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2021 Opponent Scouting Report: Week 3 Titans Offense- Derrick Henry isn’t done yet

Titans fans hate me because I tell the truth about their team.

Tennessee Titans v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Overview

On September 26th, 2021 the Indianapolis Colts will travel to Nashville to take on the Tennessee Titans. In this Week three match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

Since the AFC South’s formation in 2002 the Titans have won the division just three times, their most recent coming a season ago. The Texans have won the South, six times and the Jaguars have won it once. While the Titans have certainly had more success in the past few years it’s important to keep in mind that our Colts have won the South nine times and that the next time the Titans, Jags or Texans win a Super Bowl, it will be their first. Now that Titans fans are good and upset, I’ll go ahead and remind everyone that the past doesn’t have much of anything to do with this week’s game, but just don’t let Titans fans push you around, remember their team hasn’t really won anything... ever.

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


Offensive System

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 stayed on track in game to work specific concepts in order 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 Shananhan-esque play action roll out concepts.

From 2019

The Titans system has been (and still is) a Shananhan 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.

The Titans made “the new guy” Todd Downing, promoting the tight ends coach to offensive coordinator, this is his first job as an O.C.. Since Downing has never had play calling duties before, the only information we have on the 41 year old comes from the first two weeks of the season. Surely Downing wouldn’t depart from the play action pass heavy system that helped these Titans become a top five ranked offense in 2020, right?

In week one the Titans ran 64 offensive plays, Todd Downing used play action on five of them. In week two, he had used play action nine times in the first half alone. It seems that Downing got the message, sort of. In the second half (including overtime) Downing called just four more play action passes. 13 play action passes out of 88 offensive plays is still a far cry from where the Titans offense used to be. Ultimately they got a win in week two which is most of what Downing is worried about. The roll out concepts are obviously still on the play-sheet so it’s entirely possible the Titans will continue to work them into their repertoire as the season goes on.

The system itself doesn’t seem much different that in years past and one thing that is still firmly in place is the overall simplicity of the offense that quarterback Ryan Tannehill never has to overthink.

I really thought the blocking was the most interesting part of this play

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

And he almost always takes it.

No one is covering the short middle, so why not?

Again

And again

Week one, too

Tight ends can get it too

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.

There have been some bumps in the road

The Arizona Cardinals are tough to game plan for, on one side you have to try to block up Chandler Jones, on the other side you have to try to block JJ Watt. That’s a tough task for anyone but the Titans plan was to try to reach block Watt here with a tight end on the backside. Obviously I would rather try that on the back side before trying on the playside, but either way, you’re going to have a bad time. They could have tried to wham him with a tight end from the other side of the formation. The result might not have been that much different but it would at least give your tight end a fighting chance to make Watt take a less direct path to the ball carrier.

Mike Vrabel loves a good trick play

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

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:

This Titans offense isn’t going to give you a lot of ground breaking, 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.


Quarterback

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. 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

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.

The alternative

One of the reasons that teams are willing to let them take those underneath completions is because Tannehill can throw down field 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

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. Through two games this year he has 44 rushing yards and a touchdown.

It isn’t the focal point of his game but he can be effective

If football worked on a perfect schedule of averages from one season to the next, the next clip I’m giving you would mean that Tannehill was going to throw an interception this week.

But I wouldn’t bet on it

Based on his seven interceptions a season ago, he might be due to throw one this weekend. Although if he’s going to stay on pace for all of his passing stats last season he’s also due to throw five touchdowns as he’s only thrown one so far this season.

I think I’m glad football doesn’t work that way.

Ryan Tannehill is a very good quarterback. At this point he’s 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.


Running Back

You’re likely to hear two names at running back this weekend for these Titans, and Colts fans might even recognize both. We all know Derrick Henry and we’ll get to the reigning back to back rushing champion after we talk about Jeremy McNichols. Back in 2018 McNichols spent one game with the Indianapolis Colts. He ran the ball twice, one went for seven yards, the other went for a loss of three. In 2019 he was in Jacksonville and he spent 2020 with these Titans. Last season he ran 47 times for 204 yards.

This season he has played 44 snaps, received three hand offs and caught six passes. Only one of those handoffs weren’t in garbage time. Either way the Titans have thrown the ball 93% of the time when McNichols is on the field. With it being so early in the season, that number is sure to drop some, but if Derrick Henry isn’t in the game there’s a good chance the Titans are going to throw the ball.

There’s not much I can tell you about the kind of player Derrick Henry is that you haven’t already been told. He’s big, he’s fast and since the Titans have based their offense around giving him the ball on zone runs, consistently, he’s been an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses.

Since 2018 the Colts have four wins and two losses against the Titans. In the four wins the Colts defense has allowed Derrick Henry to rush for an average of 81 yards. The most yards Henry has rushed for in a Colts win was last season when he rushed for 103. In the Colts two losses they have allowed Henry to rush for 163.5 yards per game.

Normally this is where I would tell you that rushing statistics are misleading because the team that wins the game, often does have more rushing yards than their opponent but they aren’t winning because of their rushing attack, they’re winning because most often they’ve thrown the ball effectively and they use the ground game as a way to eat up clock as they’re trying to end the game they’re already winning. Normally this is what I would say, but these Titans might be different.

Their entire offense runs through Derrick Henry. When Henry is rolling, so is the rest of the Titans offense. In week one Derrick Henry never got going on the ground and the rest of the Titans offense sputtered along with him, eking out 13 points against the Cardinals. Week two against the Seahawks things started the same way for both Henry and the Titans. At halftime the score was 24 to 9 and Derrick Henry had 15 carries for 35 yards.

In the third quarter Henry started seeing some running room, picking up 40 yards on seven carries. The Titans offense scored its first touchdown of the day. Once the fourth quarter came around Derrick Henry did what he so often does and outran everyone for a massive, 60 yard touchdown run. The Titans offense scored 14 points in the fourth quarter. Henry had 82 yards on 9 carries. The Titans offense sputtered until Derrick Henry started moving the ball on the ground.

As crazy as it sounds the Titans offense, in 2021, runs through Derrick Henry. Ryan Tannehill has to read the defense and distribute the ball but if Henry isn’t effective, Tannehill struggles to do his job.

Titans fans are the worst

I captioned this clip with “Most of Derrick Henry’s yards.” and some Titans fan thought I actually couldn’t do math. He let me know that 60 yards is not half of 182 and he let me know I should prepare to “get rolled” this week. I won’t be rolling anywhere. I’m not one of those former offensive linemen who quit playing the game and lost all the weight (I cultivated this mass, it’s mine). No one is pushing me anywhere I don’t want to go, not only because I’m physically difficult to move but mostly because I’ll be watching the game from behind my desk... so yeah, I don’t need to prepare for any rolling, but thanks for the suggestion, random Titans fan.

To any Titans fan reading this right now, that was a joke. I know you don’t understand that because you were probably educated in Tennessee*, just know that I understand he was implying that my team (the Colts) would “get rolled” by his team (the Titans). If*- you’re a Titans fan let me know in the comments where I can send your coloring book this Christmas. I know the one I sent out last year was too hard, I’m sorry, a couple Titans fans grunted at me that they had a hard time staying in the lines so here’s a preview of the free coloring book I’m sending to all Titans fans who request one:

You can do it this year guys, I believe in you.

Derrick Henry weighs more than our linebackers

Henry doesn’t have the best contact balance through the hole, he doesn’t always run like he’s 250 pounds but that’s also part of what makes him special. He is almost 250 pounds and he’s really fast. He isn’t always the best short yardage back but sometimes being big and fast is all you need and when he gets a head of steam built up, good luck stopping the guy.

It’s been too long, I don’t remember my fullback rules

Here Henry doesn’t like the path his fullback has taken and he chooses to cut upfield. Had the fullback gone inside, or Henry followed him outside, he probably would have had a chance to have a decent gain on the play just from the additional block he might have had.

Henry is usually a decent blocker

Here he prevents Tannehill from throwing the football, I’ll chalk this one up to it being week one with his quarterback getting murdered on every other drop-back.

I don’t want to say anything good about the Titans, ever, but outside of the quarterback position I don’t believe there was a single player as important to their teams success as Derrick Henry was in 2020. So far in 2021 he is on pace to carry the ball 442 times for 2,040 yards and 25 touchdowns. While 442 is an insane amount of carries, I actually don’t think it’s impossible for Henry to hit those numbers. He ran for 2,027 yards last season and this year he has one more game than he did a year ago. If he does run 442 times he might die on the field in the 17th game, but if anyone could do it, it would be someone built like Derrick Henry.

*It’s a joke. Mostly.


Pass Catchers

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 off season 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 the two time all-pro Julio Jones. The 32 year old battled injuries in 2020 but is healthy and 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. Through two games Rogers has the third most targets on the team behind Brown and Jones.

At tight end we might hear the names of Anthony Firkser, Geoff Swaim or MyCole Pruitt, the trio have 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:

This is why teams are willing to let the Titans beat them underneath.

Julio still has it

Sure it got overturned but what a play from Jones.

What Brown can do for them

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?

Just pray for the Colts secondary. It’s all we can do.


Offensive Line

If you’ve made it this far you’re probably hoping for some good news and oh, boy have you come to the right place. These guys stink!

Three time pro bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan missed last week’s game after injuring his surgically repaired knee in warmups. Lewan had possibly the worst game of his life in week one. Normally I hate to kick anyone when they’re down, but I’m happy to pile on a Titans player, so here’s a clip:

Budda Baker is 5’10” and weighs 195 pounds and he throws Taylor Lewan on his back. I for one hope and pray Lewan feels good enough to play in week three.

Filling in for Lewan was Ty Sambrailo and all things considered, he played about as well as you could expect anyone to play after finding out they would be starting at left tackle less than an hour before kick off.

At left guard the Titans hope to start Roger Saffold, but he also missed time last week with an injury, in his place Aaron Brewer did his best.

At center Ben Jones, right guard Nate Davis and right tackle David Quessenberry have each been on the field for all 152 Titans offensive snaps so far this season.

Maybe they should try missing time too

Darius Leonard will be gunning for a chance to blitz this week.

They slid protection away from the backup left tackle

But it’s okay because they let a tight end block a pass rusher.

Live look at Kwity Paye:

This would be a great time to get this young man his first career sack. Maybe multiple sacks.

But Tannehill can get it from the inside too

Of course this won’t keep DeForest Buckner from getting in on the action. Nate Davis, Roger Saffold, Large Traffic Cone, should all be roughly the same for Buckner, unless this offense has been sandbagging all of their good protection schemes waiting for this week three matchup.

Spoiler alert: that’s not it

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.

I don’t even feel bad for Lewan

Ha

It’s the same, but different

Ha ha

This is absolutely pathetic

The fact that Lamm is still on this team is really interesting.

How we all found out that Taylor Lewan wasn’t playing last Sunday

I can’t blame him, I’d be limping after that week one performance too.

One last jab at Lewan

Ha ha ha

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. It’s really terrible and I don’t really understand how anyone could have much hope that it will improve all that much this season.


Final Thoughts

This Titans offense is an embarrassment of riches. Frankly they’ve done a better job of assembling offensive skill position players than anyone in the AFC South and nearly all of the AFC. But this offensive line is so bad it’s going to hold the rest of this offense back until they figure out how to overcome those issues, something they might not be able to do.

The Colts defense has to fill rush lanes, stay disciplined, maintain backside contain and limit Derrick Henry’s effectiveness on the ground. Keep him under 105 yards on the ground and the Colts will have a real shot to win this one, no matter who is playing quarterback for Indy.

The Titans had a good second half against the Seahawks but don’t let Titans fans convince you it was some dominant performance.

The Seahawks lost more than the Titans won

Winning by a touchdown with less than six minutes to play, your defense gets a stop on fourth and two. You send your offense out, they need to get 35 to 40 yards in order to be in field goal range and put this game on ice. You send out Russell Wilson and a really talented offense and instead of getting those yards (or any yards), you go three and out, punt the ball away and lose the game.

The Titans deserve credit for battling back and winning the game, but the Seahawks let them back in it and wet the bed when they had a chance to finish them off. The Titans are a quality opponent but they’re not in the same tier as our last opponent, the Los Angeles Rams. This one could go either way but these aren’t the same Titans we saw last year.