On October 31st, 2021 the Indianapolis Colts will host the Tennessee Titans. In this week eight match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.
In week three these two teams squared off in a divisional matchup that Colts fans would like to forget. There is reason to hope the Colts might fare better this time around but the Titans aren’t going to come into town and just lay down. Not many “experts” are going to be picking Indy to win this one. So we’ll take a look at changes both teams have undergone in the past five weeks and compare them with what happened in week three. In the end, you’ll have a better idea of what to expect than almost every single expert you’ll see on your favorite pregame show this weekend.
Let’s see what we can expect in week eight.
If these next thousand words seem familiar it’s because I wrote them leading up to the Colts and Titans week three game. Along the way, I’ve given some updates and put in clips from their week three matchup, but there was no reason to completely re-write an accurate description of the Titans offensive system that’s just a month old.
Titans former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith was one of my favorite play-callers to watch when he was with this team. His offenses were simple and effective and his creative play designs always seemed to show up at just the right time. Smith was a good game planner and did concept work in-game to set up plays later.
In short: he was a really good offensive coordinator.
So when the Atlanta Falcons agreed to take Smith away from the Titans and make him their new head coach, I was elated. Smith was really good and even if the next guy was good, chances were he wasn’t going to be as good as Smith, and even if he somehow was, it would take time for him to get his feet underneath him.
Under Arthur Smith, the Titans passing offense flourished with these Shanahan-esque play-action rollout concepts.
From week three
Titans offense vs Colts- boot action, defense with solid coverage pic.twitter.com/vLzUcOhNOW— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 26, 2021
The Titans system has been (and still is) a Shanahan West Coast system. Theoretically, everything runs through their zone runs and play-action passes. Those are the hallmarks of the system, which is universally accepted as a “quarterback-friendly” offense. It tends to simplify reads and it often effectively shrinks the field in half, putting multiple reads all on one side of the field. Despite the fact that the Titans have had three different offensive coordinators since head coach Mike Vrabel was hired in 2018, they have maintained the same system that was installed by Matt LeFleur in 2018*, LeFleur is now the head coach of the Green Bay Packers.
*If I remember correctly there may have been other Titans play-callers who have used similar systems within the last decade or so, but between you and me, I’m just not going to spend the time doing research on old, bad Titans offenses led by Marcus Mariota and Jake Locker.
They didn’t use a ton of play-action bootlegs
Titans offense vs. Colts- boot action big gain pic.twitter.com/bDfEsrV2e7— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 26, 2021
But they did see some success. After seeing the Colts defense struggle with these looks against the San Francisco 49ers in week six, I assume the Titans will go to these plays early and often.
In week three they were ready for the Colts zone heavy defense
Titans offense vs Colts- beating cover 2 pic.twitter.com/NKLEslMo8o— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 26, 2021
Here the Titans had a perfect play dialed up to work against the Colts called cover two. Julio Jones ran his route in the outside hole between the underneath corner and the deep safety, Tannehill read the coverage and delivered an accurate pass. This was a well-timed play call given the defense.
I really thought the blocking was the most interesting part of this play
Tannehill gets a pocket.— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 21, 2021
He got several actually. Very up and down game from his very shorthanded offensive line. pic.twitter.com/w791zI51Gm
I thought the blocking was the story on that one but then I started to piece something together.
Tannehill always has a checkdown that gets between 5-10 yards
The Titans moved the ball down the field to tie the game late in the 4th quarter with dump offs to the running backs because the Seahawks refused to defend them.— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 21, 2021
Eberflus, you see this?
Don't make the same mistake. Please. pic.twitter.com/IF4Wplr1WI
And he almost always takes it.
No one is covering the short middle, so why not?
Seriously, they just keep doing it. pic.twitter.com/RQle9D3H9Y— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 21, 2021
No seriously Seattle, why are you letting this happen? pic.twitter.com/2UdpyRCfua— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 21, 2021
Now in OT, why stop throwing it if the defense just keeps letting you do it? pic.twitter.com/KYEhk6aklb— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 21, 2021
Week one, too
More underneath in the 2 minute pic.twitter.com/e6ILAIx4ig— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 21, 2021
Tight ends can get it too
Tight ends involved now underneath in the 2 minute pic.twitter.com/gWyPMNdmkM— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 21, 2021
This isn’t some shocking aspect of their offense but, it does show that the Titans can and will use checkdowns to pick up yards effectively. As a defense, the Colts tend to allow offenses to complete passes underneath and then rally to the ball. That has worked in the past but hopefully, Matt Eberflus works up a plan to deal with these dump-offs, if he doesn’t those are just one more way the Titans can move the ball.
In week three the Colts defense didn’t have their best showing
Titans offense vs Colts- blown coverage. Rhodes thought they were switching. Zaire Franklin didn't get the memo. pic.twitter.com/nWJfpK8qeF— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 26, 2021
Preventing things like this from happening will go a long way to the Indianapolis defense having a better day this coming Sunday. Having Zaire Franklin off the field when the Titans are throwing the ball, will probably help the cause.
Titans offense vs Colts- Zaire Franklin really shouldn't be in coverage pic.twitter.com/D9uf7qDiAQ— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 26, 2021
Zaire is probably a really good guy. I just like him best on special teams.
Mike Vrabel loves a good trick play
Titans flea flicker pic.twitter.com/7W0ErPegUq— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 21, 2021
I don’t have any numbers to back this up and it could be because the Colts play the Titans twice a year, but it feels like the Titans use trick plays as much as any team in the league. It feels like once or twice a game the Titans dial up something odd, hoping to confuse the defense. Indy will have to play disciplined defense in case the Titans dial up a flea-flicker, a reverse, or some sort of hook and ladder.
The Titans run game
Titans offense vs Colts- zone run pic.twitter.com/srP2L0i9F9— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 26, 2021
This is the bread and butter of the Titans offense. If things are going well for Tennessee this play is picking up 4-8 yard chunks and defenders are biting hard on these zone run play actions. Derrick Henry always has three options on this play, this is a good explanation of the basics of zone runs:
It's bang, bend, or bounce for @_fournette.— Jacksonville Jaguars (@Jaguars) July 9, 2018
RBs coach Tyrone Wheatley takes a closer look at zone running schemes. pic.twitter.com/zb4VZ7jWxb
This Titans offense isn’t going to give you a lot of groundbreaking, never-before-seen innovation. They might hand the ball off to a tight end on an end-around but that’s about as exotic as it will get. Having said that, they don’t need to be exotic to execute their plays effectively. This system works off of spacing and timing and forcing defenders into situations and decisions they can’t win 100% of the time. To run a system like that you have to have a quarterback who is capable of making those reads and distributing the ball effectively.
Ryan Tannehill played the best football of his career in 2020. The 32-year-old completed 65.5% of his passes for 3,819 yards, 33 touchdowns, and only seven interceptions. This season he is on pace for a more modest TD to INT ratio 17 TD’s to 12 INT’s but heading into the eighth game of the season, that could change in a hurry. In 2020 he also led the league with five, fourth-quarter comebacks and six game-winning drives. Tannehill has played really well with the game on the line and I’ll give you one guess as to why.
If you missed this one you might want to re-read the last section
Throwing to the running back sitting underneath the zone is absolutely automatic for Ryan Tannehill pic.twitter.com/wuhoFZSxSw— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 21, 2021
This play isn’t in the final two minutes, but his willingness to take the checkdown and let his backs and tight ends pick up yards after the catch is a huge reason why he’s been so successful in those situations. Teams are so focused on preventing the playmakers on this team from breaking open on a long pass, most have been willing to let Tannehill throw underneath. A lot of quarterbacks wouldn’t be as patient as he is but with as successful as Tannehill has been, it’s easy to understand why he just keeps hitting these check downs.
Example from week three
Titans QB vs Colts- hitting the back pic.twitter.com/zaVgVSucSI— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 26, 2021
The Colts defenders here stayed with the deep receiving option long enough to give Tannehill an easy completion underneath that the back turned into six points. The Colts have to do a better job than this if they hope to win this week.
Nice throw and catch pic.twitter.com/xDe0bnaMwv— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 21, 2021
One of the reasons that teams are willing to let them take those underneath completions is because Tannehill can throw downfield with accuracy to his big, fast receivers. Most teams choose to poison themselves slowly rather than die all at once.
Not just through the air
Titans QB running vs Colts pic.twitter.com/kwokwcu1s8— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 26, 2021
Ryan Tannehill isn’t Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray but he has led the league in yards lost due to sacks taken twice in his career. Wait... A season ago Tannehill had 266 yards rushing and 7 rushing touchdowns. In week three he had 56 yards on five carries.
It isn’t the focal point of his game but he can be dangerous
Titans QB vs Colts- long run pic.twitter.com/PaJilISH9C— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 26, 2021
I remember watching Tannehill run during the week three contest and feeling terrible that I predicted he would have a good day on the ground. I also felt terrible that I, a blogger who according to some Twitter users “live in my mother's basement”, predicted it and the Colts defensive staff- you know guys who are paid to predict those types of things and prevent them, did nothing to prevent it from happening at all.
Ryan Tannehill is a good quarterback. At this point, he might be the best quarterback in the AFC South. That said he and offensive coordinator Todd Downing don’t seem to be on the same page quite yet. Hopefully, for our sake, they never get there, because if they do this team will be tough to beat.
What do you want me to say about him? Do you need another person to tell you he’s really good?
He’s really big. He’s really fast. He’s really good.
He’s catching the ball like never before
Titans RB vs Colts- the screen pic.twitter.com/NOKpD4fqlC— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 26, 2021
Derrick Henry has never caught more than 19 passes in a season before. After seven games in 2021, he has 18 receptions. The Titans are getting him the ball at a historic rate.
So many touches
Titans RB vs Colts- He just keeps going pic.twitter.com/9mJTdoukGO— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 26, 2021
It really makes you wonder how long he can keep doing it.
Week three he was a battering ram that eventually broke through
Titans RB vs Colts- and going pic.twitter.com/FzHr8Mo0Aa— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 26, 2021
For the past several weeks I’ve been monitoring the Titans usage of Derrick Henry. Why would I do such a thing? Because despite popular opinion, I believe Derrick Henry is, in fact, a human being. The Titans seem to have zero qualms about running their best player’s career into the ground as they have given him the ball nearly 30 times per game so far. He’s on pace for 508 total touches, which would break the all-time record.
It isn’t just that they’re using Henry this much to win games. The object of each game is to win it and you do what you have to do to accomplish that goal. That said the Titans have continued to feed Henry the ball late in games with games well in hand and I just don’t understand why they would do that.
Last week the Titans took a 27-0 lead into halftime. Henry had 18 touches in the first half, the Chiefs scored three points in the second half. The Titans scored zero points in the second half. Derrick Henry wasn’t effective at all in the second half and he doesn’t play defense, why was he on the field? Why was he given 13 second-half touches? Why was it the same story against the Jags? Why isn’t anyone else asking these questions?
The man’s career as an effective back is ending (in spectacular fashion), right in front of our eyes, and Titans fans are just excited that he’s going to rush for 2,000+ yards again. Never mind the fact that he’s rushing for fewer yards per game this year than he was in 2020 and never mind that he’s going to need 100+ touches more this season to hit the same rushing totals he hit a season ago.
This is it for Derrick Henry. 2021 is the beginning of the end for one of the most dominant runners the NFL has ever seen. He’s still near his peak, so appreciate it as much as you can (he’s still a Titan so it’s still disgusting), while you can.
Derrick Henry cannot get tackled 500+ times this season and have it not impact his ability as a football player. For some people that is a controversial statement, but that’s the stance I’m taking. Henry is a special player in part because he is able to wear down a defense as a game wears on. With that said, you can’t expect anyone to be able to do it for a full NFL season.
Not every game should be won on the back of one player getting the ball 30+ times. If the Titans want to win on Sunday, Derrick Henry will need to touch the ball 30+ times and Derrick Henry should be upset about that.
The Titans drafted A.J. Brown with the 51st overall pick of the 2019 NFL draft. In each of his first two seasons, Brown has eclipsed 1000 receiving yards and has amassed 19 touchdowns. A.J. Brown is big and fast and is difficult to bring down in the open field, he’s a great young receiver.
This past offseason the Titans decided they needed to add talent at the position and traded a 2022 second-round pick and a 2024 fourth-round selection for two-time all-pro Julio Jones. The 32-year-old battled injuries in 2020 and has missed two games so far this season but when healthy and on the field, he doesn’t appear to be slowing down for this Titans team.
Another name that should be familiar to Colts fans is Chester Rogers. Rogers has found a home and a role with these Titans. That role saw him catch a touchdown pass in week three against the Colts.
Chester for six
Titans WR vs Colts- Chester having a day pic.twitter.com/yAyM9fqx88— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 26, 2021
I was the only member of the Chester Rogers fan club and even though I’m happy with the direction the Colts receiving corps is headed, part of me will never be able to quit Chester Rogers.
He is to me what Griff Whalen was to most Colts fans online five years ago. The difference is that Rogers has offered solid production to go along with his mediocre athleticism. Whalen just offered mediocre athleticism. What will complicate things for Rogers and the Titans is that he missed their week seven game against the Chiefs with a groin injury. If he can’t play the Titans won’t need to make sweeping changes to their game plan, but it matters to me!
At tight end we might hear the names of Anthony Firkser, Geoff Swaim, or MyCole Pruitt, the trio has combined for 8 catches for 72 yards. If the Colts get burned by a big day from these tight ends, the defense has even more problems than any of us could have imagined.
For as talented as these receivers are the Titans have struggled with dropped passes, dropping six against the Seahawks. That said, you can live with some drops when they do things like this:
The Colts do not have better DB's than the Seahawks so this is concerning. pic.twitter.com/Hjg1a5L4rj— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 20, 2021
This is why teams are willing to let the Titans beat them underneath.
Julio schemed open
Titans WR vs Colts- Julio pic.twitter.com/ztnwU2zEZQ— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 26, 2021
In week three we saw the Titans do things like this to try to get Julio in the open field with the ball in his hands. By the end of the game, both he and A.J. Brown had left with injuries. Brown didn’t register a catch so if you don’t know what it looks like when he has the ball here’s a sample:
What Brown can do for them
Brown sure looks decent pic.twitter.com/rzRCVtIiMQ— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 9, 2019
The Colts' defensive backs could be in for a long day.
Brown’s just big and tough to tackle, he’s not that fast right?
Titans WR- A.J. Brown is a problem pic.twitter.com/KkYu90C8sR— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) November 11, 2020
No. No, he is also fast.
In Julio and A.J.’s absence, fun things happened for the Colts
Titans pass catchers vs Colts- I'm not sure we can count on another one of these, but it was fun to watch pic.twitter.com/Ni1JAJayyh— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 26, 2021
Everyone knows the best way to catch the ball is with your body! Duh.
-that’s a joke, please don’t tell anyone that, thinking it’s true.
So many strips you’d think this was Popeyes
Titans WR's vs Colts- will probably be holding on to the ball for dear life this week pic.twitter.com/cKKMa0OTox— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 26, 2021
Stop booing, I know that was a dumb joke.
But the Colts' defense is on a crazy pace for causing turnovers. Darius Leonard is having an amazing season given the injury he is playing through and the rest of the Colts defense is feeding off of what he’s putting out. From here on out every team the Colts play will be prepared and holding on to the ball with everything they have on every down.
From left to right:
Taylor Lewan (maybe), Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis, and David Quessenberry
Rodger Saffold is probably the best member of this offensive line. He’s also been dealing with a shoulder injury and he only played 76% of the team's snaps in week seven, though that could have been because the game was in hand and why not give the guy some rest coming back from injury?
Ben Jones, Nate Davis, and David Quessenberry are all good run blockers.
They aren’t good pass protectors
I'd be willing to bet Matt Eberflus noticed this and will challenge right guard Nate Davis and whoever they trot out at tackle with similar looks. pic.twitter.com/9mcTfkmM11— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 20, 2021
Darius Leonard will be gunning for a chance to blitz this week.
Tannehill might get it from the inside too
Tannehill sacked by inside rush pic.twitter.com/i4mK6zQAKt— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 21, 2021
DeForest Buckner could have fun on the inside this week.
This is just bad
This is known as a lookout block. pic.twitter.com/wPML1PUjR0— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) September 21, 2021
The Titans were trying to set up a screen pass. Timing is important to the success of a screen. You have to give the quarterback enough time to get the pass off but you also have to release to get out into position to make a block for the guy catching the pass. What you can’t do is give the defensive lineman lined up over you on the play-side a completely free run at the quarterback. Way to go Nate Davis.
Taylor Lewan has missed multiple games this season
Taylor Lewan appeared to have tweaked something during pregame warm-ups. Here's a look at him limping off the field. #Titans pic.twitter.com/uSFpO6FofJ— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_NFL) September 19, 2021
I can’t blame him, I’d be limping after that week one performance too.
Then two weeks ago Lewan speared an opponent in a pile, knocking himself unconscious. Titans fans don’t like the fact that he did it to himself on a dirty play.
Titans fans want to believe he tripped
Taylor Lewan would probably have been fine if he hadn't jumped head first into a pile.#Bills #Titans#MNF pic.twitter.com/2hl66vDWhh— Chris Shepherd (@NFLscheme) October 19, 2021
I’m not buying it
Except he puts that left foot all the way down, takes a step, doesn't try to replant his right foot, launches into the pile and intentionally lowers his head to make contact. He made zero effort to avoid hitting his head on a Bills player.— Chris Shepherd (@NFLscheme) October 19, 2021
He hurt himself playing dirty.
One last jab at Lewan
If I were #Titans starting left tackle Taylor Lewan I would have "hurt" myself in warmups too after this week one performance I'm watching.— Chris Shepherd (@NFLscheme) September 21, 2021
I'm a little surprised he didn't pull a Vontae Davis and just retire at halftime. pic.twitter.com/YiTw9Mwgwt
Believe it or not, he wasn’t injured in the last screengrab, he was just flat on his back during a play while under contract with an NFL football team.
If you were going to put together a blooper reel for the 2021 NFL season this Titans offensive line would be the headliner when in pass protection. But every now and then they come through for their running back.
Henry doesn’t need much room
Titans OL vs Colts- 8 men in the box pic.twitter.com/OTuHJ1wbV7— Not Chris Shepherd's Burner Account (@NotShepsBurner) October 26, 2021
When the Titans have protected Tannehill this season the Titans have won. When they’ve allowed more than three sacks in a game, they’ve lost. In the past three weeks, the Titans have allowed just four sacks. Part of that is scheme, part of that is Tannehill’s mobility, and part of that is the fact that they’re giving Derrick Henry the ball 30 times a game. There just aren’t that many opportunities for opponents to get to the QB.
This offensive line plays better than the sum of its parts so getting favorable one-on-one matchups will be key but given the Colts' inability to rush the passer, at all, they might all look like hall of famers this week.
This is a good Titans offense. Sure that statement is based almost entirely on the fact that Derrick Henry makes up the majority of their offense and without him, this team would be awful. But the fact is, Derrick Henry is on this team so this offense is good.
In week three the Colts defense wasn’t doing much of anything well. In their past four games, the Colts have allowed just 89 rushing yards per game. Derrick Henry is coming off of a game against the Chiefs that saw him rush for 86 yards on 29 carries.
If the Colts can repeat that kind of performance, their chances of keeping the Titans from scoring a lot of points will be significantly higher. We’ll see if Matt Eberflus and his staff learned anything from their week three matchup. Hopefully, his defense has a better outing this time around.