All-22 Review – Titans Defense vs. Bengals Offense

Another rough week for the Titans defense. Against a Bengals team that struggled with pass blocking all year, and was playing backups at every position across the offensive line, the Titans still couldn’t manage to get a sack. While some, including myself, thought this might have been a game to get the defense back on the right track, the outcome is hardly a surprise.

I could pontificate, but these issues are really just more of the same. Let’s first dig into the numbers.

Coverages and 3rd/4th Down

Generally, nothing new with the way the Titans used their coverages in this game. Easily the biggest surprise was the move to man coverage in the second half. This is a huge increase compared to any individual half in the past few weeks. Keep in mind, these shells are run AND pass plays. Still, there were 17 drop back passing plays in the second half for the Bengals, and the Titans ran man coverage on 10 of them (and one additional man coverage snap on a goal line pass).

In terms of pressure, the Titans brought an extra rusher (5 or more) only 8 times on passing plays – 21.6% of the time. Comparatively, vs. PIT they brought pressure 30.6% of the time, and vs. HOU they brought extra rushers 16.2% of the time. Depending on one’s view of things, you could either call this meticulous, opponent-specific game planning, or just throwing a bunch of sh*t against the wall to see if anything sticks.

Third down defense didn’t get any better on Sunday. In fact, it got worse. Remember last week, when we shared the tweet that the Titans had the worst 3rd down defense on record through 6 games? Through 7 games, their lead has grown wider!

So, how does this get fixed? It’s the question I’m sure is keeping this staff up at night. The answer is either resolved with better scheme and technique taught by the staff, different personnel, or some mix of the two.

On to the film!

Johnathan Joseph Had a Rough Day

Johnathan Joseph was a problem against Cincinnati. He ended the day with 11 targets, 8 catches allowed, 92 yards, 1 TD, 1PBU, and 1 PI penalty. At some times, they seemed to target him specifically, but this was mostly another game of throw where Malcolm Butler isn’t. This pattern is unique to just the past two weeks when Butler has been shadowing opposing receivers most of the game (A.J. Green vs CIN). The difference this week was Joseph didn’t split hardly any snaps. He played 66 out of 73 snaps, with Breon Borders filling in the final 7. Let’s take a look at a handful of these plays.

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Choose one of the following:

  • 3rd down and 5. Titans elect to only rush three.
  • I saw this look a few times this game. The Titans play man across on all receivers, and then essentially sticks coverage in the middle with two or three defenders in zone. One deep safety. Rush 3. I can understand the concept of flooding zones with defenders, but when you’re only rushing 3 – with your pass rush is already struggling – and leaving corners on an island on the deep perimeter, I think you’re going to have a bad time.
  • Moreover, the pattern match against the bunch is strange. Traditionally, the point man will LOCK in man, then the outside corner takes first out, and inside corner takes first in. I get the need to change this up from time to time, but that’s not without risk. If you look at the second slide, Tee Higgins is wide open if the Bengals elected to run a deep out here, given the poor leverage this coverage puts on your slowest corner.
  • Nonetheless, the coverage is mostly solid. And, the front 3 gets pressure. Unfortunately, Vic Beasley takes an inside pursuit and gives up the edge for Joe Burrow to scramble. Burrow throws up a perfectly placed 50/50 ball and Higgins makes a play.
  • This is a bad play by Joseph, no doubt. He has to get his head around, and his hands up. But, all this ties together. Beasley needs to set the edge. And, you probably shouldn’t rush 3 with man coverage. Still, at the end of the day, this is a low percentage throw that was allowed for a completion. It’s easy to see the staff viewing this as exclusively a personnel issue (albeit a view I’d disagree with).
  • 2nd and 8. 3:59. 3rd quarter.
  • Joseph is in straight off man coverage. Auden Tate runs a simple out route.
  • Easy pitch and catch given Joseph’s lack of ability to close.
  • The play is made worse by Joseph not limiting the catch to less than 8 yards for a 1st.
  • 3rd and 6. 2:08 in the 4th quarter. Titans need a stop to have any chance at winning the game, as they are down two possessions.
  • Joseph is in press man coverage.
  • The coverage itself is actually halfway decent until it matters.
  • Tate again high points the ball for a catch.

In addition to the plays above, I also posted a thread on Twitter about a coverage snap of Joseph’s. That’s worth reading as well.

The plays above illustrate why the staff didn’t want Joseph as a starter. Off man, he can’t close on the ball. Press man, or tight coverage, he’s close to the ball, but continuing to allow completions. That is obviously a problem. Though, I’d still say that outright cutting him is curious given the give that the alternatives are Borders or Tye Smith. The knee jerk reaction is that the coverage can’t get worse. It can absolutely get worse. Nonetheless, the staff didn’t see it that way, and hopefully it doesn’t matter now that the team should have Adoree Jackson back.

To that point, Justin Graver noted this in his article about the defense potentially rebounding:

This ties to PFF’s grades, which overwhelmingly had Jackson as the best corner last year in coverage. Certainly, this defense was at it’s best over the past few years when the secondary was the strongest unit. It’s sounding like Desmond King – whom the Titans traded for earlier in the week – won’t be active against Chicago, since he won’t be able to enter the Titans facility until Saturday. So we may have to wait two weeks to see the entire group together. That said, the Titans #2 outside corner has been a huge issue this year. Whether that’s the primary issue or not should be put to the test this weekend.

Other Key Plays

  • 4th down and 5. 2:36 left in the 2nd quarter. Titans again run the same coverage outlined in the breakdown of Joseph above – a 3 man rush, with man coverage and a few sticks defenders in the middle.
  • This time, Chris Jackson is in lock coverage at the point position against Higgins.
  • Initially, the coverage works, like last time. The problem with a creative QB like Burrow is that taking away the first permutation of a play doesn’t end it. He extends well, and is more than comfortable staying and looking for receivers late.
  • He does that here. Higgins initial route ends, and the scramble drill begins. Jackson loses leverage and this goes for a big gain.

Hard to be overly critical of Jackson here, but I include this to partly show what the team may want out of King. Someone to really lockdown in these situations.

  • 3rd down and 1. 0:36 in the 2nd quarter. Gaps are accounted for. Bengals run inside zone.
  • Both tackles get washed inside by double teams. Rashaan Evans correctly gets downhill into his gap (hooray!).
  • The backside C gap (between the LT and TE) is left wide open. Kenny Vaccaro is playing contain despite the fact that his teammate – Joseph – is also outside. Vaccaro needs to fit this C gap.
  • Instead, it’s left completely unaccounted for. Kevin Byard is left one-on-one to make a difficult tackle, which he misses.
  • The play goes for a TD.

The issues with run fits continue! I will say Jayon Brown and Evans were both better against the run this game than in weeks past. Triggered down hill quicker, and more aggressively. Not as well as you’d like, but baby steps.

That said, failing at the basics like this can’t happen. This isn’t getting caught in a bad blitz, or some stunt up front. It’s straight up running it down your throat, and leaving one of your gaps completely unaccounted for. The run D was better this game, but I’m still just waiting for a disaster game in the future.

  • 2nd down and 6. 7:34. 4th quarter. Bengals are in a 5 wide look. Titans run some man mixed with pattern matching zone.
  • Brown is matched up on Giovani Bernard in the slot.
  • Pretty easy throw and catch here. Brown can’t close to the sideline, and Bernard makes the TD.
  • In any game, this wouldn’t ordinarily make the review, but this has been a recurring problem for this defense. The flat on the right side of the offense has been a weak point at the goal line. This is certainly a tough coverage for Brown all alone. Still, until the team stops this, expect opponents to continue testing this area when they get inside the 10-yard line.

Odds and Ends

  • Butler has been great lately shadowing receivers. He shut down Green this game, and Chase Claypool the game before. It will be interesting to see how this goes with Jackson back. Butler was targeted heavily early on in the year. Also, it is odd to me that of the Bengals WRs, they’d choose to shadow Green, who’s 3rd on the team in receiving yards with zero TDs.
  • DaQuan Jones and Jeffery Simmons didn’t flash like they have the rest of the year. This isn’t to say they played poorly, but the splash plays weren’t there.
  • Beasley was cut this week. He hasn’t played well, especially in this contest. But, he had a decent game last week against Pittsburgh. Given the lack of depth at outside linebacker, I’m surprised to see this cut. I have to think there’s more going on behind the scenes.
  • Harold Landry and Jadeveon Clowney were both fairly disruptive despite the lack of sacks. They generated 6 and 4 pressures, respectively. It was, however, disappointing to see Clowney whiff when he had a free path to the QB on the schemed inside pressure.
  • Did not notice Byard or Vaccaro much in this one, good or bad.
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