The Tennessee Titans aren't expected to make a run at the AFC title this season, but general manager Jon Robinson and head coach Mike Mularkey quickly are putting down the foundation for a championship squad in Nashville.
NFL defenses are increasingly reliant on formations that skew smaller and faster to stop the prolific passing attacks dominating the league. Of course, this presents an opportunity for teams willing to go against the grain by assembling a power-based smashmouth attack that can exploit the size deficiencies inherent to such defenses. Based on their offseason moves, including recent draft acquisitions, this is exactly what the Titans appear to be doing -- and the gambit could pay off handsomely.
1) Jon Robinson is intent on building a heavyweight champion.
The Titans' new general manager spent 12 seasons working for the Patriots during their sustained championship run, and it seems he's certainly taken the lessons learned from New England's unprecedented success to help him form a team-building philosophy in Tennessee. In a conversation with The MMQB's Peter King following the 2016 NFL Draft, Robinson discussed the Patriots' commitment to going "big," especially with strong running backs and size on both lines and in the defensive front seven. Speaking to a number of coaches and personnel executives familiar with New England's philosophy, including Alabama head coach Nick Saban, I've heard Patriots disciples compare football to a boxing match where heavyweights routinely pummel lightweights with their superior size, strength and power. It is better to skew toward bigger players at every position due to the physical advantages they enjoy in the trenches and on the perimeter.
Robinson has added a number of rugged players with the size, physicality and toughness to play the "knuckle up" game that might be required to win the AFC South. The Titans invested in a "road grader" (Jack Conklin) with their top draft pick to solidify the edges and provide a push in the running game. He will team with 2013 first-rounder Chance Warmack to give the Titans a monstrous right side to run behind.
Derrick Henry is the kind of big, physical running back Robinson covets as the workhorse in a smashmouth attack. He is an Eddie George clone capable of grinding out the tough yards between the tackles or running away from defenders when he spots a crease on the second level. Considering his success with a heavy workload at Alabama (25-plus carries per game last season), Henry should quickly emerge as the Titans' "hammer" in "12," "13," "21" and "22" sets at the end of games.
On defense, the Titans beefed up the front line with draftees Kevin Dodd, Austin Johnson and Aaron Wallace. Each player possesses the size, length and athleticism to develop into a "shop wrecker" at the point of attack. Dodd and Johnson, in particular, are exceptionally long for their respective positions along the line. (Dodd checks in at 6-foot-5, 277 pounds as a defensive end/rush linebacker, while Johnson stands 6-4, 314 pounds at defensive tackle.) Their combination of size and length makes them ideal fits in coordinator Dick LeBeau's 3-4 scheme, which is predicated on down defenders occupying multiple blockers at the point of attack to create big-play opportunities for linebackers and safeties on blitzes. Wallace is rarely cited as one of the Titans' potential rookie starters, but the former UCLA standout is a versatile edge defender with the length (6-3, 240 pounds) and athleticism (4.59 40-yard dash, 36-inch vertical and a 10-10 broad jump) to blossom into a credible pass rusher off the edge.
2) The Titans are assembling the pieces for an exotic smashmouth attack.
Starting with the offensive line, the Titans have a pair of bookends (Taylor Lewan and Conklin) who excel in moving bodies off the ball. Many assume the Titans settled on Conklin with the No. 8 overall pick because of Laremy Tunsil's character concerns, but the film study reveals Conklin to be a rock-solid run blocker with a nasty demeanor and solid fundamentals. Not only is he a natural fit at right tackle, but his rugged game should help foster a blue-collar mentality that will permeate the rest of the offensive line.
The Titans have reshuffled the interior three to become a more physical unit at the point of attack. Jeremiah Poutasi has been inserted into the lineup at left guard after logging seven starts at right tackle last season. The 2015 third-round pick struggled mightily on the edge; his combination of size and strength is better suited to the interior spot based on the team's utilization of a power-based scheme that places a premium on creating push at the point of attack.
Warmack also should benefit from playing in a scheme that emphasizes moving defenders off the ball. He thrived in a similar system at Alabama, and the series of "down, down and around" plays (power/counter) should allow him to maximize his talents as a people mover at the line of scrimmage. Free-agent signee Ben Jones could man the pivot position or play either guard position, based on the outcome of the training-camp competition along the line. He is another nasty player with the rock-solid footwork and fundamentals to thrive in a power-based attack. Considering position coach Russ Grimm's Hall of Fame résumé as a player and sterling reputation as a coach, the Titans' reshaped offensive line should maul opponents at the line of scrimmage and boost a running game that's ranked in the bottom third of the NFL in four of the past five years.
Even putting the line aside for a second, the running game should drastically improve simply because of the additions of Henry and veteran back DeMarco Murray. The combination of the 2014 NFL rushing leader and the big-bodied rookie banger will allow Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie to bludgeon opponents with a downhill running game that operates primarily between the tackles. With each runner adept at running from the "dot" position in I-formation, the Titans likely will feature an old-school offense that relies on "21" (two running backs, one tight end and two receivers), "22" (two running backs, two tight ends and 1 wide receiver) and "12" (one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers) sets.
The deep positioning of the tailback directly behind the quarterback at about 7 yards provides the runner with more time to spot creases at the point of attack while also providing a backside guard or tackle enough room to execute a pull or trap block to the play side. In addition, the utilization of a fullback or H-back as a lead blocker should create more space for the runner on inside runs.
From a schematic standpoint, the presence of Murray and Henry in the backfield signals a shift to a power-based running game that likely will feature A-gap power/counter trap/isolation concepts prominently. Each runner thrived in similar schemes at previous stops (Murray in Dallas under Scott Linehan; Henry at Alabama under Nick Saban/Lane Kiffin), and the blocking responsibilities suit the talents of the front line.
In the play below, from the Cowboys' game against the Bears in 2014, Murray is aligned in the "dot" position as part of an Ace formation. He takes a counter step to his right before getting into Zack Martin's hip pocket on the running play to the left. When Murray spots the linebacker overrunning the play, he makes a hard plant and gets skinny through the hole in the A-gap. This play results in a 40-yard gain:
Henry was productive on similar plays at Alabama, which makes the Titans' 1-2 punch an interchangeable combination in the backfield. Murray can grind out the tough early downs as the feature back, with Henry adding some juice.
The Titans will also incorporate some zone-run tactics to allow Murray and Henry to work the edges or attack inside creases on cutbacks. Up front, the zone concept enables the offensive line to act as "elephants on a parade" (five offensive linemen step in unison to the play side and latch on to any defenders that attack their designated areas). Meanwhile, the runner is instructed to run toward the outside leg of the offensive guard (inside zone) or offensive tackle (outside zone) before deciding whether to bend, bounce or cut back.
Against the Seattle Seahawks in 2014, Murray executed the concept to perfection on a 15-yard touchdown, as you can see below. He takes the handoff and heads to the right corner, reads the linebackers overrunning the play to the outside, sticks his foot in the ground and attacks an open alley between the tackles. After running through a few arm tackles, Murray hits the paint for a touchdown:
Given Mularkey's familiarity running the system that helped Murray become the NFL's rushing leader (Mularkey took over as offensive coordinator in Miami in 2006 after Scott Linehan served in that capacity in 2005), it is easy to envision the Titans running similar plays to help the veteran runner find his rhythm early in the season. As far as Henry's role and potential impact, Mularkey's experience with big backs, particularly Jerome Bettis, should help him build a game plan that accentuates the 6-4, 247-pounder's game as a downhill runner. The Alabama standout needs a runway (running room) to be effective, meaning the Titans could use the I-formation and A-gap power scheme to help Henry find creases on inside runs. If Henry is able to find his sweet spot as a power runner, he could be the hammer that makes it impossible to slow down the Titans in the fourth quarter.
3) Marcus Mariota is positioned to play championship football.
When the Titans drafted Marcus Mariota second overall in 2015, there were plenty of questions surrounding the Heisman Trophy winner's ability to transition to a traditional pro-style system. Tennessee attempted to accelerate his growth and development by utilizing some of the zone-read and RPO (run-pass option) concepts that were staples in the Oregon offense, but the ultra-athletic playmaker also enjoyed success executing quick-rhythm shotgun passes, movement passes and bootleg plays as a rookie.
The Titans' move to a more run-centric offense means Mariota is poised to serve as a complementary playmaker in the backfield. Thus, the second-year pro could join the likes of Joe Flacco, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton as young passers who guided their teams to the promised land behind a conservative approach that limited the quarterback's pitch count and simplified the passing game. Although this doesn't excite the fantasy football gurus who judge effective quarterback play according to passing yards and touchdown-to-interception ratio, the formula is the best way to help a young quarterback win at a high level, particularly when surrounded by a strong running game and stingy defense.
Mularkey -- who worked similar magic for Matt Ryan during his time as Atlanta's offensive coordinator -- understands how to create an offense that allows a young quarterback to play winning football (that is, to produce efficiently while having few turnovers). Looking at Mularkey's previous work with young passers and the All-22 Coaches Film from Mariota's rookie campaign, I believe the Titans' passing game will feature a number of simple concepts that allow the second-year pro to play efficiently from the pocket while developing confidence as a playmaker. Quick-rhythm passes and RPOs from spread formations are certainly a part of the plan, but the move to a two-back offense could put a variety of play-action, movement-based passes and bootlegs on the agenda. In fact, I believe the Titans will lean heavily on the play-action passing game to take advantage of defenses gearing up to stop the running game.
Consider the play below, from the Titans' game against the New Orleans Saints in Week 9. Tennessee is aligned in a power-I formation, with Mariota under center. He executes a play fake in the backfield with Delanie Walker and Jalston Fowler running a high-low combination (corner-flat) to the left. The fake holds the linebackers and creates an easy read for Mariota on the perimeter. With the flat defender creeping up to hit the fullback in the flat, Mariota simply lobs the ball over the top of the defense for an easy score:
In the play below, from Tennessee's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1, the Titans used movement-based play action to help Mariota register an easy touchdown from the pocket. The offense is aligned in a tight trips bunch formation, with Mariota under center. He takes the snap and reverses out to his right on a spring-out. Bishop Sankey flies to the flat, with Kendall Wright running to the corner from his tight alignment. Mariota is instructed to make a high-low read on the corner. He drops the ball off to Sankey in the flat and watches his running back take it to the pylon for a score:
Against the Cleveland Browns in Week 2, as you can see in the play below, the Titans align in a tight I-wing formation, with tight ends Craig Stevens and Anthony Fasano in a stacked alignment. Mariota takes the snap and executes a play-fake in the backfield to lure the linebackers to the line of scrimmage. Stevens and Fasano are instructed to run a "Rattler" concept (post corner-post combination) along the hash. When Mariota sees the corner and safety vacate the middle, he fires a laser to Fasano for a 19-yard score:
Considering Mariota's success with various play-action passes from run-heavy sets, the Titans' "exotic smashmouth" running game and complementary aerial attack should produce points on high-percentage passes for the young quarterback.
4) Dick LeBeau has the horses to put together a stingy defense.
There are few defensive coordinators more respected in league circles than LeBeau. The former Pro Bowl DB and Hall of Fame inductee is a masterful schemer adept at blowing up pass protection and run-blocking schemes with exotic zone blitzes. LeBeau directed a top-five defense 10 times in 13 seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, reaching the top overall spot five times (in 2004, 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2012) by utilizing a variety of overload blitzes and simulated pressures that confounded blockers at the point of attack.
Last season, LeBeau helped the Titans finish 12th in total defense (342.2 yards) and seventh against the pass (229.8), but the team ranked 27th in points allowed (26.4) and 25th in takeaways (19). Considering the impact of points and turnovers on the outcome of games, the Titans need to improve in those areas to make a significant move in the AFC. The big bodies added to the front line could pay huge dividends in that respect.
As I've previously mentioned, the collective length and athleticism of Kevin Dodd, Austin Johnson and Aaron Wallace could lead opposing quarterbacks to make more errant throws from the pocket. With many interceptions created from tips and overthrows, the elevated throws could lead to a turnover bonanza for the Titans. In addition, the long arms and big hands of the Titans' frontline defenders could lead to fumbles on swipes or swats in the hole.
Speaking of turnovers, the Titans added a few defensive playmakers in the secondary with a knack for taking the ball away. The team used a third-round pick on Kevin Byard and a fifth-round selection on LeShaun Sims to increase the takeaway potential in the back end. Byard, in particular, is a rangy safety with big hands and exceptional ball skills. He finished his collegiate career with 19 interceptions and displays outstanding center fielder skills from the deep middle. Given LeBeau's exemplary work with defensive backs throughout his career, the small-school standout could blossom into a star under his tutelage.
With the Titans adding a few veterans to a solid defensive core, the unit could make enough improvements to make a push at a postseason berth this year.