What will the offense look like without Derrick Henry? That was the question every fan asked themselves after hearing the news of his injury a few weeks ago. The simple answer would be that it looks worse. And, certainly there are causes for concern, but the details are a little more nuanced.
First things first, I want to dig into the offense because, to me, I want to understand why that unit is struggling. A shocking thing to write given the things I witnessed on defense in 2020 while the offense carried the team. But, the defense has been playing at an insane level over the past few weeks.
Offensive linemen are not meant to be thrown around like this. While this is a highlight, this type of disruption has been common over the past few weeks.
On top of this, consider that this team has gone 5-0 over past five weeks and done it all against playoff teams from 2020. They did this without their MVP candidate running back for two of the games. Oh, and they’ve done this while having the 3rd most total game participants since 1993 (ie, a bunch of injuries).
All of this is a way of pointing out that this season has been incredible so far. We don’t get many of these as fans, so enjoy it. With that out of the way, let’s get in the weeds about the offense.
The run game was trending down already
The last two games have been rough, but the two games before that weren’t much better.
|KC + IND||196||2.97||1|
|LAR + NOR||135||2.45||3|
Clearly, a downward trend here, both in volume and efficiency. However, consider that this is the first time Henry has ever had less than 3.0 YPC in a game in back to back games with 10+ carries ever. If you remove the 10 carry threshold, the last time it happened was in late 2017. There just hasn’t been much room to run, and that certainly showed up again this past week.
On the final series of the game, the Titans are working to get a first down and keep the ball away from New Orleans. Following a first down, and two solid runs, the Titans run outside zone and get absolutely crushed by a Kwon Alexander blitz. Saffold has to get off this block and at least slow down the linebacker’s path.
This ends up stalling the drive and gives the Saints an opportunity to tie the game.
I think the team’s identity as a having an elite offensive line may have been a bit overstated over the past couple of years. Certainly, Henry hid some of these deficiencies with yards after contact, and explosive runs. Still, plays like the one above were relatively rare. The offensive line as it’s currently playing is proving to be a weakness, and maybe the biggest weakness of this football team right now.
A team without explosives can’t afford negative plays
|Year / Wks||Explosive Run Rate (Rank)||Explosive Pass Rate (Rank)||Explosive Play Rate (Rank)|
|2020||13% (10th)||9% (14th)||11% (9th)|
|2020 – Wks 1-8||11% (16th)||8% (21st)||9% (19th)|
|2021 – Wks 9-10||4% (30th)||3% (29th)||4% (32nd)|
Explosives have not been a highlight for this team for most of the year. They’ve mostly scored points off of longer drives or turnovers with short fields, which is fine. Points are points. Generally, though, the most successful offenses in the NFL are also the most explosive. A fairly intuitive point – the more chunk plays you can produce, the less opportunity for variance with all the plays in between on the way to the end zone.
This part, unfortunately, I think is just solved with time for the Titans. Julio needs to get healthy and back on the field. And, the same goes for Henry at the end of the year. Much is made of scheme, etc in the NFL, and that absolutely matters. But, athleticism matters too, and that’s missing from the Titans today. Dialing up favorable situations to create space is one thing, but dialing up explosives is something different altogether.
That’s not a pessimistic view. It’s just the lens through which all this needs to be viewed. Playoffs are almost a guarantee at this point barring a collapse that would render everything written herein irrelevant anyway. The goal at this point is simply to improve, stay healthy, and advance. Given the way things have played out thusfar, this team has a huge leg up on the entire AFC and a clear path to the #1 seed. There needs to be a macro view considered by both fans and the staff about the best way to prepare this team to peak in January.
Now, all that said, this team still has to play the schedule in front of them. Absent a few big playmakers, they’d be wise to get the details right on this path ahead. Case in point in the play below.
First drive of the game on 3rd down. Titans are running a WR screen over the middle. Note the blocks being set up by the other receivers. A few things of note on this play:
- Awful pass protection. The problem picking up stunts has been with the Titans all year, especially for Nate Davis. You see it on display here with the rusher coming in basically untouched. This pressure leads Tannehill to throw just a tick too early.
- AJ Brown drops a tough ball, but what should be a catch (more on that in a minute). A gigantic problem for this team at a time they can’t afford it.
- Sometimes an OC can dial up a perfect play, but the team still has to execute. Coordinators will live and die with the results and outcomes, but above is a case in point of a really good play call that’s just poorly executed. If this ball is able to be thrown just a bit later, and it is caught, it is potentially an explosive play. Instead, it’s a punt.
On the topic of drops, this continues to be a huge problem for the Titans. For the season, Ryan Tannehill ranks 10th (higher is worse) in dropped pass rate at 7.9% of all throws. However, over the last two weeks, he ranks 3rd with 11.6% of all throws. Those numbers may not seem like much, but it can be the difference between a converted 3rd down and a scoring drive, and a punt. For a team that relies on sustained drives for points, those details matter.
A microcosm of the Titans issues on one drive
On the 2nd drive of the game, the Titans start their drive on their on 8 yard line.
The Titans begin the drive by trying to run one back power. Saffold pulls, but there’s no hole to lead to. Geoff Swaim has been beaten by Cam Jordan. Nowhere for Peterson to go, and he ends up getting 2 yards on the play.
On 2nd and 8, the Titans then go 5 wide. They run a levels/spacing concept here, and get the look they want. Maybe the better decision would have been to identify AJ Brown presnap, but Tannehill identifies McNichols split out on a linebacker. It’s a good read, and should be a clean catch. McNichols looks completely surprised that the ball is even coming his way and drops the pass.
This leads to 3rd and 8. Route distribution looks a little wonky because as the receivers get to the top of their stems they have eyes in the backfield seeing the QB pressure. It looks like – if Tannehill had a clean pocket – that Chester Rogers potentially comes open over the middle. We’ll never know because Ben Jones gives up pressure on a pretty basic stunt. Here’s a better endzone view.
The Titans offensive line taking time to gel throughout the season is not something unusual. It was pretty pronounced in 2018 and 2019, but that was mostly working on consistency in the zone run game. Troubles with handling simple stunts this late in the season is a head scratcher, especially given the continuity with Keith Carter on staff.
Now for the good news.
As mentioned before, the Titans went on a tear against some of the best teams in the NFL over the past 5 weeks. What remains, though, is the easiest schedule in the NFL down the stretch. All games in the NFL are difficult, and there’s a risk of an upset each week. But, as the team works through issues, this is the path you’d obviously like to face. And, it’s worth noting too that playing LA and New Orleans in back to back weeks isn’t exactly the fairest way to assess Henry’s impact on the offense. Those defenses are both excellent. In fact, per PFF, LA is ranked the best defense in the NFL. Second is Buffalo. Third is New Orleans. Indy comes in at sixth. If a bunch of the baseline issues continue against opponents like Houston, then the cause for concern rises.
The team needs to get healthy as much as anything else, and that bye on the horizon is much needed. Especially for the offensive line of which everyone has been banged up at one point or another, and you have to think that’s affecting them as a unit.
Beyond that, it comes down to cleaning up mental errors; picking up defensive games up front in pass protection, and concentrating on catches in the receiving game. I think a lot of that can come when the environment changes from surviving a buzz saw every week to playing some easier opponents. Todd Downing has been great, and I still believe that. The team needs to get fundamentals cleaned up. If they do that, they have an opportunity to peak down the stretch.