The Titans have won their last three games and are one of three 8-6 teams vying for a wildcard spot in the AFC. Rookie head coach Mike Vrabel has said from the beginning that he wanted to run the football and play stellar defense, and that has been the winning formula for the Titans this year.
Possibly the best iteration of that identity emerged in the Titans' 17-0 win over the New York Giants last week, where the defense pitched their first shutout since 2000 and their offense piled up 215 yards on the ground.
This came a week after the Titans ran for 264 yards against the Jaguars in a 30-9 blowout win. Vrabel told reporters postgame that he likes the momentum the team has built up over their three-game win streak.
“I think that that was what we wanted to try to do, was try to build off of last week and carry over the confidence of running the football from last week,” Vrabel said. “The O-linemen seemed to embrace that. Obviously, the receivers are a huge part of that, but then seeing Derrick [Henry]— and then Dion (Lewis) came in there and gave us a little lift late in the game, had a couple huge runs on third down — 10, 12-yard runs — so that was great to see.”
As Vrabel alluded to, the emergence of former Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry has been a massive boost to the Titans offense — and team identity at large.
Over the last two games, Henry has run for 408 yards with a ridiculous average of 8.2 yards per carry. Nearly a quarter of that production came on one 99-yard run against Jacksonville that included numerous broken tackles and two impressive, nightmare-inducing stiff arms.
Henry has become the key cog in a Titans offense predicated on the run, but for two months of the season his future with Tennessee was in doubt. Prior to these last two games Henry had 474 yards on the ground over 12 games and was averaging 3.7 yards per carry. The Titans came into the season with a highly-lauded offensive line. Their tackles, Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin, were both graded in the top 25 of all offensive tackles by Pro Football Focus.
Conklin, who made first-team All Pro as a rookie, tore his ACL in a divisional round playoff game against the Patriots last year. He missed the first three weeks of this season recovering from that injury, and then played nine games before being placed on IR due to a knee injury.
Strangely enough, Henry’s explosion on the ground has coincided with Conklin exiting the starting lineup during the Jaguars game.
There are some stats that point to the Titans run game being more symptomatic of the offensive line than the running backs. Both Henry and Dion Lewis, the two backs who get the bulk of the carries, are in the top 10 for broken tackles on runs per Football Outsiders.
Football Outsiders also has the Titans offensive line ranked 25th in the league in adjusted line yards, or the average yards per rush the offensive line is responsible for. This number suggests that in 2018 the Titans offensive line has under-performed in the run game.
But one area of strength for them has been short-yardage situations. The Titans have a 71 percent success rate on downs where they need to rush for two yards or less, per Football Outsiders. This includes third down, fourth down and goal line situations where they’re within two yards of the end zone. Many of these conversions have come via Marcus Mariota’s ability to scramble for first downs.
This will be a key matchup this week as the Redskins are coming off a game in which they allowed Jaguars quarterback Cody Kessler to run for a career-high 68 yards, almost half of his career rushing yards.
Mariota is one of the best rushing quarterbacks in the NFL, both by volume and efficiency. Pro Football Focus has him graded as the second-best runner among quarterbacks in 2018, and his scrambling ability is most dangerous on third down.
Mariota's ability to run for first downs optimizes the offense by causing edge defenders to always account for the quarterback keeping the ball. It gives the zone read plays a benefit even when the quarterback doesn't keep the ball, and helps open up holes inside for the running back. On this play Mariota kept the ball himself and ripped off a 20-yard gain.
Knowing what Mariota can do with the ball in his hands affects how defenses defend zone reads like on the play above. The Titans had the ball on first-and-goal on the 1-yard line, and they run a zone read with Henry. The left guard (No. 62) and the center (No. 60) double team defensive tackle lined up over the left A-gap. The left tackle (No. 77) has a reach block to keep the defensive end out of the play and the threat of Mariota keeping the ball forces the safety (No. 31) to stay put and Henry gets in for an easy touchdown.
Stopping zone reads like this requires the edge players to remain disciplined. On the play above Jadeveon Clowney (No. 90) squeezes down the line while keeping his shoulder square to Mariota. Because Clowney squeezed, Mariota kept the ball thinking he could beat Clowney to the edge. Clowney's positioning (and his exceptional athleticism) allowed him to keep contain and ruin the play.
Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith will have similar responsibilities containing Mariota on option plays like this on Saturday. But for the Redskins to limit the Titans run game, the entire front seven will need to stay gap-disciplined and make tackles on first contact to limit Henry, Lewis and Mariota.
On the other side of the ball, the Titans defense has been a suffocating unit since Vrabel took over. The former Patriots linebacker and Texans defensive coordinator's impact on that side of the ball has been immediate, as the Titans jumped from 17th in scoring defense to second in the league.
One of Vrabel's first moves as head coach was letting go of longtime defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, an NFL legend who has coached in the league for decades. LeBeau was replaced by Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who had served as the defensive coordinator for the Ravens from 2012-2017. Peas and Vrabel have seen the Titans defense ascend to one of the league's best this season.
The Titans are only giving up 1.65 points per offensive drive, second-best in the league behind the Bears. A major reason for that is their defense. They're allowing touchdowns on 42.1 percent of red zone trips, the best rate in the NFL. This has translated to allowing a measly 4.0 points per red zone trip.
The Titans also lock up on third down, where they allow only 36.5 percent of third downs to be converted, eighth in the league. Being solid in crunch situations is what makes them so difficult to score on.
On top of that, they're successful in their blitzes. The Titans have sent five or more rushers on 28 percent of pass plays per Next Gen Stats. The Titans have sacks on 15.4 percent of plays where they sent at least one extra rusher, and quarterbacks average only 5.4 yards per attempt when the Titans blitz.
On the play above, the Titans run an overload blitz to the weak side of the offensive line. They lined up five defenders on the line of scrimmage and dropped the two linebackers on the right side, Wesley Woodyard (No. 59) and Harold Landry (No. 58), into coverage. By lining up over the right side the linebackers occupied the right guard and right tackle, and disguised where the blitz was coming from. At the same time the defenders on the left created a gap between the left tackle and the left guard by rushing wide.
The running back (No. 24) steps into the hole to block the (first) free rusher but No. 31 safety Kevin Byard gets in for the sack. From snap to sack the whole play happens in just under three seconds, and Cody Kessler (No. 6) is dropped for an eight-yard loss on third down.
The Redskins offensive line will have the toughest matchup of the game defending the Titans front seven. The Redskins will be on their 13th offensive line combination this season, and will have to face a talented front that can rush the passer with four or blitz and get to the quarterback. Keeping Josh Johnson upright, and making space for Adrian Peterson, will be lofty goals as the Redskins travel to Nashville this Saturday.