The latest of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans.
Sunday, Week 1, gameday, which mean it’s time for my to prognosticate about what the Tennessee Titans might look like this year. Offense first, defense second, and then some overall thoughts.
Much of the talk about the Titans goes about Marcus Mariota. To my way of thinking, the definitive piece about him remains Eric Stoner’s piece from the before the draft dubbing him “The Task-Oriented QB.” Players improve in various areas, but they rarely change their playing identity, and my thinking about Marcus’s style hasn’t progressed from there. When he’s comfortable with the play design and what he’s asked to do fits his skills better, he can be greatly successful. To my way of thinking, Matt LaFleur matters for Mariota much more than Mariota does himself. That’s not to say that Mariota’s offseason work on throwing from a better base is not important, just that it’s not the greatest variable to me.
LaFleur’s job is made more challenging by the wide receiver depth chart. The parallel I settled on was to the Titans’ 2011 receiver group, a group that ended up completely insufficient after Kenny Britt’s torn ACL in Week 3 (don’t let your opinion of Britt now affect what he did his first two seasons, which was a lot more than Corey Davis did as a rookie). The Titans are counting on a lot from Davis, Taywan Taylor who looked lost too often as a rookie, Rishard Matthews who missed the entire preseason, Tajae Sharpe who missed all of last year, and, well, Matthews is still the only receiver on the roster who’s had at least 10 catches in multiple seasons in the NFL, so there are an awful lot of question marks here.
What strikes me the most about this is this is what the situation looked like when I wrote about it before free agency began, and Jon Robinson and company didn’t do anything to change the situation. Since then, we’ve figured out that Taywan Taylor is the guy LaFleur sees as the vertical stretch option and an outside player, Matthews missed the preseason, and well, we’re still waiting to see how it goes after the Titans joined the leaguewide trend in making preseason as boring as possible when it comes to watching starters. Depending on the growth in Davis’ and Taylor’s games, it seems like the Titans will be depending a lot on the scheme to put players in positions to be successful as they’re depending a lot on players who won’t win on physical talent. It could work, well enough. But installing an offense normally takes time. I keep going back to Matt Ryan’s comment to Kyle Shanahan in their first year together in Atlanta that they knew things would come together a lot more the next season; it did, resulting in a trip to the Super Bowl, but it did take that time. And Dan Orlovsky, who played for LaFleur in Los Angeles and spent plenty of time in the system, has stressed that it will take time for Marcus to feel perfectly comfortable in the offense.
For that reason, and others, my expectations for the Titans offense are relatively muted. They’ll stop doing some of the stupid things they were doing last year, like running so much on second downs (where they topped the league in normal situations by a considerable margin) and condensing the field with their routes, instead of spreading the field from condensed formations. But the Titans were just a frustrating offense last year because of their extreme in-game inconsistency rather than a bad one overall. The friction and the questions at wide receiver, where there’s no Eric Decker-like veteran backstop if there’s an injury or struggles, make me think another season of offense around average wouldn’t be unexpected for the Titans (and 15th is where they are in the final DVOA projections; I write for Football Outsiders perma-disclaimer).
I haven’t mentioned the run game yet. The Titans had a top ten run game by DVOA last year, and you didn’t notice most of the game because running doesn’t matter that much. My biggest question about the run game is more schematically, whether the Titans will be as much of an outside zone-focused team with everything working off of that as, say, the Gary Kubiak Texans, or whether they’ll be zone-focused but look more to inside zone. My feel from preseason is they won’t be completely outside zone-focused. The risk for that is outside zone at its best is awesome, as the 2016 Falcons showed, and not finding the right blend in a mix can be a bit of a mess, as Steve Sarkisian tries to show (that’s what he’s doing, right?). If they go outside zone heavy, then I have some concerns about Derrick Henry’s vision and decision-making consistency; it can give him the space he craves on the edge, where he can make great use of his powerful stiff-arm, but then we get into the tight end blocking edge-setting questions that were the focus of the offensive half of my season preview last year (though they do at least have Luke Stocker as an option from the start of this season). I trust Dion Lewis a bit more, and he’ll be a nice matchup piece. But it’s about the scheme and pass offense, not how effectively the Titans are able to run the ball. Probably.
The last year the Titans ranked 21st in defensive DVOA. That was their best ranking since 2011. It’s been since midseason 2010 since the Titans were a top ten defense by DVOA. Brian Orakpo, I believe it was, commented if you just look after the Texans game (the first one, against Deshaun Watson, where they gave up 57 points), the Titans were a good defense. DVOA disagrees, putting them still around average even if you remove the first four games. The Titans should have a good defense. There’s no position that stands out like wide receiver where they’re straddling a thin line between adequate and potentially a disaster. Sure, defensive line depth isn’t great, but they have four players, all acquired by at least semi-significant investments, and that’s the only position that stands out like that. It’s up to Dean Pees and Mike Vrabel to assemble the collection of investments into a really good unit. Fan grumblings about failings in some key situations aside, Pees has coordinated some pretty good defenses. Vrabel’s been around good defenses, even if his Texans unit last year wasn’t one of them.
There are a ton of micro-questions all over the roster. Who’s going to play with Casey in sub package situations, and will they provide enough pass rush now that the Titans don’t have a Karl Klug-like player? Will at least two of Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo, and Harold Landry be healthy for every game? When will Rashaan Evans take the field, and can Will Compton or whoever takes his snaps in base personnel (I expect Jayon Brown to play sub) do enough? How will the Titans match up to the top receivers they face? Which two corners play in base, and will it be the same two every week? What kind of jump can Adoree Jackson make in year two from a player who didn’t allow many yards per play in coverage but didn’t do nearly as well by success rate? How will Pees and Vrabel address the “coverage vs. pressure” problem Dick LeBeau never managed to come close to solving last year? Should we just assume the Titans will give up 28+ points when they face a really good offense? Will there be any dime defense, like Pees and Vrabel have both been associated with in the past, or will the Titans continue to play nickel after keeping so many linebackers (both inside and outside)? Will Kamalei Correa play inside, where he did for Pees in Baltimore last year, outside, or both?
I don’t feel like I have great answers to any of those questions, or that answering them individually will give me the answer to the big question about the year’s Titans defense. Instead, it’ll be the answers to all those and other questions that answer the big question. Maybe if I’d watched enough of Pees to have as good a handle on his defense as I do on Kubiak-Shanahan (still not great, mind you, but enough to feel like I understand a little bit), I’d have a better feel for which questions are more important and which are more minor, but I haven’t and thus my uncertainty.
Maybe it’s because I just watched the NFL Network specials on last year’s Eagles, but Mike Vrabel in his first year as head coach will probably make some mistakes he won’t make in his second season. I’d feel better about his ability to make fewer mistakes if he’d spent more time in positions of increasing authority instead of four years in college, three years as an NFL position coach, and one year as an NFL coordinator. One thing I thought about him before training camp was “he’ll need 60-hour days to accomplish everything he wants to get done,” and John McClain noted in an article for Paul Kuharsky’s site that how to manage your time is often the hardest thing for first-year head coaches to learn by experience.
Whatever else Mike Mularkey did, he kept the Titans healthy. They were one of the ten healthiest teams in the league on both offense and defense in both 2016 and 2017, with three of those four units ranking in the top four. Especially at thinner positions, health is a huge benefit that isn’t evenly distributed. It’s hard to evaluate from the outside, but anecdotally, coaches seem to matter a lot. The volume of training camp injuries is an area of at least slight concern with a new head coach, and it’s definitely something I’ll be keeping an eye on during the season. We saw with the offensive line at the end of 2012 what a rash of injuries can mean to a particular unit, with potentially dire consequences for a team. Grumbling about hamstrings aside, that hasn’t been an issue with the Titans the past two seasons.
Another thought: the Titans were a better team in 2016 then they were in 2017. Both years, they went 9-7 in the regular season. 2017’s unit made the playoffs and won a playoff game. The link between team quality, record, and postseason appearance and performance once they get there is not even and absolute. If the Titans are as good as they were last year, they probably won’t win as many games as they did last year. But they could be better. Slightly better on offense, anywhere from slightly worse to much better on defense. But on the other hand, Andrew Luck will play this year and Deshaun Watson probably won’t tear his ACL, so the AFC South should be much more competitive. Luck, good or bad, could be the difference between first place and last place. The Titans could be better than I think they’ll be, or worse than I think they’ll be, and have a better record than I think they will, or a worse record than I think they will. Give me 8-8, plus or minus two games, as the Titans’ likeliest 2018 record.