Digesting the Titans

Happy Friday, friends.  I hope you enjoyed Tom Gower’s thoughts on the Titans that we posted earlier today.  He’s a respected writer who contributes to Football Outsiders, and we’re happy to have his work appear at our humble site.  My work likewise appeared over at his site, and I only hope that the readers at Total Titans find our contribution up to their normal standards.

Since Tom gave us some Titans thoughts, I said to myself, “Self, maybe you should go light, or even skip the Digesting piece, and just leave it to their “inside” guy who’s really familiar with the team.”  I considered doing so for a few minutes, but y’all know me: I like excess.  More is better than less.  That said, here are some observations on the Titans:

Game Watched: Week 2, Titans vs. Baltimore Ravens

Titans Defense

a.  The Titans have a really interesting Defensive Line.  Tennessee lost their best pass rusher Jason Babin to free agency, by which he followed their highly respected former D-line coach Jim Washburn to Phildelphia.  Still, this group generates some rush by committee.  The most impressive players to me last Sunday were DEs Dave Ball and Derrick Morgan and DT Karl Klug, who each recorded one of the three sacks that Tennessee got for the game.  Ball started at RE and generally got excellent push on most snaps.  He’s an interesting combination of strength and quickness, and he also flashed to me in last year’s game.  Morgan was Tennessee’s first-round pick in 2010, and he missed most of his rookie season.  He primarily plays as a rotation LE, and while he’s not a fast-twitch guy, he can beat a RT more often than not.  Klug is a rookie from Iowa who was a fifth-round pick this year, and frankly I’d never heard of him until I saw him playing in this film, and he stood out.

b.  The Titans used nine D-linemen in this game, and it appears that they’re pretty serious about rotating them and staying fresh.  As a viewing guide, here was their snap breakdown from Sunday:

POS Num Name Snaps
DE 98 Dave Ball 46
DT 91 Jason Jones 44
DE 90 Derrick Morgan 35
DT 97 Karl Klug 31
DT 99 Jurrell Casey 26
DT 93 Shaun Smith 23
DE 96 Malcolm Sheppard 9
DT 94 Sen'Derrick Marks 4
DT 69 Zach Clayton 4

Clearly, the guys the Titans trust to hit the QB are Ball, Jones, Morgan, and Klug, even though Morgan and Klug didn’t start Sunday.  (Casey and Smith did.)  Jones is a good player historically, but I thought he had a down game on Sunday.

c.  The starting LBs for the Titans are WLB Will Witherspoon, MLB Barrett Ruud and SLB Akeem Ayers.  Backup Gerald McRath actually played 26 snaps, so he deserves mention as well.  Ruud is the every-down guy, and the other three split the remaining snaps, with Ayers primarily being in on run downs and Witherspoon having a mix, with McRath’s primary contribution coming in the passing game.

This is a solid group, but none of the players is a star.  Ruud mostly looked good in coverage, but he failed to get enough depth a couple of times in zone drops and allowed completions right behind him.  Witherspoon, Ayers and McRath all played a pretty solid game, but none stood out either well or poorly.  All of these LBs are proficient at dropping into zone coverage, and they mostly set deep when they do.

d.  Cortland Finnegan looked really good in the Ravens game, and so did the other primary CBs Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner.  Finnegan is the best player of the bunch, and he’s down with the trend of moving your best guy into the slot in nickel situations too.  McCourty and Verner each had interceptions in this game, and the trio looked pretty formidable.

I’ll qualify that by saying that Anquan Boldin looks pretty washed-up so far this season, and Lee Evans still isn’t 100% healthy.  I don’t think Verner is going to want to sit on a deep out that Brandon Lloyd runs (assuming Lloyd can run at full capacity) and ignore the threat of the deep route like he did against Evans.  A fully healthy Evans would have been going for six and laughing all the way.

e.  The Safeties are Michael Griffin and Jordan Babineaux, and both players played all 56 defensive snaps.  Neither did anything statistically noteworthy, but along with the rest of the back 7, they do a really nice job of reducing intermediate passing angles when they play zone.  The CBs and LBs tend to drop deeper than most Cover-2 schemes do, and that makes it hard for guys like Joe Flacco or Kyle Orton, who do their best work in the intermediate area.

I really think this defense can be run on with some success, and that Baltimore didn’t try hard enough to do so.  Part of that was early field position troubles getting them off their plan, and part was just bad playcalling.  The Titans never had to prove that they could stuff the run with seven guys, and they were really just allowed to keep seven in the box with no penalty. 

Titans Offense

a.  The star of the game was QB Matt Hasselbeck, yet another QB who is appreciably better than Kyle Orton.  Hasselbeck was running a lot of West Coast concepts and getting the ball out at the top of his third and fifth step depending on the play.  He was delivering the ball with appropriate velocity and accuracy, and the interception that he threw was the result of a tipped ball at the line of scrimmage. 

The Ravens aren’t actually a good pressure team, and if you can block Terrell Suggs, which Tennessee’s Michael Roos mostly did, they struggle to bother QBs.  Hasselbeck had a really clean jersey on Sunday, and he threw strikes throughout the game.

b.  Chris Johnson got his money, and he’s really struggling to show that he’s worth it yet.  I think he looks a step slow to the hole compared to 2009, and I’m not sure that it’s conditioning related, where it’s just going to magically improve any minute.  He looks like a guy for whom heavy workloads may be starting to catch up.  He’s dangerous in any case, and he needs to be accounted for.  Backup Javon Ringer made a huge play Sunday with a 10-yard TD run on fourth-and-1.  Just having Ringer in the backfield helped to sell the pass, but Ringer took a misdirection pitch and ran untouched to the end zone to break a 10-10 tie.  He’s not nearly as threatening as Johnson, but you can’t let up with your gap discipline when he’s in the game, either.  FB Quinn Johnson played 19 snaps, and only a little more than half (11) were run plays.  You have to account for him in the passing game.

c.  At WR, the Titans have a supremely talented player in Kenny Britt.  He’s off to a huge start to the season, and he’s a physical nightmare for just about any CB in the NFL.  An interesting thing that the Titans like to do with Britt is to play him away from the concepts they run, and then go to him against a cleared-out backside of the defense.  Let me show you what I mean by that.

Do you remember this diagram from last week, when I was talking about the triangle concept?  In that discussion, the backside was out of the read.  For the Titans, their favorite thing to do is to go to Britt on the backside against a singled-up RCB (who is usually the defense’s second-best guy) after getting the FS flowing to the concept (right) side.  Hasselbeck is really good at using his eyes to the right to influence that FS and then coming back left on time.

Another thing that the Titans like to do with Britt is run a smoke pass to him.  That will tend to come when he isn’t by himself on the outside, and it will look something like this:

Britt is a really difficult guy to tackle, and the Titans can overload one side to give him running room in space with blocking, especially when they catch LBs sitting back five yards off the line.  You wouldn't likely see this against the 4-3 Under look that TJ broke down so well yesterday

d.  The other WRs are Nate Washington and Lavelle Hawkins, with Marc Mariani (mostly a dangerous return guy) getting a few snaps as a fourth WR too.  Washington has good speed, and Hawkins runs solid routes and catches the ball pretty well. Neither is really that frightening to me.

e.  The guy who scares the bejesus out of me is TE Jared Cook.  Brother Gower had this to say the other day about Cook, vis-à-vis a potential matchup with Brian Dawkins.

Until earlier this year, I honestly thought Brian Dawkins had retired after the 2009 season. If he ends up in coverage on Jared Cook, MISMATCH! The other starting safety is a rookie, Rahim Moore, who was probably overdrafted out of need.

I think that the degree of the mismatch may be somewhat overstated, and I think Moore is definitely living up to his Draft position, but I agree with the main idea in that Cook is really dangerous downfield.  He’s tall and fast with excellent ball skills, and if he ever stays healthy and puts it all together, he could be comparable to Jermichael Finley.  The Titans also use old friend Daniel Graham and Craig Stevens, primarily as blockers.  Stevens actually got the most snaps of the trio with 45 on Sunday.  When he’s on the field, it’s about twice as likely to be a run as a pass.  With Graham it’s even more likely to be a run (14 of 16 snaps were).  Conversely, when Cook is out there it’s extremely likely to be a pass play, as 34 of his 38 snaps were on Sunday.

f.  The Titans' offensive line was excellent in 2009 but really regressed last season after letting C Kevin Mawae go and moving former LG Eugene Amano to replace him, which made two positions worse.  It looks even worse so far for the group this season.  They’re doing fine in pass protection with an assist from the fact that Hasselbeck gets the ball out very quickly, but these guys have been getting crushed in the running game.

I mentioned that Johnson looks a step slow, but he’s often running into defenders before he gets up to full speed, so it’s not really that easy to tell for sure.  Roos is good at LT, but the other four starters, LG Leroy Harris, C Amano, RG Jake Scott, and RT David Stewart have all left something to be desired through two games this year.  They’re playing going backward a lot of the time like the Broncos did against the Raiders, and that never portends well for a running game.

Beating the Titans' Defense

a.  The Titans are interesting, because while their defensive line almost always plays aggressively, their LBs drop pretty deep into zone coverage more often than not.  The best thing you can do when they do that is be patient and attack them underneath.  That doesn’t really match Kyle Orton’s skill set particularly well, of course, which is why I expect the defense to be willing to give it up.  You want quick half-field reads.  Is Lloyd there deep…no.  Is Eric Decker there in the hook zone…no.  Check it down to Knowshon Moreno, get a few yards, and figure that that will eventually force shallower drops.

b.  When the Titans play straight Cover-2, which they do fairly often, I’d like to see Brandon Lloyd targeted on the sideline.  This was the Broncos’ most effective downfield play last season, but they didn’t hit it against Oakland and Lloyd missed the game against Cincinnati, obviously.

This is a really basic pass concept called 4 Verticals that has been beating Cover-2 since the beginning of time.  What it effectively does is force each Safety to choose whether to take the inside guy or the outside guy in his deep half.  The only hope the defense has is that their LBs are smart and recognize the concept immediately and carry the hashmark guy all the way deep, and that the Safety sees the same thing and plays 2/3 of the way to the sideline to cover the outside guys.  (Incidentally, on the Matt Giordano interception in Week 1, Kyle Orton made an atrocious read, because Giordano was way outside all the way on the play.  A few people tried to blame that interception on Lloyd, but they were way, way off-base.  That ball needed to go on a checkdown to Knowshon Moreno, because when the S is outside, you're not going to hit that sideline throw.)

For the offense, this diagram shows the kind of thing that you like to run on second-and-medium, and here I have 11 personnel in the diagram and I’m assuming that because of down and distance and the fact that the call is Cover-2, that the defense didn’t bring in a nickelback to match the third WR.  Even if they did, it doesn’t probably make that much of a difference. 

Using 12 personnel is even better if Julius Thomas were healthy, because then you know 99% for sure that you’ll see base personnel on defense.  By having the slot guy (let’s say it’s Matt Willis) run the seam really hard, that probably holds the FS in the middle.  (If it doesn't, you just throw it to Willis.)  It’d also be helpful to have Orton start out looking down the seam; then he can come back left to Lloyd on the sideline, who will have beaten his jam.  The CB may be trailing closer than normal since this is the Titans and they play deep that way, but you know that he’ll be expecting over-the-top help from the FS in the Cover-2 framework, and if Orton’s eyes and Willis’ route do what they’re supposed to do, you know without even looking that Lloyd will have at least a step against the RCB.

Notice that 4 Verts is what we call a mirrored pass concept.  That means that the QB has the same concept on both sides of the field, and he can basically pick one based upon pre-snap alignment and preference to avoid specific defensive players.  Mirroring is very common in the Erhardt-Perkins framework, and throughout the modern passing game.

c.  When the Titans do crowd the line and blitz, it’d be really nice to be able to run some screens at them.  The Ravens scored their only TD on a screen play to Ray Rice.  Who knows?  Maybe the Broncos have magically improved at running screens in a week?

d.  I really do believe that the Titans can and should be run against.  Jacksonville racked up 163 yards against Tennessee, and while that came on 47 carries (3.5 yard average), it shows that you’re not dealing with an immovable front.  Tennessee is particularly susceptible to misdirection, and you can really get some play-action passing done against them off the misdirection run game.  Look for Spencer Larsen to be used as a receiver like he was last week.

Stopping the Titans' Offense

a.  You really have two main priorities now, and they’re frankly at odds.  The Titans will be a lot harder to defend this season assuming Chris Johnson ever gets it going, because Hasselbeck is a lot better than Vince Young or Kerry Collins. 

The priority last season was to set the edge in the running game and keep Johnson contained.  The Broncos were very successful at that in 2010, and they were willing to let Young have some room to try to make throws.  He made some, but Kyle Orton (who had one of his best games as a Bronco) made more, and we witnessed a rare comeback victory.

The competing priority with setting the edge is rushing the passer.  I think that that’s the highest priority after watching the Titans-Ravens game; Baltimore was really ineffective in their pass rush, and Hasselbeck shredded them.  Whoever the game analyst for CBS was said that you really have to defend Hasselbeck specifically now, and I think that’s true.

b.  Coverage-wise, this is going to be a challenge.  I don’t think that Andre’ Goodman can physically match up one-on-one with Kenny Britt for a whole game, and assuming Champ Bailey doesn’t play, the only answer seems to be to double Britt frequently.  The problem with that is that he’s mostly playing away from the Titans’ concepts, so that means that the openings that the concept is creating are going to be fundamentally more open.

This is a little more exotic than what the Broncos have been doing yet this year, but I think I’d man up Britt with Goodman when he lines up left, and shade Rahim Moore to his side for over the top help while zoning up the right side to deal with the route combinations, and especially the threat of Jared Cook.  I’m comfortable with Dawkins or Wesley Woodyard covering Cook man-to-man in spots, but if you do it too much and Hasselbeck knows it’s going to be there, it could get ugly.

c.  I like the idea of blitzing Hassebeck some on third and long, but I especially like showing it and forcing the Titans to check to max protection, and then dropping seven or eight into coverage.  That’s been really effective so far for the Broncos this season, mostly because the threat of the blitz is credible in the situations where it’s shown.

d.  More than anything, you want to keep Tennessee off schedule and force them to have to take some time in the pocket to throw the ball downfield.  The Raiders never really had to, and the Bengals rarely did.  This game gets winnable if the Broncos are looking at being able to hit Hasselbeck a lot.

I’m hoping the Broncos fool me for the third week in a row, but I’m taking the Titans 20-14, mainly because they’re playing at home and because I think they’re just a little better from 1 to 53 than the Broncos are right now.  I gave Total Titans the same answer, so at least I’m not some politician that panders to whatever group I’m talking to at the moment and changes my story at the next stop on the trail.  Have a great weekend, friends, and let’s enjoy us some Broncos rebuilding, and hopefully re-winning on Sunday.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

Follow me on Twitter  While you’re at it, Like our Facebook page

Ted's AnalysisGame Previews