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2019 AFC South Preview: Tennessee Titans

The 2019 AFC South Season Preview begins with the Tennessee Titans. TITAN UP, or something. I don’t know if they are still doing that anymore.

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Indianapolis Colts v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images




These are the Tennessee Titans’ records over the last three seasons. In 2016 everyone criticized and scowled at Mike Mularkey’s exotic methmouth offense as they scored 381 points and had an offensive DVOA of 10.8%. In 2017 Tennessee followed that up by scoring 334 points and had an offensive DVOA of -2.2%, and came back to beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs thanks to some wild Derrick Henry runs and a Marcus Mariota selfsuck touchdown. Following a Divisional Round head kick in by the New England Patriots, the Titans’ offensive auteur, too advanced for the current NFL, got Mularkey’d.

Last season they brought in Mike Vrabel to lead the men, and Matt LaFleur to run the offense. After two years of piling on the Titans’ run heavy scheme the Titans’ young hot offense scored 310 points, had an offensive DVOA of -5.1%, ran the ball way too much, and Marcus Mariota had his worst season since 2015. Life is funny ain’t it.

The problem with the Titans last year is they weren’t great at anything. They lacked a core competency. The offensive line was no longer dominant. The cornerback play was whatever as it tried to cauterize a bleeding pass defense led by the league’s worst edge rushing duo. The wide receiver group was young and interesting, but unproductive. Mariota spent the season dealing with foot, neck, and elbow injuries, until a stinger suffered against Washington knocked him out of week 16. He was unable to recover in a win and get in home game against the Colts in week 17. Blaine Gabbert started instead. The Titans lost 33-17.

This is the result of General Manager Jon Robinson spreading the team’s resources across the entirety of the roster, instead of building around his best players, and developing dominant position groups. He drafted Tyler Conklin (RT), Derrick Henry (RB), Corey Davis (WR), Adoree Jackson (CB), Rashaan Evans (LB), Harold Landry (EDGE), and Jeffery Simmons (DT) in the first two rounds. He used free agency to bring in Ben Jones (C); and a horde of ex-Patriots: Logan Ryan (CB), Malcolm Butler (CB), and Dion Lewis (RB); and signed Adam Humphries (WR), Rodger Saffold (LG), and Cameron Wake (EDGE) this last offseason. The talent is slathered evenly across a team that lacks top end talent, and the results have spawned mediocre football.

The question for the Titans this season is if they can go from mediocre to good, and maybe, just maybe, if enough things break right, a good team can turn 9-7 into an overachieving 11-5. For this to happen they’ll need a component or two of their team to blossom into something that can be described as dominant. The most likely candidate to climb the stairs to the third floor of this cowboy bar is—you’ve heard this a hundred times before—their rushing attack.

Last season the Titans finished 11th in rush offense DVOA at -2.3%. This does come with some major caveats though. Derrick Henry was 2nd in rushing DVOA at 23.1%. He had 215 carries for 1,059 yards, 12 touchdowns, and he was T-6th in the league in broken tackles with 55. Dion Lewis had a rushing offense DVOA of -20.1%, which ranked 43rd. Lewis had 155 attempts and averaged 1.6 less yards a carry then Henry did.

The LaFleur led rushing attack was mismanaged. The Titans ran the ball way too often. They were 9th in the league in rushing attempts with 456. According to Football Outsiders 2019 Almanac, they ranked 2nd in first half run percentage (43%), 4th on first down (55%), 1st in second and long situations (44%), and 3rd in run percentage when trailing in the second half (37%).

Additionally, the Titans faced the third largest average box on offense. Opponents had an average of 6.38 defenders in the box. The greatest predictor of rushing success is the number of defenders in the box and field position. Henry ran against 8 defenders or more on 32.09% of his rush attempts (8th), and Dion Lews was in the same situation on 25.81% of his runs (15th). Tennessee ran the ball, like, so many times, and they did so in inefficient situations.

The bright spot for this run offense was Henry, and new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith will look to carry what he did for the last four weeks of the 2018 season into 2019. To end the season Henry had 87 carries for 585 yards, 7 touchdowns, and averaged 6.72 yards an attempt, including an absurd 99 yard touchdown run where three consecutive stiff arms took him across the universe.

The biggest difference in Henry’s play was his ability to run the ball between the guards. Previous iterations of himself looked to bounce everything out wide, liquidate a defensive back’s jaw, and then carry on for an enormous gain. He was boom or bust despite being 6’3” 240 pounds. He played like a 5’10” fifth grader who stood at the three point line instead of slopping around in the post. By looking out wide for the cutback he turned too many seven yard gains into one yard swarming losses. In 2016 Henry averaged 3.62 yards an attempt on middle runs (between the guards), in 2017 he averaged 2.69, and last season this number jumped up to 4.5 yards a carry. For comparison, in the same offense, behind the same offensive line, Lewis averaged 3.07 yards a carry.

Too many runs looked like this throughout his career. The playside double team creates first level movement all the way to the linebacker, and the tight end cracks down on the safety in the box. The wide receiver gets turned wide and the safety sets the edge. Henry has Jalen Ramsey in the hole. Rather than wiggle or go through him to pick up seven yards, he tries to cut wide, ends up in the same situation and gets tangled up with three defenders.

During the last month of the 2018 season Henry finally found the balance between gathering everything he could between the tackles and bouncing wide for the homerun. The results were life changing for him. He’s a combination of brutal size and soothsaying vision. Reads are diagnosed quickly, and he wiggles in the hole to set up blocks that create more one v. one broken tackle oppurtuntities.

Here, Henry makes Myles Jack flop around while he’s still in the backfield. This allows Jones to stay on the double team longer to ensure vertical movement, and makes his block on Jack flatter and easier. From there Henry makes one cut in the open field to score.

Defensive backs are in for a soulstone crushing tackle attempt when Tennessee blocks the first two levels of the defense. Henry is an absolute terror for them to bring down. He can break tackles in every way imaginable. He can juke to a different area code, he can pummel them with stiff arms on the edge, or ram through them straight ahead.

Even linebackers have to go low to take him on. A chop of the leg isn’t enough. His yoga mat balance allows him to carry forward after contact for extra stumbling yards.

And even when the blocking is competent instead of extraordinary he can carry the defense along with him to suck up more yards than seems possible. Even defensive linemen struggle taking him down.

What Henry did over the last month of the season is unsustainable. He won’t average 6.72 yards a carry, but what is important, and what he could even improve on, is inside running production. Henry maybe be able to get to five yards a carry on these runs. Add this to the occasional perfectly executed obscene cutback outside, and Henry could have a superstar season.

Dion Lewis should have a better rushing 2019 too. Last season was inefficient for him. Most of the blame can be placed on LaFleur. The Titans predominantly ran out of two tight end sets against big boxes. Lewis thrives in space. He doesn’t live in the pit like Henry. Lewis will have more carries like this if they run more outside zone out of 11 personnel against base defenses.

Tennessee is without their two starting guards from last season. Quinton Spain is in Buffalo. Josh Kline is in Minnesota. Rodger Saffold and Kevin Panphile are replacing them. It will be interesting to see how Panphile does after spending his career backing up and bouncing around the league. If it doesn’t work rookie guard Nate Davis is sitting there. Saffold is an outside zone blocking extraordinaire and incredible at the second level, and was one of the reasons why the Rams had an all-time great rushing offense last season, well aside from Sean McVay’s ability to run the ball in the perfect situations.

The biggest hurdle Tennessee’s rushing attack will face is Taylor Lewan’s suspension. He’ll miss the first four games of the season. He’s a dependable pass blocker, but he’s much more than dependable in the run game. He sucks up defenders in individual blocks and can create first level movement on his own.

Cleveland, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, and Atlanta are Tennessee’s first four opponents. Aside from Atlanta, these should be above average run defenses. They’ll be heartbroken and missing blocks like this when Dennis Kelly is in office. Lewan’s suspension is going to haunt this rushing attack until he returns.

The run offense will need to be great in 2019 for this offense to work. They don’t have a passing attack they can rely on. It’s year five for Marcus Mariota. This is it for him. He still has yet to get his head above those murky muddy mediocre waters. Last season was supposed to be his break out season after shedding Mularkey’s skin. Mariota instead threw only 11 touchdowns, was sacked 42 times, and had a passing DVOA of -8.5%.

The scheme was part of the problem. There were too many ineffective screens and third and long short passes. Too often passes would land in the middle of two receivers without either one having an idea who the target was. There hasn’t been enough consistency from Mariota on his end either. He combines precise sideline throws, and lovely seam strikes, with overthrows and interceptions. The redzone precision hasn’t been there since 2016 either.

Mariota has another opportunity with a new offensive coordinator to prove himself yet again. Arthur Smith, the former tight ends coach, has been in Tennessee watching Mariota play in three different offenses. He maybe able to synthesize the best of those offenses, and put together one that makes sense in the post-modern NFL. All that’s known for now is Tennessee should be outside zone heavy again, and this is also the best conglomeration of wide receiver talent Mariota has had: A.J. Brown, Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, Adam Humphries, Delanie Walker, Jonnu Smith, and Dion Lewis, have a variety of skill sets and can attack secondaries in unique ways.

The immediate improvement that’s sitting there for Mariota is downfield passing. He attempted only 55 downfield passes last season, which ranked 31st, and behind quarterbacks like Blake Bortles and Alex Smith. His average depth of target last season was 8.1 yards (21st). The average completed air yards on his passes dropped from 7.7 to 6.7 under Mularkey, and tumbled all the way down to 5.3 last season. Part of this was because of LaFleur’s playcalling, but Mariota often took the checkdown with the deeper target on the same side of the field open. Brown can play either in the slot or out wide, and has the speed you want for deep heaves. Davis is a monstrous sideline receiver with the ability to go up and get it. Add constant play action to a great rushing attack, and the opportunities for quick strikes should be available for him to take advantage of.

It’s impossible to project Mariota for 2019. Every preseason the same sort of narrative is set in place, and it ends in disappointment and stat lines like: 12/20 88 yards 0:0. On top of all this are the injuries. Every season Mariota is expected to miss two to three games, and banged up for another ten, which are used to excuse his poor performances. This offseason he’s added weight to put him up to 230. He’s also a surprising 6’4”. The added muscle won’t matter until he learns how to stop taking hits and sacks reminiscent of rowdy ECW chair smashes.

His backup this season is Ryan Tannehill. The Titans will no longer have to resort to Gabbert, Matt Cassel, or Zach Mettenberger when his bones ache. The investment is now over. This is the last year of Mariota’s contract. If he misses a game this season, he may never get the chance to be the supreme leader of blue jean nation again, if Tannehill wins a singular game, and breaks open the offense with the same deep pass success he showed at times in Miami.

On defense, the Titans have two great players. Kevin Byard is one of the best free safeties in football, and Jurrell Casey is a member of the third tier of great interior defenders along with Kenny Clark, Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson, and others, the tiers that don’t include Aaron Donald or Fletcher Cox’s individual pyramid slices.

Casey was the best source of pass rush the Titans had from their front. Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan only occupied time and space. They provided nothing on the edge. Together they combined for 2 sacks, 13 quarterback hits, and 32 pressures, blah. Orakpo is now baking cupcakes and Morgan decided to retire after being unable to find a job this past spring. Because of this Dean Pees had to manufacture a pass rush of his own. 50% of the Titans sacks came from the second level, and they blitzed a defensive back on 12% of their plays, the 6th highest rate.

The Titans’ defense was at its best when it was aggressive and blitz heavy. Jayon Brown is an excellent blitzer. Casey and DaQuan Jones are great at creating open rushing lanes by being the hammer on stunts. Rashaan Evans is one of the better run stoppers around, and has the profile of a player who should be able to blitz some. Their entire secondary can get after the quarterback too.

Tennessee’s pass defense suffered when they only rushed four and played coverage. The Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, Adoree Jackson trio doesn’t have a lockdown corner in the entire group. Ryan still hasn’t had an interception in Tennessee. Butler is susceptible to double moves and can struggle in man coverage. Jackson is really fast, and is a great shoestring tackler, but hasn’t entirely figured out the physicality and footwork that comes along with the position.

The Titans’ pass defense was the antithesis of pass coverage being more important that pass rush, an offseason theory propagated by Pro Football Focus. Tennessee’s secondary graded well according to PFF, but their cornerbacks had low success rates, they ranked 26th in pressure rate, and had a pass defense DVOA of 9.4% (21st).

The pass rush will be better this season. It’s kind of impossible for it not to be. The Titans are going to be a flash off the edge. Harold Landry has Pro Bowl potential. His outside rip is killer. He has great play recognition and can sniff out screens and rummage around the field to play the ball.

The Titans also added Cameron Wake this offseason. At age 36 he still had 6 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and 37 pressures. He’s extraterrestrial. Investing in a 37 year old edge rusher is a risky move at a position that’s vital to this team’s success, but Wake has been productive every year of his NFL career. Expect a lot of jet edge rushes as both Wake and Landry try to beat the tackle to the point of attack, and then bend and rip to the quarterback.

On the defensive line the Titans have been dying for an interior rusher who could compliment Casey, or one more elite pass rusher that could push this rush over the top. They have never been able to find this, and only fielded a commendable pass rush once, when Orakpo and Morgan finally converged to have a great season. They may have found this player in first round pick Jeffery Simmons. Unfortunately for Tennessee, he’ll probably miss the entirety of his rookie season after tearing his ACL in the predraft process.

If Wake struggles, Landry needs another year in the slow cooker, or something happens to Casey, Mr. Pees will have to do the same thing he did last season to create even a semblance of pressure. On the other side of the coin, if Landry and Wake can even create the same level of production that Orkapo and Morgan had in 2016, when combined with a blitz heavy approach, the Titans could finally have an above average pass rush once again. This would be tremendous for the ball hawking Byard, and it could resuscitate their cornerback room.

If the Titans have a top five rushing attack, they should compete for a playoff spot, but it won’t guarantee them one. The passing attack is vague. Mariota is injury prone and has never done it, and the same can be said for his backup. They have a new offensive coordinator yet again. The defense will probably skitter around mediocre. And to top it all off, the Titans are projected to play the 11th toughest schedule this year. Luck will need to shine on the Titans in their quest to erupt from mediocre to good.

I expect them to play better, and measure better performance wise, but see their win total drop off by one.

Prediction: 8-8