The Tennessee Titans secured an uncharacteristically comfortable win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, and thanks to some help from the Bengals, they’re now in full control of the top seed in the AFC.
After studying the film, these are the five hottest takes on my mind.
Rashaan Evans just had his worst game as a Tennessee Titan
I let this one marinate for a while to make sure I wasn’t being hyperbolic, but I genuinely believe this was the worst game of Rashaan Evans’ career. PFF agrees with me, and I’ve generally found PFF grades to be pretty accurate when they support my narrative. Evans’ issues last Sunday weren’t anything new; he was out of position in zone coverage and played with poor gap integrity. What makes this game stand out is how early and often Evans negatively affected the defense.
On the first play of the game, Tennessee’s running 3-weak, a variation of cover 3 in which the free safety (Byard) covers the curl-flat zone. This play serves as an excellent example of the right and wrong way to defend play action as a linebacker in zone coverage. A linebacker’s first responsibility is fitting the run, so biting on a play-fake, which Evans and Cunningham both do, is expected. But once they recognize the fake, they need to recover depth back into the middle-hooks, where the offense is most likely planning to attack.
When regaining their positioning, linebackers are taught to turn their back to the quarterback and locate crossing routes approaching their zone. This is often referred to as “ROBOT” technique, and it’s a more effective way of covering ground than backpedaling.
Cunningham immediately flips toward his zone, but Evans turns away from his, which creates a wide enough window for Tua Tagovailoa to get an easy completion.
Two plays later Miami runs duo, and the run fit here is pretty simple: Rashaan Evans takes the B-gap and Amani Hooker fills the A-gap. For whatever reason, Evans abandons his gap, allowing Duke Johnson to pick up 16 yards with no resistance.
75% of Miami’s run calls were either duo or inside zone, concepts that involve two double team blocks on the interior, which create a linebacker-read for the running back. If linebackers aren’t gap sound, and defensive linemen can’t defeat the double teams (more on that later), a good rushing offense will dominate with duo and inside zone.
Luckily Miami is not a good rushing offense, and the game quickly reached a point where they needed to pass, but the dolphins found success on the ground early, at the expense of Rashaan Evans.
With Jayon Brown on the COVID-19 list, and David Long returning from a hamstring injury, Evans’ 24 snaps vs. Miami are understandable. But Cunningham, Long, and Brown at full strength should relegate Evans to a reserve role going forward.
Ben Jones is the most underrated Titans’ player, and it’s not really close
Lost in Tennessee’s persistent offensive line struggles, has been a very good season from Ben Jones. He’s been a stable force on an offensive line that has frequently rotated personnel, and his play has improved significantly since the bye week.
Through the entire season, his 77.2 PFF grade ranks 8th among centers, and his 80.1 PFF run blocking grade is a career-high. But after Week 13, Jones is PFF’s highest-graded center, and if you don’t trust PFF, the film tells a similar story:
We’ll have plenty of time to debate offseason moves after the playoffs, but with changes to the offensive line imminent, I expect the Titans to value the security and stability Ben Jones provides.
The “good pass blocking performance” was a bit of a mirage
Ryan Tannehill was only sacked once vs. Miami, a play that was clearly Jeremy McNichols’ fault, so it’s true that the offensive line did not give up a sack; but that doesn’t necessarily mean they played all that well. First let’s establish that not all pass-blocking snaps are created equal.
Play-action and designed rollout passes don’t put offensive linemen in vulnerable pass-blocking situations, because the pass rush is physically or mentally taken out of the play. A high number of these types of plays can inflate our estimation of an offensive line’s performance, when the protection was really just being schemed up. Tennessee used play-action on 12 of their 19 dropbacks, and ran one play with a designed rollout and no play-action.
Of the six remaining dropbacks, two were screens, so that leaves us with four traditional dropbacks, or “true pass-sets,” which I’ve included below.
On 4 true pass-sets, Tannehill was sacked once, pressured twice, and kept clean once. I don’t think Tennessee’s pass protection was bad vs. Miami, I just don’t think the performance signals that the offensive line has turned a corner.
Elijah Molden is a top 5 defensive rookie
Molden began his NFL career with two terrible performances, in which he was targeted five times, resulting in four receptions, 112 yards, and two touchdowns. He was benched for a couple of weeks, but was quickly forced back into the lineup due to injuries. Since Week 2, Molden has played 545 snaps, and has been targeted 23 times, allowing 11 receptions for 137 yards.
Molden’s numbers for the entire season rank in the top half of the NFL in most categories, but after Week 2, Molden has been a borderline-elite CB, and the indisputable top rookie. Micah Parsons is the obvious Defensive Rookie of the Year, and I’d have Jevon Holland as the clear second, but Molden is in the next tier of outstanding rookie defenders.
Molden doesn’t have elite speed for his position, which caused him to give up a few big plays early in the season, but he’s improved his technique at the line of scrimmage and has become more disciplined with his hips. Against Miami, he had a couple pass breakups and performed well anytime Jaylen Waddle lined up in the slot.
Jeffery Simmons has had three bad games in a row
For three straight weeks, Jeffery Simmons has not made a significant impact rushing the passer, recording zero sacks and five pressures in games against Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Miami. Mid-season, Simmons seemed to be breaking out as a pass rusher, but his production has slowed down as of late.
I’ve been more surprised, however, by his inability to control blocks in the run game; against Miami, Simmons was consistently getting pushed 5+ yards off the line of scrimmage, and Tennessee’s lack of presence on the interior exacerbated Rashaan Evans’ gap integrity issues.
A three-game stretch of poor performances is nothing out of the ordinary; I’m sure Jeffery Simmons will be fine. But if he’s to be considered in the Chris Jones/Cam Heyward tier of elite defensive tackles, I’ll hold him to that standard of performance.