The first week is in the books and to say that it was lackluster would be a massive understatement. The Titans lost 38-13 to the Cardinals and the score feels like it should be more lopsided than that to be perfectly honest.
Now the Titans head to Seattle with hopes of gaining back some of the credibility they lost around the league after last week’s debacle. This offensive forecast article is going to be a weekly segment where I dive into what I liked about the previous week, didn’t like, and what I hope to see for the upcoming week.
Spoiler alert: I wouldn’t be expecting much from the “what I liked” section this time. With that said, let’s dive into my offensive forecast for this week.
What I liked from Week 1
If I could leave this section blank, I probably would. Sunday was arguably the most disappointed I’ve been in the Titans in a while. Mostly because the expectations surrounding this particular Titans team had been the highest they have been since the Steve McNair era. For them to lay an egg the way they did was not only extremely humbling but embarrassing to be perfectly honest.
Fortunately for the Titans and their fanbase, this is not college football. You can survive an occasional bad loss as long as you respond well throughout the year — something that Mike Vrabel led teams have historically done since he’s been in Tennessee. Vrabel is a perfect 7-0 after double-digit losses which include some of his most signature victories over Kansas City and Baltimore.
As far as the actual game from last week, there wasn’t much I liked on a day that took an entire quarter just to allow Titans fans to do their first down chant. I did like the way they responded out of the half. Tennessee’s offense capitalized on Kevin Byard’s interception by putting the ball in the end zone a few minutes later. Unfortunately for them, anytime it felt like something was getting going, Chandler Jones came and eventually wrecked the drive to get the ball back for his team.
Let’s hope there’s a lot more positive stuff that I can talk about here next week.
What I didn’t like from Week 1
Where do I begin with this one? There was a ton I can talk about here, but I’m going to focus on the four specific aspects that drove me the craziest.
No sense of urgency
I had the pleasure of traveling well over a thousand miles to sit in that brutal heatwave just to watch the Titans produce a whopping minus one yard in their opening quarter.
Tennessee came out flat in every regard and looked every bit like an offense that has hardly practiced together. Despite the limited reps, one of the most baffling things to me from last weekend was how long it took the offense to even pose the threat of Julio Jones and A.J. Brown.
The Titans acquired a generational talent out wide who is seemingly still at the top of his game. On the very first play of the season, he is on an island with a rookie cornerback, and the team decides to run it for a loss instead. Understandable I guess, but surely they are going to see what is happening out wide and will at least test the corner right? No, they wouldn’t.
It took the team over a quarter to start incorporating Jones and Brown and by that point, the entire offense was frustrated at what was happening. The Titans must do a better job at identifying these matchups early in the game so they may begin to exploit them which will force the defense to dictate their game plan off the Titans’ offense and not the other way around. Last week it felt like the offense was constantly pressing after that disastrous first quarter rather than trying to get the offense back into a flow.
Setting up the play-action pass early and often will help open things up for Henry as the game goes on. Once Henry gets going, that will inevitably open things up on the backend as Jones and Brown will be able to exploit the soft coverages behind them. The Titans must do a better job of starting with a sense of urgency to allow the run and the pass to feed off each other like it was intended to.
No threat of play-action
This is something that absolutely drove me bananas, especially once official numbers came out. One of the Titans’ biggest staples on offense throughout the last two years has been their potent play-action attack.
Tennessee has made a living off of forcing defenders to think on their heels as they try and identify who has the ball. Yet on Sunday, they seemed to get away from it completely which led to an offense that looked like it was searching for an identity all afternoon.
Ryan Tannehill’s play-action rate on Sunday was 11.6 percent. For comparison, in 2020, Tannehill’s play-action rate was 36.4 percent — the highest in the league among all relevant quarterbacks, per Pro Football Focus.
It seemed like Downing and company got traumatized after that first disaster of a play-action attempt that ultimately gave the Cardinals the ball at the one-yard line. The Titans only used play-action on five percent of their early downplays as opposed to the 59 percent they averaged in 2020.
It didn’t help that they were constantly outside the down and distances that are ideal for play action. But back to the point of starting with urgency, successfully using play-action on first downs will help get them into shorter down and distances throughout the drive.
For this to work, however, Tennessee must be able to disguise their fakes better while also being able to hold their blocks long enough for the plays to fully develop. Neither of which happened against the Cardinals last Sunday.
Abysmal blocking all around
We spent all off-season talking about how incredible the offensive talent is going to be and how this is the best collection of skill players in franchise history. Then on September 12th, the fanbase quickly got a reality check that regardless of who is out there, this offense will only go as far as the offensive line will let them.
Tennessee’s offensive line was completely outmatched and outclassed by Chandler Jones, JJ Watt, Zach Allen, Corey Peters, and the rest of the Cardinals’ front line.
According to PFF, the Titans’ offensive line as a whole graded out with an average of 51 with Rodger Saffold grading out as the highest (70.8) and Kendall Lamm being the lowest (29.3).
Tannehill felt the heat on over 40 percent of his dropbacks against Arizona and was sacked a total of six times — five of which came from Chandler Jones alone. Jones also accounted for six tackles, four tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles. Tennessee’s offense failed to make any adjustments towards stopping him and he took advantage of it to the fullest.
According to Anthony Reinhard of 247 sports, Jones’ five sacks were the most impactful sacks from any individual player in any game this century. The five plays where Jones sacked Tannehill (including two fumbles and a fourth-down stop) costed the Titans 18.3 expected points.
The Cardinals’ star pass rusher will be Canton bound someday and Tennessee helped make him look like one of the greatest defensive players ever on historic day football fans won’t soon forget.
Franchise left tackle, Taylor Lewan, visibility struggled in his first game back from an ACL injury. A financially motivated Jones feasted on Lewan for most of the day as he accounted for two of those five sacks while also tying Nate Davis for the most pressures allowed this past Sunday (five).
On top of this being Lewan’s first game back, Ben Jones and Davis were on the COVID list up until last Wednesday. The offensive line lost out on significant preparation time together and it showed in their season opener.
Tight formations are apparently back
If there’s one thing I did not envision making a return for 2021, it would have to be the condensed formations that we all grew to hate by the time the Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie era had ended.
Sitting in one of the end zone sections this past Sunday, I had the perfect angle to see what kind of substitutes the team was making, what personnel groupings were being trotted out, and what formations we were running.
It truly baffled me how many times the Titans congested their own offense by cramping everyone in between the numbers. At the half, Henry had eight carries for nine yards and every single run was out of a condensed formation which often allowed the play to be over before it even began. Former Titans receiver Marc Mariani noticed the same thing I was preaching throughout Sunday’s game and he posted some visuals below.
More often than not, these condensed concepts naturally create chaos for an offense as the defense is allowed to clog up lanes with movements and stunts. These tight formations essentially put all 22 players within the diameter of the offenses formation rather than utilizing as much of the 53 yards that teams have available from sideline to sideline.
Tennessee essentially chose to shorten their own field and made it harder for Henry to bounce off tackle to the outside which is really where he makes the majority of his big plays. I really hope those frequent formations were more of a trial period and not a staple of this new Todd Downing offense. Because if it is, I may start to lose my hair by the end of this season.
What I’d like to see in Week 2
We all love Derrick Henry and what he brings to the table, but In the NFL, the best predictor of winning (along with halftime leads) is often yards per pass attempt. For example, In Week 1, the team that had the higher yards/pass attempt went 13-2 (.867).
Tennessee has consistently been one of the more explosive and efficient passing offenses in the league since Tannehill took over. They have to get back to the type of balanced attack that makes them lethal and unpredictable.
Tennessee must do a better job of widening this offense out and possibly running more 11-personnel (three wide receivers, one tight and, one running back). This gives the Titans a better chance of getting Henry off tackle and into the perimeter while also being able to pose a vertical and horizontal threat at any time.
The field is 53 yards from sideline to sideline, I would like to see the Titans spread out the formations to help give their offensive linemen more clarity on who they’re targeting. This gives them a better chance to identify and win their one on one’s while also being able to set up more efficient combo blocks when needed.
This will allow the King to have enough time to recognize what is happening in front of him while also giving him a chance to use his talents to make something happen without being overwhelmed at the line of scrimmage. Once that happens, both A.J. Brown and Julio Jones will be allowed to feast on the soft coverages that are inevitably there as the defense focuses on trying to slow down Henry.
Tennessee should get Jones and Brown involved early and often which will then open up the running game for Henry. Once Tennessee’s star running back gets going, defenses are going to have to be honest with him and that’s going to open up a ton of play-action opportunities for the Titans to start throwing the type of haymakers that we never saw last week.
If the Titans are able to establish their identity and play their brand of football, this offense should be able to go toe to toe with anyone. Be on the lookout to see how Tennessee’s offense attacks the Seahawks early on and how they adjust their attack if necessary.