While we weren’t looking, the Tennessee Titans got to 7-5 and in the thick of the AFC playoff race. This week they have a widely televised game against the New Orleans Saints. Perhaps it’s time we get to know Mike Munchak’s club.
Here are some tidbits on one of this week’s showcase games.
1. Saints O vs. Titans D: 31 flavors vs. vanilla
Sean Payton has been known to use 15 different formations on his first 15 plays. As offensive variety goes, the Saints are boundless and peerless. The Titans defense, under Jerry Gray, is the polar opposite. They’ve been the easiest unit to watch on film this season because they line up in base zones, they rarely move before the snap and it’s always clear what each player is trying to do. It’s an execution-based defense.
In this model, the Titans try to make opponents play conservatively and methodically. Instead of trying to beat the offense big once or twice and risk having the offense beat THEM big, the Titans would rather make the offense beat them small again and again, without making any bad mistakes. This formula works against middle-tier offenses – like the Broncos, Browns, Colts, Bucs and Bills, all of whom the Titans have held below 20 points. But unless an execution-based defense has a few top-level playmakers – like the Bears with Brian Urlacher or, in past years, the Colts with Dwight Freeney – it won’t hold up against upper-tier competition.
The Titans have a mobile, fairly athletic defensive line but one that’s devoid of premium pass-rushers. Their linebackers are reliable but not sideline-to-sideline players; it might even be considered a weak unit when outrageously overrated middle ‘backer Barrett Ruud is in the lineup (he’s been out most of the past month with a groin; rookie Colin McCarthy has been an upgrade in his stead). The secondary is sound but not ball-hawking.
The way to beat Drew Brees is to confuse him (which isn’t easy). He’s far too sharp as a progression-read passer for a defense to simply line up and play against. Unless luck intervenes or a few Titans defenders play the game of their lives, we’ll see Brees lead four or five ABC-123 type clock-eating scoring drives Sunday.
2. Chris Johnson
Pilloried for the destruction of fantasy teams nationwide the first 10 weeks of the season, the $30 million running back has rushed for over 100 yards in three of his last four outings. Not until these past two weeks did Johnson show his old acceleration and burst. We may never know what got him off track early in the year, but he appears to be on track now (he’ll have to stay on track a little longer before we fully trust him again).
One theory people floated was that his offensive line was struggling. That’s simply not true. It’s easy to blame the linemen because they’re big, faceless cogs in a unit. But ask yourself this commonsense question: What’s more likely? That one player (Johnson) suddenly stunk, or that FIVE players (the line) suddenly stunk? Johnson’s line wasn’t bad – Johnson was bad. He was stopping his feet to redirect, looking for holes rather than reading the movement of defenders and spinning mud when hitting the gas.
This isn’t to say that Johnson’s line has been sterling this season. Until they started consistently landing blocks on the move last week, guards Jake Scott and Leroy Harris looked very average (Scott maybe even a cut below that). Gritty veteran right tackle David Stewart has at times relied too much on grit and not enough on technique. Even steady Pro Bowl left tackle Michael Roos has struggled a bit (though more in pass-protection than run-blocking). But inconsistent means good AND bad. Until recently, the Titans line had been a tad inconsistent, while their running back had been just plain bad. We’ll see if Johnson can maintain his rhythm against a fast Saints run defense.
3. Titans O vs. Saints D: manufacturing big plays to compensate for a weakness
We’ve covered before how Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams dials up so many risky, complex blitzes in part because he does not have a good enough pass-rushing front four to simply line up and play. On a similar note, Titans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer has done a good job generating big pass plays this season through design.
With Kenny Britt injured, the Titans do not have any receivers who can consistently burn one-on-one coverage. Thus, instead of dictating the terms of engagement and just attacking through the air, the Titans have used route combinations in response to specific defensive looks. That’s good coaching.
Some examples that stand out: in Week 4, the Titans killed the Browns’ man coverages with a litany of natural pick plays (Nate Washington’s 57-yarder to set up a late first half touchdown being the highlight). In Week 13 they found ways to isolate Buffalo’s untested seventh-round rookie cornerback Justin Rogers with presnap motion.
In Week 3 they used a deep crossing route with unassuming tight end Craig Stevens:
|The Titans knew that outside cornerback Cassius Vaughan was responsible for covering the defensive left third of field. So they sent wideout Marc Mariani on a fly route to carry Vaughan deep. That temporarily left an unoccupied void that Stevens’ crossing pattern was timed to hit.|
|When Stevens caught the ball, Vaughan was out of position and facing the wrong direction. This well-timed, clever approach compensated for Stevens’ lack of speed.|
This is quality stuff. It’s not necessarily sustainable – at some point, talent becomes a requirement in pro football – but it’s making the most of your resources.
4. Defending Graham
When facing the Saints, your defensive gameplan often centers around how you decide to defend Jimmy Graham. As the best receiving tight end in football, Graham, frankly, deserves a cornerback’s attention. But most teams can’t afford to sacrifice their run defense by playing a third corner on every down. So, they compromise by using a safety.
Then there are the brave teams that try to stop Graham with a linebacker (like the Giants two weeks ago, who put Jacquian Williams on Graham so that they could have one of their faster safeties defend Darren Sproles).
The Titans play a lot of zone coverage. Even a lot of their man coverages have sprinkles of zone concepts with cautious safety alignments over the top. Because of this, the Titans will likely be stuck in a few linebacker-on-Graham scenarios. Perhaps they’re comfortable with this.
In base defense, Will Witherspoon has been a savvy pass defender over the years. He’s not super savvy, though, as he comes out in nickel. Of course, that’s partly because rookie linebacker Akeem Ayers moves well in space, particularly near the inside flats. Ayers, however, is more inclined to make a tackle that merely prevents a run-after-catch, as opposed to actually breaking up a pass.
Expect Graham to get his usual touches, especially given that the zone defenders will constantly be peaking at Sproles coming out of the backfield.
5. Film Tidbits
Some miscellaneous trends for your viewing pleasure:
--when Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins creeps down into the box, it’s almost always to blitz.
--if the Titans do have one specific target they try to get the ball to, it’s tight end Jared Cook. He’s far from a go-to guy (inconsistent fundamentals, not as good a runner as his athleticism suggests), but he’s well-built and can create a mismatch once or twice a game. It usually comes when he detaches from the formation.
--The Titans like to use backup running back Javon Ringer in hurry-up offense. Ringer can catch and, more importantly, he’s a better pass-blocker than Chris Johnson. (We’ll see if Ringer’s hurry-up reps continue now that Johnson has gotten back to his normal self).
--The Saints almost always throw to the inside receiver in a given formation. It’s not often that the ball goes outside. (This tidbit came from film guru Greg Cosell, executive producer of the NFL Matchup Show.)
So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 14 games.
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