clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

2019 Opponent Scouting Report: Titans Defense; Marlon Mack fantasy owners should definitely start him

New, comments
NFL: Preseason-Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-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.


Defensive Scheme

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.

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

It seems like for the past decade that one guy stands out when talking about the Titans defensive line and it doesn’t seem like that will be changing anytime soon. Jurrell Casey led all defensive linemen in week one with 47 snaps, even though he only logged a single assisted tackle, Casey didn’t need to have a big day considering the help he received from the guys around him. DaQuan Jones played the second most snaps for the defensive line at 27. He finished the day with three total tackles including one for a loss. One guy to keep an eye on in this game is undrafted rookie Isaiah Mack out of Tennessee-Chattanooga. Mack logged the third most snaps of everyone on the d-line last week, which was surprising to say the least.

The last guy I want to mention is 78* year old Cameron Wake. Wake signed with the Titans this past off season and went to work for his new team immediately. Wake only logged 24 snaps on the day but he was able to make the most of them racking up 2.5 sacks on the day. The Titans were able to tee off on Baker Mayfield all day and Wake was absolutely a big part of the game plan.

Something I noticed from week one:

The Titans used a light defensive line more often than not and while the Browns didn’t always capitalize, the Colts are significantly better up front than the Cleveland line.

Marlon Mack is watching this game with tears of joy in his eyes:

I really don’t see any way the Titans are going to be able to come out and play this style of defense against our Colts, if they do, it’s going to be a long, painful day for them. With that said it’s not much different than what they showed us the last time these two teams played:

Marlon Mack rushed 25 times for 119 yards and a touchdown in week 17 against the Titans and he did so while the offensive line was missing Ryan Kelly and blocking tight end extraordinaire Jack Doyle.

The Titans defensive line does have plenty of talent available to rotate throughout the day. They should be very active and I expect them to get some penetration in the passing game. As I discussed above, the Titans scheme will work to provide the defense with favorable one-on-one match-ups up front and I expect them to continue to use those tools effectively. With that said if I were a Titans fan (I thank God every day that I’m not) I would be extremely concerned about the Colts ground game, if Vrabel isn’t willing to change schematically to match with the Colts physicality up front, Marlon Mack will be the leagues leading rusher by a very large margin by Sunday evening.

One last thing to note, Jurrell Casey was the only Titans defensive lineman to play more than 50% of the defenses snaps and even then he only played 64%. The Titans seem to use a heavy rotation up front and while I respect the effort to do so, the Browns’ Nick Chubb was able to average 4.4 yards per carry despite having three football players and two traffic cones for offensive linemen. There could be several reasons for his production, but it’s something worth pointing out and looking for this Sunday.

*age approximate


Linebackers

This is an eclectic group.

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

Evans is entering his second season out of Alabama and if this team had a traditional run stopping linebacker, it’s this guy. He has the ability to shed blocks and the athleticism run sideline to sideline.

Jayon Brown is an enigma. He’s good at seemingly everything and he has very few weaknesses to his game. 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.

Had I included Landry in the defensive line section it would have been fitting as he will line up on the EDGE and should rush the passer most of the time. With that said he does have far more ability than Cam Wake to drop into coverage if asked, so that’s why Wake is up there and Landry is down here. Last season Landry played a limited role and still managed 4.5 sacks and was constantly putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. This season his role has been expanded and expectations are high. In week one he had three solo tackles.

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 as he only played on 13 defensive snaps against the Browns.

If you listen closely you can actually hear Browns center J.C. Tretter ask what hit him. No, Evans didn’t make the tackle but he impacted the path of the ball carrier and his ability to do that is invaluable.

Luck picked by Jayon Brown:

NFL Gamepass just did something weird and as a result, this play gets blurry in the middle and cuts to black at the end. The long and short of this play is that Andrew Luck made a mistake and Brown was athletic enough to make the most of the opportunity.

This linebacker corps is a good one. It’s fairly easy to argue that they belong in the conversation for being a top 10 unit in the league. With that said their impact won’t be enough unless their line can keep them clean and their defensive backs can cover well.


Defensive Backs

The names you need to know:

Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, Adoree Jackson, Kenny Vaccaro, Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker.

If you listen to Titans fans this is a top unit in the NFL. And look, they’re not bad, but they’re not the best group of DB’s we’ll play this year.

I can already hear it:

“We intercepted Baker Mayfield three times”

I mean, technically yes, they were interceptions but the Titans did very little to cause them:

This is just cover three. There’s nothing special about it. Byard didn’t do anything special, Baker Mayfield threw a terrible ball.

Shouldn’t have been thrown:

I’ll give Logan Ryan credit for being in good position but most quarterbacks would have seen Ryan and decided that throwing the ball directly to him would be a mistake, but not Baker.

And I thought Mariota was inaccurate:

This was a nice catch by Butler but he, nor the rest of the Titans did anything to force this turnover. Baker Mayfield just played really poorly in the fourth quarter.

Maybe I’m not taking the Titans defensive backs seriously enough. Maybe they’re better than I’m giving them credit for. It’s absolutely possible but I have a low opinion of them because every time I watch our Colts play them I see things like this:

And then on the very next offensive play:

Still have one on one vs. Adoree? Let’s do that again! This time Jackson does the smart thing and just interferes.

And then if you throw Logan Ryan on him:

That’s 6 points.

I got to thinking and I realized these plays were just from one game, what about the second game these two teams played in 2018?

T.Y. Hilton only had two catches in that week 17 game. Turns out, he had a high and low ankle sprain at the same time, on the same ankle. I’m not a doctor but that would explain the low output... except his two catches went for 61 yards.

On one leg:

I understand why Titans fans would feel good about their secondary. They are a promising group. With that said I hope they could understand why I, and likely all Colts fans, remain skeptical about this unit.

On a more serious note I do remember reading about Kevin Byard and his ability to cover tight ends and then I saw this play from this past Sunday:

Getting beaten on that play isn’t a big deal, most guys would, but it reminded me of another play I vaguely remembered. It wasn’t hard to find:

Again, that was a really difficult assignment but it’s worth pointing out. If the Colts are in the redzone and Ebron is one on one against Kevin Byard, even with as good as he seems to be, Ebron has the advantage.

All in all Titans fans should feel good about their defensive backs. To this point, the game planning of Frank Reich and the legs of T.Y. Hilton have simply been better than the Titans DB’s have been at coverage. Without Andrew Luck this will be an interesting aspect of this game but I don’t expect the outcome to be vastly different.


Final Thoughts:

This is a talented Titans defense. It’s also a defense that Frank Reich seems to be one step ahead of, schematically. While I’m sure I’ll be forced to include the caveat “without Andrew Luck” all season, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the effect that may have. If Jacoby Brissett plays against the Titans the way he did against a superior Los Angeles Chargers defense last week and the Colts are able to move the ball on the ground, the way everyone should expect them to, Titans fans aren’t going to have much to cheer for.

Any given Sunday anything could happen but if the Colts come out and execute on offense, as long as Marcus Mariota is still the Titans quarterback, after the game is over the Indianapolis Colts should find themselves, where they belong, in first place of the AFC South.