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2020 Opponent Scouting Report: Titans Offense- way better than their defense

Chicago Bears v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Overview

On November 12th, 2020 the Indianapolis Colts will travel to the Music City to take on the Tennessee Titans. In this Week 10 match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

Thursday Night Football has historically produced some weird games. This is mostly due to the fact that the NFL asks teams to play games just four days apart. Four days isn’t long enough for the players to recover from their last game and it’s not enough to fully prepare for an opponent like teams would in a normal week. The winner of this game will be in first place in the AFC South, regardless of the outcome of this game, part of me believes these Thursday night games shouldn’t have as much riding on them given the circumstances that surround them. Regardless the Colts and Titans will do their best to win a massive game in primetime this week.

Let’s see what we can expect in week ten.


Offensive System:

I’m not going to spend a ton of time talking about the type of system Arthur Smith employs as the offensive coordinator. I’m not going to do that because I’m pressed for time and also because I’ve written about it before. If you’re interested in a more thorough explanation feel free to check out this link.

What I will say here is that the Titans offense is based heavily on the Shanahan West Coast offense. Mike Shanahan’s offenses were famous for their zone running concepts and the play action, bootleg passes that they were able to follow up with. The Colts have faced very similar systems this year already having played the Jaguars, Vikings and Browns.

Let’s take a look at what these Titans do, given that we understand the basis of their offensive system.

The lifeblood

I don’t subscribe to the idea that you have to have a successful rushing attack for play action passes to have their desired effect on opposing defenses. Defenders have to respect the play action to continue to stop the run, even if they’ve been stopping the run already.

Having said that when you pair the play action pass with a highly effective running game, one that defenses want to sell out to stop, the effect of the play action pass is compounded. The Titans rushing attack, on the legs of elite running back, Derrick Henry.

Play action, in action

The Titans are at their best throwing the ball off of play action. Here the come out with a max protect look, running only two routes. The play action pulls the linebackers forward, creating a big throwing lane for the receiver who runs a quick in breaking route. This simple, quick play ends up gaining 13 yards.

Multiple easy reads on same side of the field

Here on the goal line the Titans give Ryan Tannehill three reads all on the same side of the field. On this play the playside receiver ends up pulling two defenders deep while the underneath crosser wins against man coverage. The running back runs a route to the flat and the result is an easy read for the quarterback and a touchdown for the Titans offense.

Watch the offensive line on next two plays

Linebackers are usually taught to cue on what the offensive line does and they’re expected to react, instantaneously, to that read. In a traditional drop back pass it’s pretty easy to quickly diagnose run or pass based on where and how the offensive line takes their first step. This system often makes the two indistinguishable in that fraction of a second a linebacker gets to make a decision.

The reason it’s indistinguishable is the “zone step”. On zone runs linemen will all step in the same direction in unison at the snap. This offense expects the defense to react to that step and will take every opportunity to capitalize on it. On the play above the routes are all designed to go to the side of the field that the linebackers have all vacated and you’ll often see the quarterback roll out to that opposite side.

But if you time a blitz just right

Naked bootlegs aren’t completely effective especially if you have a defensive back who has been known to excel when asked to blitz. Hopefully Kenny Moore II has been taking notes this week.

Another play action example

The Titans dial up another max protect play action pass. This time the Bengals off coverage and reaction to the play action allows for the completion of one of the easiest 20 yard out routes you’ll ever see in the NFL.


Quarterback:

Ryan Tannehill has gone from perceived draft bust to a guy whose name I actually had to learn to spell. Tannehill escaped the grip of Adam Gase’s terrible offensive system and has absolutely flourished with Arthur Smith in Tennessee. This isn’t the first time a quarterback and scheme have matched up perfectly, but it is the most glaring recent example.

I’m going to spend some time criticizing some aspects of Tannehill’s game, mostly because I hope that the Colts can take advantage of some of the mistakes he tends to make. But if you take away nothing else from this article please understand Ryan Tannehill is a very good quarterback and as long as he’s in this system I expect him to succeed far more than he fails for the foreseeable future.

Two receivers in the same area is never good

Here Tannehill spent a day and a half in the pocket while his receivers tried to work to get open. What ended up happening is that two receivers worked themselves into the same area of the field. Tannehill threw (I assume) to the deeper of the two and the underneath receiver tried his best to make the catch not knowing his teammate was behind him. Luckily for the Titans this became the rare tip drill that benefited the offense as the deep man pulled in the tipped pass for a big gain.

Notice the lack of play action

The kind of back to the line of scrimmage play action passes the Titans so often use simplify Tannehill’s reads to a huge degree. Pre-snap reads are obviously important but when your eyes are looking the opposite direction of your receivers you can’t possibly be watching the defense.

As a result this offense requires a quarterback who can get his head around and quickly find an open receiver. The passing concepts on these plays most often lend themselves to being able to beat man or zone coverages and while the receiver who is “designed open” may change based on coverage, the only thing that’s really important is that the quarterback works his passing progressions (usually having three options all on the same side of the field) and finds the open man quickly.

Ryan Tannehill is very good at that. Tannehill struggles when he’s asked to make reads involving both sides of the field. Here he starts this play looking to his left, he works his progressions and comes back to the right side of the field when he uncorks this ball. Tannehill had no idea that defender was there because he simply isn’t as good when asked to read the entire field.

Tannehill is limited in this way but he’s very good when his reads are simplified.

Another easy read

The Steelers show a two deep safety look before the snap. Tannehill sends a tight end in motion which shows that the defense is playing man coverage. So Ryan Tannehill now knows this is most likely man to man with both safeties playing a deep half of the field.

He looks to his left, I believe to hold the safety more in the middle of the field before turning and firing the ball to the deep out route. I believe he knew where he was going with this ball before the snap due to the fact that when his back foot hits in his drop his lower body is already pointing toward the receiver on his right even though his eyes are looking left.

I believe nearly all of Tannehill’s reads came before the snap on this play and he made a good decision based on what he saw.

Regardless of making reads, he throws a pretty ball

Tannehill’s receiver wins his route and gets a step on his defender. Tannehill throws a perfect ball over top of the beaten defender while keeping the ball away from the safety chasing from the middle of the field. Had he hung this ball up or thrown it even slightly off target it’s likely intercepted but Tannehill placed it perfectly as he often does on his deep throws.

Then, on the very next play, he does this

I’ve watched this play no less than a dozen times and while I can’t really tell you who Tannehill’s first option was on this play, I do know that the absolute collapse of the pocket forces him out of the pocket to his right. For a second he sees A.J. Brown and throws the ball in his direction. Unfortunately for the Titans, Ryan Tannehill forgot all about the safety that started the play in the middle of the field and as a result that safety was given an early gift this holiday season.

The scramble

Another aspect of his game that the Colts will have to account for is his ability to run. I know, I know, they just played Lamar Jackson last week and they kept him in check. But Tannehill played a lot of receiver in college, his athleticism and effectiveness as a runner needs to be mentioned.

He gets away with another one here

Here the Bears show man coverage with two high safeties again. Again he throws to the deep out after looking off the safety. This corner had clearly watched tape from the Steelers game because he was ready for this throw and jumped this route. All’s well that ends well for Tannehill but this play could have easily swung the game in the Bears favor last week.

Ryan Tannehill is very good when asked to execute many of the concepts that this offense relies on. With that said he’s limited in what he can do outside of those concepts. Often the talented playmakers around him help to cover up those shortcomings.


Running Back:

Everyone who has even causally paid attention to the sport of professional football for the past few years knows exactly who Derrick Henry is. He’s really good. You know he’s really good, so I’m not going to spend much time talking about him.

He’s big and he’s faster than anyone his size should ever be allowed to be.

The other backs to know are guys you might have heard of. Jeremy McNichols played one game for the Colts in 2018. Currently he’s the Titans second leading rusher having carried 23 times for 147 yards. The other back to know never actually played a down for the Colts but he did spend time on the roster in 2019. D’Onta Foreman has played in two games for the Titans carrying the ball 10 times for 48 yards.

It’s possible that you might see all three men run the ball on Thursday night, and I feel like I shouldn’t have to actually write this out, but Derrick Henry will be the most active rusher for these Titans.

Required Henry clip

Here he squeezes through a crease and uses his speed to pick up a nice gain before being bumped out of bounds. I’ve never seen defenders make as many business decisions as I’ve seen defenders do when finding themselves with Derrick Henry in space. I don’t think that will be a problem with the Colts defense but it does speak to just how difficult he is to bring down when he has a head of steam.

RB2

Here’s video evidence of Jeremy McNichols doing something with the ball in his hands. The Titans run an outside zone (shocker, I know) and McNichols takes the option to cut the ball to the back side where he finds plenty of room to get loose.

This game is truly strength vs strength. The Colts run defense is a top five unit in the league and the Titans rushing attack is currently ranked sixth. Seeing these two teams duke it out in the trenches should be a lot of fun.


Pass Catchers:

Names to know: A.J. Brown, Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith. You might see apparences by Kalif Raymond and Anthony Firkser. Receiver Adam Humphries will miss his second game in a row with a concussion.

Corey Davis was taken with the fifth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Considering his draft position it’s really hard to consider his career anything other than disappointing to this point. Having said that when you turn on the tape it’s easy to see that Davis is a talented but inconsistent receiver. He isn’t someone that I expect to always perform at a high level but if overlooked by a defense he has the ability to make big plays downfield.

Jonnu Smith is a fourth year tight end out of FIU. Smith is currently on pace to have a career year. As of today he has 24 receptions for 304 yards and 6 touchdowns. Smith is a very athletic tight end and while he hasn’t taken over many games, he has turned in two multiple touchdown games this season.

A.J. Brown. It’s tough to know where to start with Brown because of just how exciting he is. Yes, he can make difficult catches, yes he can do a lot of good things without the ball in his hands but with the ball in his hands, Brown is just different. I’m not sure there’s a receiver in the NFL that’s more difficult to tackle in the open field than Brown. After Brown makes a catch, it’s not unusual to see him shake off the first defender and use his blazing speed to pick up many more yards before he’s able to be brought down. A.J. Brown can and often does change games. He’s a very dangerous player.

Untouched

Brown turns this simple in breaking route into a 74 yard touchdown.

He’s not just fast

Brown shakes off two defenders before getting the ball into the endzone. Regardless of where they’re at on the field, A.J. Brown is a threat to score.

Gets both feet down

Corey Davis hasn’t had quite the start to his career that he expected but every now and then he goes out and does something like this.

Taking over games

Before this play the Titans offense was stagnant against the Bears defense. Nothing they were doing was working. Then Ryan Tannehill throws this off target pass over the middle of the field, A.J. Brown adjusts to the ball, makes a difficult catch before breaking a tackle and picking up nearly 30 more yards. This play allowed the Titans to get into rhythm.


Offensive Line:

From left to right: Ty Sambrailo, Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis and Dennis Kelly.

Sambrailo has stepped in at left tackle since starter Taylor Lewan was lost for the season with a torn ACL. He has played better than you would expect a backup left tackle to play but good edge defenders will give him trouble.

Based on my study Rodger Saffold is the best interior offensive linemen the Titans have. He’s probably a little better opening holes than he is protecting a passer but Saffold is a fine player overall. Ben Jones is just kind of there. He’s not great but he’s not awful. I expect Jones to spend a lot of time helping block DeForrest Buckner, who I think can probably win some of those double teams. Nate Davis is the weak link on the interior. If the Colts are going to try to get someone a one on one matchup on a passing down, you can bet they’ll look to challenge Davis.

Dennis Kelly wasn’t supposed to start this season for the Titans and he’s not very good. The Titans had reason to believe their first round pick Isaiah Wilson would fill that void. Rumors out of Nashville indicate that Wilson is a complete disaster as a person. After his DUI arrest earlier this year things haven’t improved for the talented rookie. There have been reports that he has missed multiple practices citing that he had a headache and that his effort is poor at best.

Hearing this was especially disappointing for me as I loved Wilson as a prospect. His physical ability combined with a huge meanstreak meant for some very entertaining offensive line play. I hope he can get whatever help he needs to turn things around because the Titans have an absolute monster sitting on the bench.

Pressure

One thing is consistent with the Titans offensive line and that’s the amount of pressure they give up. If they don’t go with a max protect look, there usually seems to be pressure on Ryan Tannehill.

Sometimes a chip isn’t helpful

Dennis Kelly might have lost this block on his own but Derrick Henry made sure of it. Instead of letting Kelly push T.J. Watt around the arc and out of the play, he chipped him back to Kelly’s inside, knocking him down in the process.

Derrick Henry isn’t really helping

Henry just completely misses getting contact on this linebacker who brings Tannehill down. Short of this one block the rest of the line seems to be giving their QB a chance to throw.

They open a lot of creases

They rarely open what I would call “holes” but there are a lot of creases and Derrick Henry is good at finding them.

Something I noticed

The Titans offensive line struggles to adjust to overload looks. Obviously it’s not a one size all situation as the overload can come with stunts, blitzes, misdirection and a whole host of other variables. So I wasn’t expecting them to just fix it by doing one thing or another but I was expecting to see some sort of improvement as it happened fairly often.

I saw no improvement

Again, this is a complex issue. There isn’t a simple “well, if they just do XYZ...” problem to fix but a complete lack of a plan to deal with it is what excites me and it’s what would worry me if I were a Titans fan.

This offensive line isn’t great but there are far worse units in the league, but they might have the worst line of all current division leaders. The Colts front seven has a clear inarguable advantage in this game, unless you’re just a Titans homer, then you’ll argue anything no matter how dumb your argument is.


Final Thoughts:

The Colts hold the advantage between the Titans offense and the Indy defense. With that said the Titans have the playmakers to turn the game in their direction. If the Colts play their game I think they come out on top in this one.


Short Week Bonus Content

I’m not going to be able to pump out a defensive piece or a special teams and predictions report so I figured I would give you a very abbreviated version of that here.

Defense

These guys stink. No, really. It’s a bad defense. It might be the worst defense we’ve seen all season. I don’t know if this is the week we see the run game “get right” but if the Jonathan Taylor can’t get going in this one, I wouldn’t bet on him getting going for the rest of the season.

Special Teams

This guy stinks.

Final Thoughts For The Week

The Titans are a good team but, on paper, the Colts match up really well. But they matched up really well last week against the Ravens too. If the Colts play their game on defense and find a way to score points against a bad Titans defense, the Colts will be in first place of the AFC South by midnight tonight.

Prediction

Colts 24

Titans 17