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2019 Opponent Scouting Report: Titans Offense: Despite score, Titans not that great against Browns

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NFL: Tennessee Titans at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

On September 15, 2019 the Indianapolis Colts will travel to the Music City to take on the Tennessee Titans. In this Week 2 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 35 times and the Colts overall record in that span is 26 wins to 9 losses. And in the last decade the record between these two teams is 17 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 Titans.

Let’s figure out what we can expect in Week 2.


A Note From Week One

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.

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.

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.


Offensive Scheme

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 will the Titans under Arthur Smith do? Just watching his first game as a play caller 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.

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 my study of the 2018/2019 Titans offense they are highly relevant to what we will see this Sunday. Matt Bowen’s article is worth a read but I will give you what I think some of the most relevant parts are in this excerpt:

Cross-Country Dagger

The Falcons led the NFL in multiple categories when running play-action during the regular season, such as passes thrown (133), yards per attempt (11.8) and total passing yards (1,531).

Breaking down the exact concepts the Titans are using under Smith isn’t that valuable at this point given he’s one game in, though there will be constants. With that said, this is less about Cross Country Dagger and far more about play action passes and their huge role in this offense.

Not Dagger but PA all the same:

As I expect him to do often on Sunday, Mariota checks down on this play too. Back to the article from Bowen:

Outside Zone

The Falcons ranked fifth overall during the regular season with 120.5 rushing yards per game, and the outside zone (or stretch) is one of the top calls in Shanahan’s playbook. It caters to the athleticism of the Falcons’ offensive line and the skill set of both Freeman and Tevin Coleman (footwork, vision, speed through the hole).

With the offensive line taking a “zone step” (step to play side) and chipping to the second-level linebackers, the running backs have options after getting the handoff deep in the backfield. Freeman or Coleman (H) can “bounce” the ball outside of the tight end (Y), hit the “bang” or cut the ball back on the “bend.” It’s up to the RB to make the correct read based on the blocking up front and the pursuit of the linebackers.

We will see outside zone runs early and often and when the game wears on, maintaing gap responsibility becomes more and more difficult as fatigue sets in.

If you’ve got some time and you want to learn more about football than the average fan will ever know, click that last link and that one article will give you everything you really need.

The Titans Version:

Back to the article from Bowen:

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.

You’re going to see some version of this play early and often on Sunday. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Titans Version:

Obviously this is just one look at the concept and it almost ended poorly but we will see plenty of bootleg on Sunday. Back to the article from Bowen:

Follow Route

Shanahan is a master at using bunch and stacked looks to create traffic off the snap versus man-coverage teams. And the abilities of Freeman and Coleman as receiving threats add to Shanahan’s game plan.

With Sanu (Z) and Hooper (Y) in reduced splits, and Freeman (H) aligned on the outside leg of the offensive tackle, the Falcons create a bunch formation (three players close together). This allows Hooper to release upfield on the corner route to generate a mess of bodies as Sanu runs the shallow crosser and Freeman hits the angle route.

The Titans will use some version of this concept early and often. It’s simple and effective. An example from Sunday:

A lot of ink has been spilled on the Shanahan, Kubiak, McVay, et. al West Coast and Zone Run based offense, in part because it predates the concept of free agency in the NFL and it is still a highly effective system in professional football. On Sunday we will witness yet another version of this system and see if the Titans can pull one out against our Colts.


Quarterback:

Marcus Mariota went 12 for 24 with 248 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. At first glance you might think he’s a changed man, and I suppose that’s possible but I have some evidence that suggests that may not be true.

First let’s take a look at Mariota inside this offense, we’ll start with the last time he played against these Colts:

As expected Mariota executes the play action pass and does the smart thing, not trying to fit the ball in over the middle and hitting the check-down for a few yards. As long as he can continue to make smart plays like this his team will have a chance in a lot of games.

More play action:

I included this play, not for its success but to show how Mariota is used to roll out and is athletic enough to outrun NFL defenders and in this case he outran them just long enough to get a throw off.

This counts in Mariota’s passing numbers:

Arthur Smith worked all day long to set up this play. He called a ton of these play action bootleg passes but this time instead of pushing the ball to a receiver in front of him, Mariota turned and hit Derrick Henry for a long touchdown reception. This was a well timed and well executed play.

Very Sneaky:

I love this and all plays like it. McVay uses them, Shanahan uses them, Reich uses them. The tight end blocks, there’s a play fake and all the QB has to do is throw a catchable ball. This makes it really easy on your quarterback.

Yet another well designed play:

First the play action, then the tight ends and receivers block, the receiver blocks the man covering the tight end, one thing leads to another and it’s just shooting fish in a barrel. Once again, all Mariota has to do is throw a catchable ball, maybe 10 yards.

The best plays from Mariota are the plays that are 100% schemed open passes like the pick above. Every now and then he does something like this, which once again happened the last time the Colts played against Mariota:

I have no idea why Mariota threw this ball. Maybe he thought Quincy Wilson would fall off and cover the slot receiver running the out. Maybe he hit “square” and meant to hit “circle”, I’m not sure but surely this is an isolated incident of poor performance?

Nope:

It has to be frustrating for all 11 guys on the field and the entire offensive coaching staff to get a receiver that open 15 yards down the field on 3rd and 10 and then watch your quarterback be completely unable to get him the ball.

I’m sure the sun was in his eyes, right? Nope:

I’ve heard that a lot of people coach endzone throws as “touchdown or no one” which just means you only throw a catchable ball if it’s only catchable for an offensive player, but this is ridiculous. A.J. Brown is 6’1” 230 pounds and he has one on one coverage in the end zone with no other defender remotely close. Mariota just missed this throw and he missed it horribly.

Marcus Mariota is who I thought he was; an inaccurate, injury prone passer with one or two elite traits and the ability to often make throws to players who have been schemed open. He is good enough to win games for these Titans but he isn’t able to elevate those around him.

Also, I recommend not talking to Titans fans about their quarterback, many of them seem to believe he’s a true franchise quarterback who just hasn’t had enough ___________. You can fill in that blank with whatever you like. There are a thousand excuses, but seeing the borderline delusional takes of Mariota on a Titans fan site, very similar to Stampede Blue, legitimately saddens me as a football fan. Those people, due to bad organizational leadership have come to worship Marcus Mariota, who I’m sure is a great guy, as this weird sort of anti-scapegoat. It’s all someone else’s fault but it can’t be his! If that’s what they need to get through losing 17 of the last 20 games these two teams have played, let’s let them have it.


Running Back:

Derrick Henry seems to be 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.

Designed cutback:

This is a designed counter hand-off. What wasn’t designed was the jailbreak that the left side of his offensive line let happen. Since I don’t have their call sheet in front of me I can’t be sure but I believe this play was supposed to cut inside, but seeing the defenders giving chase, Henry used his speed to get outside and turn this into a nice run.

As above, so below:

I think this is something that the NFL is going to start seeing more and more given the current defensive trend of smaller, quicker players who will be unable to holdup against an overwhelming rushing attack.

What makes this play interesting is the fact that running backs are typically taught to follow their fullback through whatever hole they open up, where as with a zone, running backs have three options; bend, bang or bounce which mean cutback, up the gut or outside and the back chooses from those options based on what he’s seeing develop which is often referred to as a back’s “vision”. So adding a blocking fullback to the mix makes things more interesting but Henry seems to have taken to the idea like a fish to water.

Derrick Henry isn’t the only back the Colts will have to defend on Sunday. Dion Lewis is a legitimate receiving back who caught 59 passes on 67 targets a year ago. Lewis didn’t have a huge impact in week one but I do expect his role to expand as the season progresses.


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 off season.

The Titans still have talented tight end Delanie Walker on the team and they drafted Jonnu Smith with the 100th pick in 2017.

There are no more excuses to be made, this is a talented and young receiving corps.

Guys who are 6’1” and 230 pounds are more likely to be found at running back, than playing receiver but A.J. Brown seems to provide the best of both worlds. Colts defensive backs need to be ready to wrap up when Brown has the ball in his hands.

Oh and not only do they need to be prepared to tackle Brown, they have to catch him first.

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.


Offensive Line:

Last Sunday the Titans gave up four sacks to a very talented Browns pass rush. Before the Browns amazing and sudden fourth quarter collapse Derrick Henry had rushed the ball 12 times for 44 yards. He didn’t have great success, in large part because the Browns were filling their gaps and the Titans line couldn’t do much to move them off the line.

Things did change in the 4th quarter for Henry, the defense (almost as if they quit) gave up 40 yards on seven carries while the Titans did their best to salt the game away.

The Titans line isn’t a bad one but they were without multiple starters last Sunday. This Sunday they will be without starting left tackle Taylor Lewan who is serving a four game suspension for a PED he strongly denies taking. As much as I would enjoy burying a division opponent for their PED use, he tested positive for ostarine. I’m not going to do a deep dive on this substance but the long and short of it is, it makes no sense for an NFL offensive lineman to take ostarine. Knowing the cost for getting caught, the benefits of taking it just aren’t even remotely worth it. I actually believe Lewan and I believe he most likely received a tainted supplement he believed was free of banned substances.

Anyway, back to football.

The starting right guard position was won by former Purdue Boilermaker, Kevin Pamphile who then sat out week one and was replaced by Jamil Douglas. If there is a drop off in play from Pamphile to Douglas, it is likely to be minimal.

Ben Jones will start at center as he has for the past 51 games in a row. As a center he’s average at best but he is always available. At the left guard spot, free agent signee Rodger Saffold will get the nod. Saffold is a very 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 backup left tackle Dennis Kelly. Kelly has the impossible job of replacing Lewan during his absence, but this is really good news for Colts fans as Kemoko Turay will be lining up across from his second backup left tackle in as many weeks. You can expect to see some pressure coming at Mariota’s blindside.

Over at the right tackle spot Jack Conklin will do his best to contain Justin Houston. 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. Conklin missed practice time leading up to last week’s game but made the start. After one week it’s far to early to tell if Conklin is back, so to speak, or if he truly peaked as a player at 22 years old.

Mariota has often struggled identifying the blitz:

Yet, we’re going to blame the sacks on the offensive line.

The fourth quarter was good to this group:

Six game minutes prior to this play, the Browns were down by 2 points. The Titans line absolutely deserves credit for their solid fourth quarter play but anyone that’s ever had their moral destroyed in a hurry can tell you it’s an emotional swing that can take away your will to win, as you realize winning isn’t possible.

It’s almost like teams know what to do to Marcus Mariota:

Just send more guys than they can block off of the right tackle. Mariota won’t know what hit him.

This isn’t a bad offensive line but they will be without their three time Pro Bowl left tackle and their right guard spot isn’t in the best shape no matter who starts. All told the Colts front seven will need to play better than they did last week to limit Derrick Henry’s opportunities, especially late in the game.


Final Thoughts:

If anyone from Music City Miracles gets a hold of this scouting report they are going to rip it to shreds. With that said, I feel very confident in my evaluations of this Titans offense. They aren’t a team that can just be rolled over with minimal effort but they are very beatable despite what the final score of their week one game, tries to make you believe. Don’t place any bets yet but I feel good about this game for our Colts.