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2020 Opponent Scouting Report: Titans Offense - Round 2 might not be as much fun for Colts defense.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

On November 29th, 2020 the Indianapolis Colts will host the Tennessee Titans. In this Week 12 match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

If it seems like these two teams just played on Thursday Night Football, it’s because they did. I probably don’t need to remind you about that game’s 34-17 finish, but it’s Titans week, so I’m going to remind you that the Colts won by as many points as the Titans scored two weeks ago. Even though the Colts won with such a lopsided final score their performance was far from dominant and the Titans are no doubt desperate to regain the lead in the AFC South.

Lets take a look at what we can expect in week 12.


Offensive System:

Just like the last time these two teams played I’m not going to give you a big, detailed explanation, if that’s what you want this link is what you’re looking for.

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, Browns and Packers

Let’s take a look at what these Titans did in week 10 that matches what we expect to see from this style of offense:

First play of the game

From the very first offensive snap these Titans were true to their offensive identity. Play action roll outs aren’t something they put in the game plan against the Colts, these plays (and outside zone runs) are the base that the rest of the offense is built on.

Play action

This system has it’s basis in the West Coast Offense which tends to target running backs in the passing game. Combined with the play action to the fullback which draws the Colts defense up to try to stop that, it makes for an easy touchdown throw and catch for the Titans RB2.

Going quick to try to beat the blitz

This was a designed quick throw. It’s just a down field screen. Neither of the two outside receivers did anything other than try to block. The Titans were already having trouble trying to deal with the Colts pass rush and beating the blitz with a screen is a solid theory, especially if you get the ball in the hands of someone who can make people miss. Unfortunately for the Titans this 2020 Colts defense is made up of excellent tacklers.

I talked about this in the week 10 scouting report

Sending a blitz off the backside can be a low risk-high reward preposition. If it’s a zone run away from the blitzing corner, he just has to trail and be in position if the ball carrier decides to cut back. If it is a pass with or without a rollout, there’s a good chance the corner will be coming unblocked. If for some reason he does get blocked then the risk comes from the fact that there’s now a gaping hole in the area that defensive back vacated.

If you time it up just right, like the Colts did here, good things tend to happen for the defense.

Kicking themselves

As soon as I saw this play I was kicking myself for not thinking to include this as a possibility. I was sure the Titans had just ran this exact play last year and even though it would have been a tough one to predict, I remembered that I’ve seen them do it with success in the past. The only thing is, they didn’t do it last year, or the year before. They did it in 2017 and for some reason I remembered it:

Now I feel better about not including it in the week 10 scouting report. Although Arthur Smith was the tight ends coach for the Titans in 2017, it would be ridiculous to go back and review every game since 2017 for a single Colts opponent article. If nothing else this shows that the Titans are wiling to reach deep into their bag of tricks to get a leg up on this Colts defense.

Another roll out thwarted

Denico Autry sold out to make this play. Instead of working down the line to maintain the backside edge he sold out and ran upfield to take away the naked bootleg that Ryan Tannehill was starting on. There may have been a backup plan. Maybe the Colts were going to compensate for Autry’s rush up field had this actually been a run, but if there was a plan in place, nobody executed it. The backside would have been wide open for a cutback run.

Fortunately we’ll never know what kind of run would have come out of this as Autry got the sack. Unfortunately Denico Autry will miss this weekend’s game with COVID.

Max Protect

The Titans go max protect off of play action a lot. On one hand it does provide a lot more protection for Tannehill than using only five or six blockers, on the other hand it means he only has two receiving options.

The Colts did a good job in zone coverage blanketing the Titans receivers. If the Titans catch them in man coverage deep down field this play might have looked much different. Given the number of times Tannehill was hit in week ten, I expect to see the Titans have several similar concepts, with different route combinations schemed up this weekend.

The Titans offense was who we thought they were. They’re a Shanahan West Coast system to their core. It’s a good system but the Titans players just weren’t good enough in week 10 to out execute the Colts defense, but that could change this week.


Quarterback:

Ryan Tannehill finished week 10 having gone 15 for 27 with 147 yards, 1 touchdown and 0 interceptions. Part of this unimpressive stat line can be attributed to some bad luck on some drops that his receivers, usually come up with.

But most of it was just due to the Colts defense playing excellent football for most of the game. Between the constant pressure and hits and the sticky coverage on the back end, Tannehill’s performance was pretty good all things considered.

When you give him time

Here Tannehill has time to work through a couple of his reads and decides to pick on Anthony Walker in coverage. Walker thought he had a pick but the receiver worked back toward the ball and made the catch. I’m not sure how Tannehill knew Walker wouldn’t break on the ball and come away with the pick but if I had to guess I would say it was a combination of scouting Anthony Walker in coverage and trusting his receiver to make a play.

If given time these are the kinds of plays Ryan Tannehill can give you.

All of the pain for none of the gain

Ryan Tannehill stood in and threw this ball, knowing he was about to take a massive shot from DeForest Buckner. He threw a beautiful pass and his receiver, A.J. Brown, dropped what would have been a 70 yard touchdown catch and run. Depending on which shade of blue you were pulling for this play falls on one end or the other of the lucky play spectrum.

PA pass with time to throw

The Titans used play action to pull the linebackers up to the line of scrimmage. It ultimately kept them from getting the depth they otherwise would have gotten. The receiver runs a crossing route from right to left against man coverage. Had this route been run closer to the line of scrimmage it could easily be called a “man beater” as covering it with man to man coverage isn’t impossible but very difficult to do, but it takes a long time to develop given how deep it’s being run.

That wasn’t an issue on this down as the Titans gave their quarterback plenty of time to throw and Tannehill was patient in letting his receiver come open after he passed midfield.

Throwing short of the sticks into traffic

This could easily be a criticism of the play call instead of Tannehill’s decision. But at the end of the day he still chose to throw it short of the sticks to a well covered receiving option on third down.

Tannehill is tough

Once again Ryan Tannehill stands in, knowing he’s going to take a hit and he delivers a catchable ball. This time his tight end caught the ball and nearly picked up a first down. Here is what it looked like right before Tannehill threw this pass:

The guy might play for the Titans but it’s hard not to respect the toughness Tannehill showed in this game.

Amazing throw

Tannehill put this ball where only his receiver had a chance at it and his receiver came up with a fantastic catch on the sideline. Tannehill was still making these throws despite getting hit like this for three quarters.

Ryan Tannehill’s numbers weren’t great in week 10 but when you consider what he was up against, it’s easy to understand why. The veteran quarterback stood in and made some really impressive throws and showed some impressive courage in the face of a violent pass rush.

I hope that the Colts hit Tannehill early and often this weekend but after seeing Joe Burrow last week and Drew Brees two weeks ago, I just hope Ryan Tannehill finishes this game, and the season healthy. I would take a season sweep of the Titans in almost any way I can get it, I just don’t want to get it like that. If the Titans are smart, and despite the reputation they earned during many of the Jeff Fisher years, recent history shows us that the Titans might actually be a smart organization, if they are they’ll focus on getting Taylor Lewan healthy and adding more talent to an offensive line that doesn’t seem to have a prayer at stopping this Colts front seven.


Running Back:

Derrick Henry had a great day against our Colts. He rushed 19 times for 103 yards, and despite what you’ve heard before the team that ran the ball the best didn’t come close to winning this game.

Derrick Henry rushed for a lot of yards and it ultimately didn’t matter and I don’t think the Colts are going to change this strategy this weekend. What strategy is that? -you may ask.

I believe I noticed it against these Titans and also against the Packers last week. The Colts aren’t playing the run against these teams who like to use play action, like they have everyone else. I know for sure they have been pulling a safety into the box and going small a lot of the time. But I only believe they’ve been a step slower in filling their gaps from the second level. It’s possible this is in my head, I have no way of proving it with numbers and I simply do not have the time to prove, or disprove it with tape study. So take it for what it’s worth, but it’s something I believe I’ve noticed, and I believe they’re being cautious playing the run so they can better defend the pass.

They’re also sending more blitzes which can be exploited by the run.

Beating the blitz

Darius Leonard does a terrible job of not giving away his blitz. I don’t know if he even wanted to hide it but the fact is, what he’s doing before the snap combined with what he does after the snap, it’s pretty clear the Colts were sending the third year linebacker on a blitz off the right tackle.

On the inside the defensive line runs a stunt to the left side of the offensive line. Had this been a pass that could have helped to open up a pass rush lane for Leonard or at least given him a wide rushing lane to work one on one against a slower tackle.

At the second level, because Leonard is on the blitz Anthony Walker has to come fill the gap that’s left on that side of the field. Bobby Okereke throws off a blocker but not before Henry is able to pick up 8 yards on the ground.

Had this been a pass, the Colts likely would have generated some pressure off the edge. Instead they give up a nice run to a well timed play call and excellent run from Derrick Henry and the Titans.

Another blitz beaten with the run

Here the Colts come out with three defensive linemen aligned to their right of the center. The Titans have struggled to block overload looks so this makes sense.

What you can’t see as well with this angle is what Kenny Moore II is doing just off screen to the left. Based on what he’s showing, it’s pretty obvious that he’s planning to blitz right after this ball is snapped.

At the snap, Moore comes on his blitz, only to get taken out of the play by a receiver blocking him from behind. Anthony Walker did as much as he could to try to turn this run back inside where he should have help. Rookie safety Julian Blackmon overran this play but considering his health and personal safety, I don’t really want him tackling Derrick Henry in the open field anyway, I’m actually glad Henry ran by him.

On the backside of the play Darius Leonard was held in place by the fake end around. It would be easy to criticize him for being completely out of this play but he stayed home and had this actually been given to the receiver in motion, we all would have been praising Leonard for the stop he made while the rest of the defense was off chasing Derrick Henry. Leonard is out of the play while the left tackle waited on him to come his way.

Luckily for the Colts Khari Willis did a great job chasing Henry down and getting the massive back out of bounds. As impressive as it is that Grover Stwart is as close to this play as he is, I don’t think he quite had the angle on Derrick Henry.

Derrick Henry is also a tough guy

Henry missed snaps in this game, needing to be evaluated by trainers. He also missed time last week in their game against the Ravens. But he came back in both games and he kept making plays and taking shots like this.

Bonus play from their week 11 game against the Ravens:

I really just wanted an excuse to put this play in

Derrick Henry and the Titans running backs had a good game in week 10 and I don’t think that’s really going to change. For the Colts it’s smart to let them have those yards and defend against the big play threat that Ryan Tannehill and his receivers provide.


Pass Catchers:

Names to know: A.J. Brown, Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith. You might see appearances by Cameron Batson and Anthony Firkser. Receiver Adam Humphries has missed three games in a row with a concussion and it’s unknown if he will play this weekend.

In week 10 Corey Davis led Titans receivers with 5 catches for 67 yards. AJ Brown was limited to just 1 catch for 21 yards. Cameron Batson had 2 catches for 8 yards and five other Titans caught a single pass for no more than 13 yards.

Due to reasons I’ve already discussed at length, the passing and by default the receiving production was down in this one.

Corey Davis was playing through a lot

The day before this game, Corey Davis’ brother, Titus Davis, passed away after a battle with kidney cancer. Knowing this now, I wish the guy would have gotten into the end zone but he did make some great plays and is capable of doing the same this Sunday.

This ball is caught 99 out of 100 times

A.J. Brown is a very, very good receiver. He had this drop and one other during the game and it was surprising to say the least. I expect far more than one reception from Brown this week, but hopefully the Colts can figure out some way to keep him from impacting the game once again.

Coverage was good most of the night

For the majority of the night the Colts defensive backs did a great job in coverage. The front seven was getting a ton of pressure so it was easier for the secondary but all the same they did well contesting the passes Tannehill managed to get off.

Nice break

Here T.J. Carrie makes a great break on a pass thrown to Jonnu Smith on third down. Carrie knocks the ball down to force a fourth down play. The Titans failed to convert and the game very much felt like it was over at this point. I really don’t know what Smith could have done differently other than maybe work back to the ball, but then he wouldn’t have been close to the first down marker so really, there wasn’t much the receiver could do.

Also Tannehill wasn’t really that late with the pass either. Maybe he could have anticipated a little more, but really this was a great play by the defender.

Davis with a crazy catch

Here Corey Davis gets one foot and an elbow down near the sideline for an amazing catch. This is the kind of thing Davis can do. He doesn’t always show up big in games but he has the ability to go out and make plays.

You can’t expect A.J. Brown to drop passes and you can’t expect a good Titans offense to only throw for 147 yards. I hope that the Colts have the secret formula for doing it again but I expect Brown to have a much better day in Indianapolis this week.


Offensive Line:

The last time these two teams met the Titans were on their second left tackle of the season in Ty Sambrailo after losing Taylor Lewan to a torn ACL earlier in the year. Since week 10 the Titans have place yet another starting left tackle on injured reserve. Last week after Sambrailo went down David Quessenberry stepped in.

For now I believe the starting lineup from left to right will be: David Quessenberry, Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis and Dennis Kelly.

Quessenberry’s name might sound familiar because his story is incredible. After being drafted in the 6th round in 2013, he missed his entire rookie season with a foot injury only to be diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s T Lymphoblastic lymphoma. He spent the next three years out of football quite literally fighting for his life.

The fact that he came back after not playing football for four years would have made for an impressive story alone. The fact that he is playing NFL football after spending three years aggressively fighting lymphoma, is mind-blowing. If he starts this Sunday and I do believe he will, it will be the first start of his NFL career.

For his sake I hope he has a great game. Realistically, well... I’ll just say I hope he has a great game, if anyone could deserve to have a great game, it’s David Quessenberry.

I’ve talked about their issues a lot so I’m not going to go deep on them here but the rest of this line had a really rough day protecting Ryan Tannehill. They did a good job giving Derrick Henry creases and openings and luckily for them they have a running back with great vision who really excels in a zone heavy scheme.

This was all day

Ryan Tannehill was hit by two Colts defenders on this play. This Titans offensive line had zero answers for the Colts front seven on Thursday Night Football. DeForest Buckner was this close to having four, maybe five sacks and Denico Autry, somehow, became unblockable. Speaking of unblockable can we talk about Grover Stewart?

Grover

Grover Stewart was an unstoppable force against the Titans last time out. In my more than 20 years of Colts fandom I’ve never seen a pair of defensive tackles like DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart.

If anyone reading this can get Chris Ballard a message, please tell him that Colts fans want to see Stewart and Bucker side by side for years to come.


Final Thoughts:

I’m just going to give you my final thoughts that I published in the Week 10 highlights article:

As much fun as this win was as a Colts fan, there’s this weird part of me that just constantly wants to bring my excitement back to reality. If you just want to ride the wave of excitement stop reading now. If you want a small dose of reality regarding this game, keep going.

This game was fun but the Titans led most of it. It took more than three and a half quarters, a badly shanked punt and blocked punt returned for a touchdown before the Colts were able to capture the lead.

They did move the ball better on offense. They played the hot hand, used their most explosive players in effective ways, and used a quickened tempo, all things many Colts fans have been asking for all year. But they did it against a truly bad Titans defense.

Does that mean the Colts will be unable to succeed against good defenses doing the same things? No, it doesn’t. They might be able to do the same thing to the Packers and Steelers in the coming weeks, but the fact of the matter is, it is most likely going to be much more difficult against quality defensive opponents.

The Titans win was fun. A lot of fun, but there’s no way the Colts win another blowout this weekend. The Colts might win, but the Titans are too good to simply let that happen twice to the same team in the same season.