’9” and Brissett would have to throw a perfect ball for T.Y. to have a real chance. As it turns out, Hilton ran a good route using his quickness to separate and Brissett threw a perfect pass for six points.

This group of defensive backs isn’t a bad group. They aren’t great either. If there were a weakness in this defense it would be in the secondary and if you’ve been watching the Colts for the past few weeks, that might not be great news. The big question for me is going to revolve around whether or not the Colts can exploit a weak secondary with the injuries and circumstances they currently face.


Final Thoughts:

Frank Reich has yet to lose to the Titans as a head coach. Granted this will only be the fourth game he’s coached against them, 3-0 against any team to start your head coaching career seems pretty good. With that said the Titans offense is rolling and their defense is good, despite the number of yards they’ve given up this season.

If the Colts were healthy I would feel better about this game but as far as what both teams have put on tape in the past few weeks, I don’t feel good about the Colts’ prospects heading into a home game against the Titans.

And that last statement is further proof we’re living in a simulation and that simulation is very broken.