Tag Archives: Tennessee Titans

Coming Back Down to Earth

Eleven evenings after they dispatched the Kansas City Chiefs, the Buffalo Bills were in the process of dominating the Tennessee Titans.  With their 38-20 win in Kansas City, the football world was beginning to turn their eyes to Buffalo as the new standard bearer – at least as far as the AFC is concerned.

Now, on Monday Night Football, the Bills were mostly pushing around the Titans.  At the half, Buffalo had held possession of the ball for 20:15.  Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill went to the locker room having completed just 4 of 12 passes, including an interception, and, while the Bills were rolling up 17 first downs against the Titans, Tennessee could manage but 5.

Yet, for all of that, the Bills headed for the locker room leading at the half, but by only 20-17.  It’s a very bad omen when you thoroughly dominate a team in the first half, but it doesn’t show on the scoreboard.  Two seismic occurrences held Tennessee in this game.

Missed Chances

On their first two possessions of the game, Buffalo combined to run 23 plays for 112 yards.  They chewed up 10:46 of the first half clock.  One of those possessions even came on a short field after the Tannehill interception.  But, at the conclusion of those two drives, Buffalo led just 6-0, being held to field goals each time.

On the second possession, from first-and-goal at the five yard line, they had a touchdown called back for a holding call – it would be the first of two touchdowns called back.

Balanced against Buffalo’s two long clock-controlling drives that only ended in field goals, were Tennessee’s two touchdown “drives” of the first half.  Together, they combined for 3 plays, 86 yards and took a total of 47 seconds.  Tennessee’s first touchdown of the game came on the first play after Buffalo’s second field goal.  Running back Derrick Henry exploded up the middle for 76 yards – along the way, reaching a speed of 21.88 miles per hour – the top speed recorded for a ball carrier in the NFL this season.

That’s the fearsome combination that you get with Derrick.  He’s bigger than some of the linemen that block for him.  You’ll see him on the sidelines chatting with guards and tackles that have to look up to see him.  But he doesn’t run like any lineman I’ve ever seen.  Derrick Henry – and this isn’t news – presents a unique challenge.

Tennessee’s other first half touchdown came on a two-play, 11 yard “drive” after Buffalo’s Josh Allen suffered an interception of his own.

For the game, Buffalo held the lead for 36:57.  The Titans were only ahead for 14:10 of an entertaining game that saw 8 lead changes.  Tennessee’s offense had 11 possessions during the game.  They were playing with a lead in only one of them – the last one when Tannehill took a knee to run out the final 21 seconds to finalize their improbable 34-31 win (gamebook) (summary).

The game highlights all center around Buffalo’s final play – Allen’s failed quarterback sneak on fourth-and-goal at the Tennessee three-yard line.  Buffalo’s loss was less about that last play than it was about their first two drives.  They were also hampered by a Tennessee game plan that featured a lot of two-deep safeties (the same look that Buffalo gave Kansas City in Week Five) that worked to a similar effect.  The explosive Buffalo offense was held to just 4 plays of 20 yards, none longer than 31 yards.

As heard on the broadcast, Tennessee also schemed to get Allen rolling to his left rather than let him roll to his right.  That bit of the game plan worked out about as well as Mike Vrabel and his staff could have hoped.  Of the 45 passes that Allen actually threw to a target, 21 were thrown to the left side while only 12 were thrown to the right.  But while Josh went 8 for 12 for 94 yards and a touchdown throwing to his right, he was less dynamic going to the other side.  He completed 17 of the throws to the left – a healthy 81%, but for only 149 yards – just 8.8 per completed pass.  He also threw an interception throwing to his left, while none of his touchdowns went in that direction.  His passer rating on throws to the left side was an exceedingly modest 76.4.

Finally, Buffalo was undone by their own unwillingness to balance their offense.  I wrote about this last week.  In the post-game, coach Sean McDermott was asked about his team’s continued struggles in the red zone.  Buffalo was 2 for 5 in the red zone Monday night, and is now 16 for 29 on the season – a 55.2% that ranks them twenty-seventh in the league.  One reason is that this team doesn’t trust its running game.

At 5-7 and 203 pounds (official weight listing) no one will confuse Devin Singletary for Derrick Henry.  But Devin is averaging 5.2 yards per carry this season, and in 367 rushing attempts over his career, Singletary averages 4.8 yards per carry.  And – in spite of the fact that he’s smallish in stature – Devin is a tough runner. According to the “advanced stats” section of the football reference page I’ve linked to above, for his career Singletary is averaging more yards after contact (2.57) than before contact (2.26) and breaks a tackle every 11.5 carries (the league averages are about 2.5 yards before contact, 1.8 yards after contact, and a broken tackle on every 14 carries).

And yet, when Buffalo needed an inch to keep their chances going, the ball was in Josh Allen’s hands.  Devin was in double figures in carries through each of the first four games.  The Bills themselves ran the fourth-most times of any team in the league during their first four games, and their 145.3 rushing yards per contest ranked fifth in the league.  But once Kansas City popped up on the schedule, the running game went into hibernation – and such running game as they kept was all about Allen.

They ran as much as 28 times against the Chiefs only because they were well ahead in the fourth quarter.  They ran 23 times against the Titans (15 of those in the first half).  Singletary carried just 6 times in Kansas City – just twice in the second half.  He carried the ball 5 times in Tennessee.  With 12:10 left in the third quarter, Devin gained 4 yards up the middle.  It would be his last carry of the game, and his only carry of the second half.  Allen carried the ball 9 times in the loss to Tennessee – 5 of them designed runs.

Josh Allen is a compelling talent.  He is unmatched in the league for arm strength, he is more athletic than most quarterbacks, and he is the unquestioned charismatic heart of the team.  But when running the offense, McDermott and his staff have a fixation.  In big games, Josh is the only player they trust.  If there’s a yard to get, only Josh can deliver it.

If they didn’t have a talent like Singletary, that would be understandable.  But Devin is an awfully good back to be reduced to a spectator’s role in clutch situations.

Chargers Also Tumble

On the heels of a thrilling 47-42 conquest of Cleveland, the Los Angeles Chargers were also a team very much on the rise – and creating a lot of buzz.  Last Sunday’s matchup against Baltimore was heavily hyped as a showdown between two rising young quarterbacks – the Chargers’ 23-year-old second year signal caller Justin Herbert, and the Ravens’ 24-year-old former MVP Lamar Jackson.

The expected “showdown” never materialized, as Los Angeles was easily brushed aside, 34-6 (gamebook) (summary).  Coming off a scintillating 398-yard, 4-touchdown pass performance (he also ran for a score), Herbert struggled through the second worst (by passer rating) afternoon of his pro career.  In Week 13 of his rookie season, Justin and the Chargers were whitewashed by New England 45-0 – a game in which he managed a rating of just 43.7.  Last Sunday in Baltimore, things didn’t go much better for him.  Herbert completed just 56.4% of his passes (22 of 39) for just 195 yards – an average of 8.86 yards per completion.  His lone touchdown pass offset by an interception, it all led to a 67.8 rating.

It was a game the Chargers were never really competitive in.

A Week-to-Week League

The knee-jerk reaction here would be to wonder if both the Bills (who were actually road favorites against Tennessee) and the Chargers are over-rated.  It would be easy enough to re-cast them as two franchises led by very young quarterbacks (Allen himself is in his age-25 year), who aren’t really ready to win big games against established opponents.

A more accurate assessment would be that the NFL is a week-to-week league.  Of the two, Buffalo is farther along in the journey.  This is a team that played in the AFC Championship Game last year, and even though they are 4-2 now, this is still one of the top teams in the league.  If Allen had made that one inch on Monday night, the conversations this week would be different.

As far as the Chargers are concerned, there are still a few soft spots in their game that need to be strengthened before they can truly be considered contenders.  As I noted last week, this team has struggled all season to stop the run.  That was certainly evident as one of football’s better running teams exploited this flaw.

In controlling the clock for 19:18 of the first half, Baltimore battered the Chargers with 115 rushing yards on 16 carries and 2 touchdowns.  This was all just the first half.  They averaged an eye-popping 7.2 yards per carry, even though none of those runs gained more than 22 yards.  They came back in the third quarter to control the clock for 12:54 (of that quarter) on their way to pushing their lead from 17-6 to 27-6.  Baltimore out first-downed Los Angeles 9-0 in that third quarter.

In today’s NFL, run defense is not optional.  If you can’t stop the run, you won’t be invited to the playoffs.

But even if the Chargers aren’t quite ready to contend for the big prize yet, they are still a dangerous team, capable of upending any team on any given day.

If, in fact, you are looking for an actual take-away from these two games it wouldn’t be that Buffalo and Los Angeles are not as good as they’ve seemed.  The take away is that the teams that won these games – the Titans and Ravens – are more dangerous than they’ve shown so far this year.

The Titans have developed an annoying habit of playing down to their opposition.  They represent the only victory achieved by the New York Jets this season, barely beat a struggling Indianapolis team, and needed overtime to ease past a fading Seattle team.

But, in addition to devising a crafty game plan to slow the Bills (somewhat), Tennessee also laid into the league’s top defense – both for points allowed and yards allowed.  They cracked open the league’s third-best run defense (Buffalo had allowed just 78.4 yards per game) and chalked up 4 rushing touchdowns against a unit that had only surrendered 1 rushing touchdown through their first 5 games.

Meanwhile, after a slow start against a pass defense that was holding opposing throwers to a miniscule 60.7 passer rating (the best such figure in football), Tannehill completed his last 10 passes (including going 9-for-9 in the fourth quarter), on his way to a 14-17 second half.

Lest you’ve forgotten, this Titan team has made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, and three of the last four – reaching the Championship Game after the 2019 season.  The core of those teams is still there – even if they’ve been a little uneven to start the season.

As far as Baltimore goes, well the Ravens up to this point have looked like the most vulnerable of the 4-1 teams.  The still winless Detroit Lions all but beat them – it took a Justin Tucker 66-yard field goal that hit the crossbar and bounced over to win that game.  The one-win Colts would have dumped Baltimore last Monday Night if their kicker could manage a field goal (or an extra point).  Even their signature win to this point of the season (a one-point seesaw victory over the Chiefs in Week Two) is lessened by the fact that Kansas City has begun the season as football’s worst defense.

If any team could have been thought of as lucky to this point of the season, it was the Ravens who could easily have finished the easiest part of their schedule 1-4 instead of 4-1.

At the height of the curiosity about the Ravens was the steep drop-off in their defense.  In recent years under coordinator Don Martindale (who goes by “Wink”) the Raven defense has been one of football’s most intimidating.  They ranked twenty-eighth going into the contest against the high-flying Chargers, and ever since Derek Carr and the Raiders lit them up on opening night, there’s been a suspicion that clubs knew which of Martindale’s blitz packages could be exploited with up-field passes.

Whatever suspicions the rest of the league might have had about the Baltimore defense were thoroughly laid to rest last Sunday afternoon as the Ravens laid waste to Herbert and football’s third-ranked passing attack.

The Chargers managed just 80 yards of total offense in the second half, averaging just 3.2 yards per play.  Never all that committed to the run, the Chargers abandoned all efforts in that regard at halftime, when they ran just 5 times for 6 yards over the last 30 minutes.  Of the 27 rushing yards that they did manage, 12 of those came on two scrambles from Herbert.  The 10 actual carries by running backs were good for only 14 yards, with no carry gaining more than 5 yards.

Of particular note was cornerback Marlon Humphrey who almost completely denied the left side of the field to the Los Angeles passing attack.  When throwing to the left side, Herbert completed just 6 of 15 passes for 44 yards and an interception – a passer rating of 20.1.

The Chargers had 11 offensive possessions in the game.  In none of them did they advance the ball more than 38 yards from their starting point.  If they hadn’t been given a short field after a second-quarter interception, this team would almost certainly have been shut out.

Remember that this is the team that had struck for three plays of at least 37 yards in their previous week’s victory against Cleveland.

This was not only Baltimore’s most complete game of the season, but – given the quality of the offense they were facing – I think this was easily the most dominating defensive performance of the year.

Baltimore’s offense gets most of the press.  But when you watch a defensive performance this thorough, it quickly reminds you why the Ravens are in that small circle of teams that no one wants to face in a big game.

This is about that point of the season – six weeks in or so – when the teams that have been flying high early start to come back to the pack a bit, and some teams that will be heard from at the end of the season (that may have gotten off to sluggish starts) begin to re-assert themselves.

And things are just starting to heat up.

What Baltimore’s Learned About Derrick Henry

No one blocked Pernell McPhee.  I think that no one thought that they needed to.

There was 8:26 left in a scoreless first quarter between the Baltimore Ravens and the Tennessee Titans.  It was the first Sunday game of Super WildCard Weekend.  The Titans, with a first-and-ten on the Raven 22, handed the ball off to battering ram running back Derrick Henry (who, as I’m sure you’re aware, rolled up 2027 rushing yards this year).

There’s a thing that almost always happens when the ball is placed into Henry’s hands.  The entire defense converges on the Titans’ titan-sized back (who is still charitably listed as the 247 pounds he weighed when he came out of college).  “Rally to the ball,” is the common theme that you hear when defenses talk about stopping Derrick Henry.  Apparently it takes a village.  (This actually turns out to be true, but not quite in the way that most teams practice it.)

So now, here was quarterback Ryan Tannehill handing the ball to Henry, and here was McPhee standing just off right tackle, not rallying to the ball.  Not doing anything, really.  He was just waiting.

The middle of the defensive line is one of the great strengths of this Baltimore team.  Moving guys like Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe and/or Brandon Williams very far off the line is rare occurrence.

In this instance, it was Nate Davis – one of the really good guards in the NFL – trying to wedge Wolfe off his spot.  Not only did he not succeed, but Wolfe even started pushing him backward into the on-rushing Henry.  Seeing that nothing was developing in front of him, Derrick bounced the play outside to his right – right into the waiting arms of McPhee – who had done an uncommon thing (at least as far as Tennessee opponents are concerned).  He held his contain.

Several weeks ago, I made a point of highlighting Henry’s ability to rapidly cut into the void of a defense.  Those voids exist because most teams don’t have the discipline to stay in their contain when Derrick has the ball.  At that point, they are all about rallying to the ball.  But not the Ravens last Sunday afternoon.

In a display that must surely have caught the attention of the other defensive coordinators in the league, the Baltimore front seven played gap control defense.  As a team, they just never over-reacted to the ball in Henry’s hands.

Tennessee holding a 10-3 lead with 9:59 left in the first half.  The Titans are first-and-ten on their own 25.  Tennessee lines two tight ends to the end of the line on the left, executing a “stretch run” to that side, with Henry the ball carrier.  Linebacker Tyus Bowser gave some ground to the double-team block of those tight ends (Geoff Swaim and Jonnu Smith) but didn’t yield the edge.  On the interior, left tackle David Quessenberry and left guard Rodger Saffold were equally incapable of pushing through Wolfe and Williams, respectively.  Rookie linebacker Patrick Queen met the attempted block of center Ben Jones without budging, and another impressive rookie – Justin Madubuike, who we will talk a little more about later – had full control of Davis.

As Henry looked up, there wasn’t the slightest sliver of daylight for him to exploit at the point of attack – and there was McPhee holding contain on the cutback.

One quarter later, Baltimore now ahead 17-10 with 8:55 left in the third. Henry again looking for any crack in the Raven line.  Tight end MyCole Pruitt had the task of pushing McPhee off the edge.  Didn’t happen.  Saffold was equally unable to remove Madubuike.  Williams occupied both Jones and Davis, leaving Queen a completely clean gap – with Campbell holding his contain waiting for the cutback attempt.  Again, frustration for Henry.

This is a snapshot of what the whole game was like for Derrick, who finished with a season-low 40 rushing yards on 18 carries (for a season-low 2.2 yards per rush).  He had scored 8 touchdowns over his previous 6 games, but there was no end zone for him tonight.

Watching all of this play out, I was left with a couple of impressions – the first about gap defense in general and the second an understanding of how this specifically relates to Henry and the Titans – something, in short, that Baltimore has learned from the last two games against Derrick and Tennessee.

Two Gap Principles

First, gap control only works when your front seven trusts each other.  The reason, after all, that a player abandons his gap is because he believes that some other defender in some other gap isn’t capable of making a play by themselves.  One of the reasons that Baltimore’s defense is so good – and this is an elite defense – is because they all trust each other to make their plays.  Gap control is the ultimate “do your job” defensive approach.

It’s understandable that gap control could waver a bit when Derrick Henry is on the other side.  Who, after all, is capable of tackling King Henry one-on-one.  And yet, the Ravens did all night.  Here’s the thing that they understand.

Derrick Henry is a momentum runner.  In that sense, he’s different than, say, Baltimore’s J.K. Dobbins, who is at top speed the instant the ball is put into his hands.  At more than 250 pounds, Derrick needs a few steps to build up some momentum.  Once that happens, your defense is in deep trouble, but this almost always obliges the offensive line to at least get him past the line of scrimmage.  Up until that point, frankly, Henry is no harder to bring down than most other backs.

Usually this isn’t a problem, as Derrick runs behind one of football’s better run-blocking lines.  But on Sunday afternoon all of those good run blockers had their lunches handed to them.  Derrick averaged only 1.3 yards from scrimmage before being contacted (his season average of 2.5 yards before contact was about average).  Consequently, Derrick gained only 0.9 yards per run after contact (during the season his 2.8 yards after contact were among the league’s best).

Among the most culpable for this difficulty is tight end Swaim.  Usually trusted to give Derrick the edge, Geoff was pushed around the entire afternoon – never more so than on the three-yard loss that Henry sustained on a first-and-goal play from the Baltimore seven-yard line with 6:25 left in the first.  On that play, linebacker/end Matt Judon shot through Swaim as though he was made of toilet paper and dropped Henry as soon as the ball hit his hands.

Madubuike

Before I move too far away from this, just a bit of recognition for Justin Madubuike.  Justin is a rookie third-round draft choice out of Texas A&M who I hadn’t noticed before.  But every time I looked up on Sunday, there he was making another play.  In particular, for a big guy (and he’s listed at 293) he seems to have the technique down for slipping between double-teams.  He did this twice to make big plays on Sunday.  With 2:30 left in the first, he slipped between Saffold and Quessenberry, forcing Derrick to bounce the run back into traffic.  On that play, Justin was even quick enough to catch him from behind and pull him down.

Later, with 6:07 left in the third quarter (and with Henry on the sideline putting his shoe back on), a back named Darrynton Evans was sent off left tackle.  But Judon was there to deny him the corner – he was pushing Swaim into the backfield.  There was no opening next to him, either, as Quessenberry was having no luck moving Wolfe.  As Evans was starting to turn the run back to the right, Madubuike split the guard and tackle on the other side (Nate Davis and Dennis Kelly) and made the tackle.

Justin, apparently, got his opportunity during the COVID outbreak that the Ravens suffered through earlier this season – and given that chance, he seems to be making the most of it.  In a lot of ways Madubuike fits the mold of many of the great defensive linemen that have played in Baltimore.  He’s big enough to hold the line, but athletic, good with his hands, and difficult to lay a block on.  The Ravens may have a find in Justin.

Can Other Teams Do This Against Derrick?

In theory, other teams might employ this same approach when playing against Henry, but there are a couple of caveats that apply.  First and foremost, your team would need a defensive line capable of repelling that very good offensive line.  Baltimore was good enough to do this (at least for one game).  I’m not sure there are many other teams in the league that could.

There’s another piece to Derrick’s struggles in this game, though, that can’t simply be attributed to outstanding defense.  For some reason, although presented with several opportunities, Derrick Henry never took off down the sideline.  This is a stunning development for those of us who have watched him all year.  Almost all of his signature runs have found him outside of the defense, rolling full-steam down the sideline – usually the right sideline behind blocks from Kelly and Davis.  Some of that was the Ravens closing off cutback lanes.  Even with that, though, Derrick had several chances for the big run, and either didn’t see them, or passed them up for some other reason.

Third quarter, Baltimore ahead 17-10, Titans with 2:50 left in the quarter with a first-and-ten at the Raven 25.  The Titans line up with two tight ends to the left, causing the Baltimore defense to shift in that direction.  Now, the only Raven defender to the right of tackle is cornerback Marcus Peters, who disappeared from the play when the receiver he was covering – Nick Westbrook-Ikhine – ran a vertical up the right side.  Now the entire sideline is vacant.

Linebacker Jihad Ward tries to set the edge, as Henry starts rolling toward that vacant sideline, but Kelly has him under control.  Jihad’s chances of keeping Henry from the sideline are exceedingly poor.  But just before turning the corner, Derrick changes his mind and darts back toward the middle – where he is held to a three-yard gain.

Now there’s 12:11 left in the Tennessee season, first-and-ten on their own 42, trailing 17-13.  Westbrook-Ikhine again runs Peters downfield, opening the sideline.  This time, Judon – on the right edge – is pushing Swain into the backfield, but Henry has the angle and a still mostly clear path to the corner.  For some reason, he decides that he can’t get around Judon, and tries to turn back inside.  This time he actually trips over Swain’s feet and can only make it back to the line of scrimmage.

It’s futile to speculate why Derrick didn’t try – at least once – to get around the edge.  But he didn’t.  Sufffice it to say there were about four or five of these opportunities – enough to change the outcome of the event.

Not Much Without Henry

For the game’s first fifteen minutes, Tennessee looked like they could make short work of the Raven defense, even without much contribution from Henry.  Tennessee controlled the clock for 10:23 of that quarter, running 20 plays and rolling up 126 yards and 10 points.

For the entire rest of the game, Tennessee added just 3 more points, gaining just 83 yards on 31 plays.  Over the last three quarters Baltimore owned the time of possession battle, 29:01 to 15:59.  With their early lead not enough to force Baltimore out of its running attack, the Titan defense was faced with the necessity of defending football’s most dangerous ground attack for the full sixty minutes.  Needless to say, it did not end well for them.  The sometimes unstoppable Ravens sliced and diced their way through Tennessee to the tune of 236 rushing yards, on their way to a 20-13 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Leading the assault was quarterback Lamar Jackson, who piled up 136 of those ground yards.  Lamar piled up another 1005 rushing yards during the season, and his 6.3 yards per attempt led all of football.  Lamar was the centerpiece of a rushing game that averaged 191.9 yards per contest and 5.5 per attempt – both numbers easily the best in the NFL.

It’s hard to imagine that the NFL has ever seen a more dangerous ball-carrier than Jackson.  His ability to change direction almost at the speed of thought, makes tackling Lamar about as easy as tackling a feral cat.

But as natural and instinctive as Jackson is a s a runner, he is still that unnatural and forced as a passer.  Some have made claims that Lamar’s passing has continued to improve substantially.  In all honesty, I don’t see it.  Even in victory, Lamar isn’t truly throwing the ball any better or more consistently than he did in last year’s playoff loss.

Lamar’s Continuing Struggles

Several things continue to leap off the tape when you watch Jackson play.  First and most obvious is his minus arm strength.  The farther downfield you ask him to throw, the more erratic his performance becomes.  The Ravens, of course, understand this about Lamar.  At the same time, they understood that Tennessee was distinctly vulnerable to the downfield passing game.  With no pass rush to speak of, the Titans couldn’t play zone, and neither of their cornerbacks was a match for top receivers Marquise Brown or Miles Boykin.

On this particular afternoon, Baltimore had no difficulty getting receivers behind the Tennessee defense.  Getting the ball to them, though, was a different matter.  Look no farther than Jackson’s first quarter interception.

Boykin lined up in a tight split to the right with cornerback Malcolm Butler playing over him.  Malcolm played over Boykin’s outside shoulder, with the intent to keep him away from the sideline and direct him back toward his help in the middle of the field.  Butler’s outside leverage notwithstanding, Boykin extended his vertical stem until he was on top of Butler – at which point he broke sharply outside and started streaking up the sideline, gaining separation from Malcolm with every step.

Some 38 yards downfield, though, was too far.  Lamar’s throw was not only short but well to the inside.  It actually looked like Butler was the intended receiver.

I’m not really sure that there is anything you can do about arm strength.  If there were some exercises or drills that could add length to your throws, then everyone would be throwing 60-yard lasers like Josh Allen.  At some point, I think you have to accept that his arm is what it is and plan accordingly.

There are other issues, though – mental things – that Baltimore should well expect Lamar to have improved on by now.  These are also issues.

For one thing, Lamar still hasn’t developed that feel for when he can continue to wait on the deep routes to come open, and when he needs to check the ball down.  The Titans finished last in football in quarterback sack percentage.  They recorded only 19 for the season (Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt recorded 15 all by himself), and only managed to drag the opposing passer to the ground on 2.9% of his drop-backs.

Sunday they took Lamar down 5 times.  In looking at that number, no one need assume that Tennessee suddenly became the Steelers.  On every one of those sacks, Jackson had ample time and opportunity to either check the ball down, throw it away, or pull it down and run with it.  In almost all of those cases, Lamar kept waiting for deep routes to come open until he’d run out of time.

With 4:18 left in the first half, the Ravens, still down 10-3, faced first-and-ten on the Tennessee 49-yard line.  The Titans blitzed rarely throughout the afternoon, but they brought one here, playing a very soft and very deep zone defense behind it.  As Jackson stood in the pocket, both Boykin and Willie Snead broke wide open underneath the coverage – Snead deep enough downfield to get a first down.  But Jackson didn’t throw it.  He was waiting on Hollywood’s deep route.  Down the right sideline, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown was running a deep route that did, eventually split the zone.  But by the time Hollywood broke through, Jackson was on the turf.

Lamar did better (statistically) in the second half – completing 10 of his 13 throws.  But at that point the Ravens had given up on the deep throws and had Jackson dumping the ball off short to the first open receiver he saw.  As often as not, that turned out to be TE/Fullback Patrick Ricard, who the Titans struggling pass defense frequently forgot to cover.  It was a comforting second half, but it doesn’t negate the aspects of throwing the football that are still foreign to Jackson.

One play in particular encapsulates where Lamar is as a passer in season three of the Jackson Experiment.

Still trailing 10-0, the Ravens have the ball on Tennessee’s ten-yard line.  There’s 10:41 left in the first half and Baltimore is faced with a third-and-six.  Running back Dobbins was flanked wide to the left, and Tennessee trotted linebacker David Long out to the perimeter to cover him.  Conscious of Dobbins speed, Long allowed him a substantial cushion.  Next to Dobbins, Dez Bryant was in the slot, with Malcolm Butler directly over him in bump-and-run coverage.  At the snap, Dez headed for the corner of the end zone, bringing Butler with him.  Their path cut off Long’s path to Dobbins, who was running a shallow cross back across the middle.  J.K., at this point, was as wide open as any receiver was all day.  He was a short toss away from Jackson, would have easily picked up the first down, and well might have scored.

Jackson never threw him the ball.  Dobbins, you see, was not his first read.  You can see Lamar’s head turn and follow his first read – Dez Bryant headed for the corner of the end zone – for several seconds.

Dobbins was wide open just below Bryant.  It’s almost inconceivable that Lamar didn’t see him.  But his second read was Andrews over the middle.  So, after watching Dez for a while (too long, really), he turned his attention to Mark.  He even raised his arm to throw him the ball. But by then it was too late.  The pocket collapsed and Lamar pulled the ball back into his body just before Brooks Reed drove him to the ground.

This is where Jackson is as a passer.  After 37 regular season starts and three more in the playoffs, passing is still a paint-by-numbers exercise.  I guarantee you that any of the “passing” quarterbacks in this league, understanding the route combination would realize pre-snap that Long couldn’t possibly cover Dobbins’ route from a five-yard cushion.  Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees – pick your favorite – all these guys would have the ball in J.K.’s hands about a half second after the snap.

This evening, Jackson and his Ravens will travel to frigid (and possibly snowy) Orchard Park, New York, to face a very good Buffalo team.  One team’s playoff journey will continue.  Football is always a wildly unpredictable event.  If anyone claims that they predicted that Cleveland would jump out to a 28-0 lead on Pittsburgh if the first quarter of last week’s game, I would certainly ask to see the proof.

But within our understanding of the liklihoods of this game, the story lines seem crystal clear.

If the Baltimore defense can find a way to slow the Buffalo offense to the point where Lamar can keep running the ball, then the Ravens will probably win.  About the only notable weakness in this Buffalo team is its run defense.  Even in beating Indianapolis last week, they still surrendered 163 rushing yards to the Colts.

Those of you who watched that game might be quick to point out that more than half of those yards (82 to be exact) came on just three plays.  Other than that, the Colt run game was little heard from.  It wasn’t like they pounded the ball down the Bills’ throat all day.

This is true.  But understand that this is who the Ravens are as well.  They are not a grinding, 12-play, nine-minute, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust team.  They are a big play running team – a one-missed-tackle-costs-you-a-48-yard-touchdown kind of team.  In their own way, they are just as dependent on the big play as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  And if they are allowed to keep running the ball for the whole sixty minutes, that big run will almost assuredly come to pass (no pun intended).

On the other hand, if Buffalo solves the Baltimore blitz scheme (and a blitz-based pass defense always comes with some element of risk) and puts Baltimore in a position where they have to start throwing the ball, then the Ravens will be in trouble.

And that’s even if it doesn’t snow.

Derrick Henry: The Scat-Back in the Offensive Lineman’s Body

The game started as auspiciously as could have been hoped.  Tennessee and Indianapolis each traded 75-yard touchdown drives through the first four drives of the game.  Those drives consumed the entirety of the first quarter – and the first 2:09 of the second quarter – leaving the two teams tied at that point, 14 points each.

But that was as far as the Colts could hold with the Titans.  With 6:15 left in the half, running back Derrick Henry scored his second touchdown of the game, pushing Tennessee back in front 21-14.  They then forced an Indianapolis punt.

But the punt pinned Tennessee back on its own 14 with 4:25 left in the first half.  It was still early in the contest, but the Colt defense understood both the opportunity presented them to return the ball to their offense with excellent field position, as well as the consequences if the Titans should drive the field and score another touchdown.

This would turn out to be the decisive drive of the game, and Tennessee would begin it with a stretch run to the right.  Guard Nate Davis latched onto substitute nose tackle Grover Stewart and just drove him down the line.  Meanwhile, guard Rodger Saffold executed a cut block on Taylor Stallworth, opening up an enormous cutback lane for Henry.

But center Ben Jones – leading on the play – couldn’t throw the decisive block on Anthony Walker, who stood waiting for Derrick at about the 17 yard line.  Very quickly, Walker wasn’t alone.  Khari Willis and Julian Blackmon raced in from the secondary, while Kenny Moore and Al-Quadin Muhammad closed from behind.  For a fraction of a second, it looked like Henry was surrounded by Colts.

But just as it seemed that about half of the Indy defense would collaborate on this tackle, Derrick Henry was suddenly not there.  With the speed and awareness that set him apart as much as his size, Henry exploded through a tiny crack in the forming blockade, veering first rapidly to his left and then cutting sharply up-field inside of Corey Davis’ block on Xavier Rhodes.

And now, Henry was off to the races.  He didn’t go the distance this time.  Willis had enough of an angle that he eventually caught up with Derrick, but not until he had turned that 4-yard run into a 31-yard, game-changing burst.

That run began a 9-play, 86-yard drive with 8 of the plays running plays (Ryan Tannehill tossed one incomplete pass in the middle of all that running).  Henry ended the drive with his third rushing touchdown of the afternoon – an 11-yard burst around right end (again).  At about the 1-yard line, Blackmon thought he had a shot at him, but somehow Derrick slithered out of his grasp and walked into the end zone.

All this time, I think, we have been misunderstanding Derrick Henry.  The enormous tailback – charitably listed at 247 pounds – is often thought of as a battering-ram type back (along the lines of LeGarrette Blount).  But that’s not truly who Derrick is.  Trying to describe his build, the closest I can come is an offensive lineman’s torso attached to a basketball players legs.  And while that physique certainly presents challenges for would be tacklers, Derrick is not a lower-the-shoulder-and-run-through people kind of back.  When presented the opportunities here, he didn’t bowl through either the group of tacklers waiting for him on the 17-yard line or Julian Blackmon waiting at the one – although he almost certainly could have.

Derrick Henry is a scat-back trapped inside an offensive lineman’s body.  On an earlier run, Walker and Darius Leonard had Derrick dead to rights at about the line of scrimmage (Henry had cut his run back to the left where there was no one to block the Indy linebackers).  But Henry gained six yards on the run and neither Walker nor Leonard laid a finger on him as Derrick eluded their grasp with a spin move that Lamar Jackson would have been proud of.

It’s this uncommon combination of confined-space quickness and elite speed to go along with his Mack truck build that makes Derrick Henry one of the most dangerous offensive forces in the NFL.  That combination makes him nearly impossible to game plan against.

It’s no secret that the scat-back in Derrick wants to get to the outside.  In Tennessee’s 45-26 conquest of Indianapolis (gamebook) (summary), Henry racked up 178 rushing yards – 146 of them outside the tackles.  He ran around left end 9 times for 44 yards.  He circled right end 10 times for 102 yards and all 3 touchdowns.  But almost all of those big runs to the outside were set up by some kind of feint up the middle.  Sometimes even the slightest lean toward the center of the field was all it took to get the entire Colt defense to come charging to the middle of the field.  Because, when the Mack truck heads up the middle, everyone has to rally to make the tackle – even if that does allow the scat-back access to the edges.

That the production was so much greater to the right side is neither accidental nor unusual.  It’s almost always that way with Henry and the Titans.  The right side is where they deploy guard Nate Davis and tackle Dennis Kelly, two of the best football players that not a lot of people have heard of.  Many times Tennessee would completely tip their hand by lining Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith to that side, setting them right next to Davis and Kelly.  While both are among Tennessee’s top receivers, they are also accomplished blockers and led many of Henry’s sweeps around that end.

The casual fan might not even know that Jonnu played in the game, as he didn’t get even one pass thrown in his direction.  But on almost all of Henry’s big runs (and Derrick had 8 runs of ten or more yards) Jonnu was there throwing a critical block.

But even when you can tell that Henry is going to end up running around the end, you can’t always do much about it.  You still have to honor the feint toward the middle.

How to Slow Henry?

The Titans have lost three games this year, and in those games Derrick has been “held” to just 96.7 yards per game (but still 5.09 yards per carry).  Two methods have proved somewhat effective in containing this rushing attack.  One is to score enough points and establish a big enough lead that Tennessee has to abandon the running game.  This is how Indy won the first match against Tennessee.  Henry gained 103 yards in that game, but carried only 19 times as the running game was abandoned in the last quarter of that 34-17 Colt victory.

The other strategy is penetration.  The concept is you get to Derrick before he can build up any momentum.  The Colts started to do much more of this in the second half, when they held him to 38 yards on 10 carries.  This approach carries the same element of risk that blitzing a passer does, as a well-timed trap block grants Derrick a gaping lane.

Still, teams that have tried this approach do better – on the whole – than teams that take a less aggressive approach.

Colt Defense Gashed Again

Two weeks ago, the Colts boasted the NFL’s number one defense.  They were second against the pass and third against the run.  They also carried the league’s lowest passer rating against (78.9).

But two weeks ago, Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers lit up the pass defense (even though the Colts came back to win that game).  This week, the Titans gouged the run defense.

It makes it difficult to truly believe in this team.  The bludgeoning this week could come with an asterisk, as Grover Stewart was trying to replace DeForest Buckner, who – like fellow defensive lineman Denico Autry – missed this game due to positive COVID tests.  Stewart was routinely abused by pretty much all of the Tennessee offensive linemen.  Additionally, he provided little relief to the linebackers behind him, as I don’t remember ever seeing him tying up multiple linemen.

But, if it’s true that Stewart wasn’t a strong presence against the run last Sunday, it’s also true that both Buckner and Autry played in that first game against the Titans, and neither of them were terribly impressive as Tennessee rang up 157 rushing yards (averaging 4.9 per) before they were forced to abandon their running game.

Indianapolis has made strides, but they’ve still got some proving to do.

AFC Playoff Implications

With the victory, the Titans now take control of the AFC South, essentially switching places with Indy.  But that switch will have some ripple effects.

With a better conference record, Miami held the tie-breaker against Indianapolis – so they likely would have been the third seed, with the Colts fourth.  Tennessee, though, will probably carry the tie-breaker against the Dolphins (better record against common opponents).  So the Titans now have the inside track on the third seed, with Miami likely dropping to fourth.

Conversely, Tennessee’s victory over Baltimore gave them the tie-breaker there.  So, when Indy was in control of the division, the Titans were likely to earn the fifth seed with the Ravens slotting into the sixth seed.  With Indy in the wild-card mix, that advantage is switched as well.  By virtue of their win over the Colts, Baltimore now has the inside track to the fifth seed, leaving the Colts to take the sixth seed.

And yes, even though Baltimore lost on Wednesday, their playoff position is still more likely than not.

Pittsburgh’s New Two-Second Rule

I say the name Ben Roethlisberger.  Then I ask you to close your eyes and tell me the first image that comes to your mind.

Big Ben is in his seventeenth NFL season – and, in fact, just won his 150th start last Sunday.  He has 13 additional playoff wins, including two Super Bowls.  So, when I ask for the first image that comes to mind, I realize that that is covering a lot of ground.

If you’re like me, though, one of the very first images is of Ben lofting a perfect 50-yard strike to a fleet receiver (Antonio Brown, maybe?) who has about a step on his defender.  During his long career, Roethlisberger has been regarded as one of football’s best deep arms.

Yards per completion is one way to gage a quarterback’s up-the-field performance.  In general, the deeper you throw, the higher your yards per completion.  The NFL average (this year) is 11.2 yards per every completion.  For his career, Big Ben is averaging 12.1 yards per completion, leading the NFL in this category twice with 14.2 y/c in 2005 and 13.3 in 2010.  Of his 376 regular season touchdown passes, 88 have covered more than 30 yards, and 4 have covered more than 90 yards.

If this is your memory of Big Ben, then maybe (like me), you have been a little lost watching the Steeler games this year.  Third year offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has re-invented the way Pittsburgh does business.  The long, up-the-field passes are fewer and farther between.  The goal now is for Ben to get the ball out of his hands quickly. He takes the snap (mostly from the shotgun) finds the first open receiver, and gets the ball out of his hands.

Among the advanced passing numbers tracked by pro-football reference (on this page) are average time in the pocket (before the throw comes out) and average intended air yards (average of how many yards in the air all of the passes go – whether completed or not).  In the “pocket time” category, you’ll find Big Ben tied with Teddy Bridgewater for shortest pocket time in the NFL (2.1).  He ranks twenty-ninth in intended air yards – at just 6.6.  In 2018 he averaged 7.8 air yards per pass.  In his abbreviated 2019 season, he averaged 9.3.  On Sunday against Tennessee he averaged 5.4.

So far this year, Roethlisberger is averaging 9.9 yards per completed pass.  He has never finished a season under 10.0 before.

The reasons behind the change could be varied.  It could be intended to keep Ben – now 38 years old – from taking hits.  It could be that the Steeler brain-trust envision this concept as the best usage of their personnel.  As far as speedy receivers go, Pittsburgh certainly has its quiver full.  Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and the so-far unheralded Diontae Johnson can all get from point A to point B in a blur.  Perhaps, instead of having Roethlisberger standing in the pocket waiting for one of them to get 50 yards downfield – where a completion might be a 60% likelihood, it might be argued that a quick, high-percentage short pass to one of these speedsters with room to run is, in fact, the most efficient use of this talent.

Even as I continue to wonder if this is really the best offensive fit for Pittsburgh, I will admit that the numbers – so far – enthusiastically support the concept.  Big Ben entered last week’s game against Tennessee carrying a 109.1 passer rating.  If maintained, that would be the highest of his career.  The team also entered the game fourth in scoring offense.

Well, OK.  But Pittsburgh’s first 5 opponents this season don’t exactly feature some of the NFL’s most feared defenses.  The Steelers began the season conquering the New York Giants (1-6 so far), Denver (2-4), Houston (1-6), Philadelphia (2-4-1) and the 5-2 Cleveland team.  The Titans team that they faced off against Sunday also brought a 5-0 record to the table and were considered their stiffest challenge to date.  And for the first half of the game, everything seemed to align as the numbers suggested they should.

Again and again Ben quickly found open receivers underneath Tennessee’s pliant zone defenses.  Pittsburgh would score on each of its first four possessions, taking a 24-7 lead into the locker room.  As for Ben, up to the point where he heaved a last second interception on a Hail Mary attempt, he was carrying a 116.7 rating (17 for 24 for 160 yards and 2 TDs).  What’s not to like.

The second half, however, was very different.

Chastened by their first half problems, the Titans found ways to use the Steelers’ ultra-quick passing attack against them.  They played a bit more man coverage, and played it tighter, denying the receivers a quick opening.  When they went to zone, they tightened up the short zones, making sure tackles that eliminated most of the run after the catch.  And they blitzed more and more creatively – the pressure speeding up the process.  This was maybe the most effective aspect of what they did.  The pressure caused some bad throws and some bad decisions.  Pressure, by the way, is something they are pretty much guaranteed to see against Baltimore.  The Ravens blitz more than anyone in the league (46.1%).

The changes showed in Roethlisberger’s second half line – his 15 completions (in 24 attempts) accounting for just 108 yards with 2 interceptions against no touchdown passes, resulting in a 38.2 passer rating.

There are some things I see happening that are, I think, traceable to the new offense.  On Sunday Ben threw the ball 49 times.  Of these almost 50 throws, only 10 were farther than 10 yards up the field.  Ben completed only 3 of these – with 2 interceptions.  One of the great deep-ball throwers of his generation, Roethlisberger threw the ball more than twenty yards up field just 3 times.  He was 0-for-3 with the 2 interceptions.

That final interception came on his second deepest throw of the game – about 28 yards over the deep middle.  Smith-Schuster was trying to split the middle of a cover-two, with Jayon Brown running down the seam with him.  It would have been a 50-50 chance at best (Johnson, running clear underneath, would have been the better option), but Ben didn’t even allow JuJu the opportunity.  The throw sailed to the other side of the defender, putting Brown in between the ball and the receiver.  In about the middle of the end zone, the three converged.  Brown deflected the ball and Amani Hooker gathered it in.

It occurs to me that if you don’t air the ball out on something of a regular basis, your ability to do so suffers somewhat.  There’s a muscle memory aspect of the 50-yard bomb that may diminish if it’s not employed with some regularity in game situations.

A second point.  According to Ben’s passing chart (available here), 25 of his 49 throws went into roughly the same area – left of the hash and within 17 yards of the line of scrimmage.  It’s the kind of concentration that suggests the quarterback had decided where he was going to throw the ball before it was even snapped.

I saw him do this more than once.  With 3:04 left in the first half, and Pittsburgh ahead 14-7, Ben faced a second-and-5 on the Tennessee 25.  Again, Johnson was open in the flat, but Roethlisberger had already decided that he was throwing this one to Eric Ebron up the left sideline – which he did even after Tennessee’s defense defined itself as a pure zone, leaving Johnathan Joseph sitting there waiting for the ball.  This one wasn’t intercepted, but could have been.

A two-second passing attack gives itself to plays like this.  The pressure on the quarterback to make lightning fast decisions encourages him to subconsciously pre-determine where the ball will go.

As a final point, I noticed several times that the receivers stopped working to get open after a few seconds.  This was particularly true against the zone defenses.  Again, in an offense where the ball is almost always out after about 2 seconds, it’s human nature to let up a little after that normal time had elapsed.

I guess my question here is, does an offense have to be all one way?  Can’t they be both?  Along with all their catch-and-release plays, can’t they sprinkle in a few old fashion deep heaves?  If nothing else, it might open up a little more space for the catch-and-run plays.

A Word on the Defense

The most anticipated part of this game was the match-up between the Titan’s second-ranked offense and the Steelers’ second-ranked defense – specifically between Tennessee’s fifth-ranked, Derrick Henry-led running game against Pittsburgh’s second-ranked run defense.

The game didn’t disappoint.  Henry did have his moments, but at 75 yards on 20 carries he was very much contained.  The enduring memory from the game, though, was Robert Spillane pouring through the line at top speed and plowing into Henry at the goal line to deny him a touchdown.  For the moment, anyway.  It was about as close to lighting up Derrick Henry as you will ever see.

Next up, of course, are the Ravens and their league-leading running attack.  This should also be a great watch.

And the Titans

Valiant comeback aside, Tennessee’s last second field goal attempt sailed wide right and they went home with a disappointing 27-24 defeat (gamebook) (summary).  Even so, the energetic performance of its defense in the second half has to be very encouraging.  In spite of winning their first 5 games, they had allowed 30 or more points to Jacksonville, Minnesota and Denver.  As they faced off against the Steelers, they carried the twenty-eighth ranked pass defense.

But they held Pittsburgh to 3 points, 9 first downs and 134 total yards in the second half, providing a measure of hope for the rest of the season.  If Tennessee is hopeful of making another deep run in the playoffs, they will need THAT defense to show up more often.

Lamar Jackson Exposed?

The party line in Baltimore goes something like this –

Hey, Lamar Jackson is a very young man (which is true, he turned 23 four days before his Divisional Playoff game).  Just look – they will say – how much he improved from his first year (again, true.  Both the eye test and the statistics bear that out).

They will then extrapolate that year-over-year improvement to project Lamar to be about the passing equivalent of Tom Brady in his prime by, say, next year.  In the aftermath of another humbling playoff defeat, I think we should tap the brakes a little on the “Lamar Jackson as Superhero” talk, and take a clear look at where Lamar Jackson, the quarterback, is now and what we can reasonably expect him to become.

The first – and, I think – most illuminating question to ask is, “what did Tennessee do to make this Baltimore game so different from the previous twelve Baltimore games?”  The answer is simply this:

They played with a lead.

While the world has been busy writing Lamar’s Hall of Fame induction speech, the most remarkable story to come out of Baltimore this season has been Don Martindale’s defense that has simply refused to let the Ravens fall behind.  Blitzing at a rate that most teams would call insane, Martindale’s defense – especially over the last eleven games of the regular season – was football’s most dominant unit.

Over that 11 game stretch – that included contests against Seattle, New England, Houston, the Rams and San Francisco – Baltimore allowed just 14.5 points and 268.9 total yards per contest.  They allowed just 14 offensive touchdowns over those eleven games – most of those coming late after the game had already been decided – while taking the ball away 19 times.  Opposing running games averaged just 94.8 yards per game, and opposing passers rated just 70.7.

Their foundational approach – which is to consistently send more rushers than you have people to block them – doesn’t seem on its surface to be rocket science.  But over the last three-quarters of the season, no one could crack this unit.  Not until the Tennessee Titans rolled into Baltimore with an idea of which blitzes they could take advantage of.

Both of quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s touchdown passes came against Baltimore blitzes – and suddenly the Ravens were down 14-0.

With the first quarter over, and down two scores, the Ravens – who ran the ball at a historical rate this year – began to slide away from the running game and began to lean on the arm and passing skills of young Mr. Jackson.

With three quarters of football left, wasn’t it too early to leave behind the running game?  I would say, yes.  But 14 points is a significant deficit, and there are some reasons why I can understand Baltimore’s decision to air the ball out – and in so doing, exposed the weaknesses still extant in Lamar’s passing game.

One factor, I will call the Derrick Henry factor.  The Raven’s running offense isn’t usually a quick-strike offense.  Over the course of the season, they averaged first in average time of possession and average plays run per drive (3:22 and 6.61 plays per).  Realizing that Tennessee would be grinding the clock with handoffs to Henry every time they possessed the ball, Baltimore may have felt that there wouldn’t be enough time for them to methodically drive down the field and chip away.

The second possible factor might simply be that Baltimore – for some reason – believed that Jackson was fully capable of bringing his team from behind using his arm as his primary weapon.

Coach John Harbaugh is one of the very best coaches in the NFL.  But if that is what he thought, he couldn’t have been more wrong.

By game’s end, Jackson would have thrown for a stunning 365 yards.  But that would be the result of an eye-popping 59 passing attempts – the results of which would also include 2 interceptions and 4 sacks – including a strip sack that set up Tennessee’s last touchdown of the game.  The soon-to-be-named MVP wrapped up a season in which he finished third in passer rating at 113.3 with a sobering 63.2 rating and – on the heels of his second consecutive playoff struggle – more than a few questions to answer.

In this story found at ESPN.com, coach Harbaugh references a meeting he has already had with Jackson regarding the improvements we should all be expecting next season from Lamar Jackson 3.0.  He, of course, didn’t share any details.  But here are a few things that I noticed from last Saturday’s game that might be on that list.  We’ll start with some of the more fixable things.

Staring down receivers: No, Lamar doesn’t do this as often as he did as a rookie, but it is something that happened on more than one occasion last Saturday.  The most damaging of these resulted in the Kenny Vaccaro interception – a play where he followed intended receiver Miles Boykin all the way to the flat.  The Titans were in zone on that particular play.  When you stare down a receiver against man coverage, usually only the deep safety can notice and adjust.  In zone, everyone is reading the quarterback’s eyes.

With 1:55 left in the first half (Baltimore trailing 14-3 at this point) Jackson had Marquise Brown tight to the end of the line on the right.  In this man coverage scheme, Adoree’ Jackson would have Brown, and had given him about nine yards of cushion.

At the snap, Jackson continued to retreat as Brown began his vertical stem, and Jackson was still about seven yards away from Brown when Marquise turned his route back over the middle.  At one point, Brown camped all alone in the middle of the field right in front of Lamar with Adoree’ still a good five yards behind him.

But Lamar was clearly watching only tight end Mark Andrews, who was having significant trouble shaking free of Kevin Byard.  Jackson looked nowhere else, until the pressure made him uncomfortable – at which time, he just threw the ball out of bounds. Which brings me to the next issue.

Missing Open Receivers:  Let’s be honest. No quarterback, regardless of skill or experience, finds every open receiver.  They all miss them, sometime.  With Jackson, it still happens with too much frequency.  And there are times where he still seems very uncomfortable in sorting out zone defenses.

The most glaring of these occurred at the 6:47 mark of the second quarter.  As Logan Ryan was drawn in by the play fake, Hayden Hurst blew right by him and found himself all alone down the middle of the field.  Lamar didn’t see him.

Two plays later, Tennessee was in cover-two, with Vaccaro responsible for deep routes to the right sideline.  Adoree’ Jackson had the flat to that side.  As Marquise Brown flew up that sideline past A Jackson for a should-have-been walk-in touchdown, Vaccaro – eyes on L Jackson – never looked behind him.  Lamar never looked at him, either.

With 13:39 left in the third, the Titans were in cover-three.  The Ravens had four vertical routes called, two up each sideline.  The two outermost receivers – Brown to the right and Boykin to the left – were all but abandoned by the defense, but Jackson threw to one of the receivers (Nick Boyle) that the secondary did settle around.

Lack of Anticipation:  There was a play that I can’t find now, so I’ll ask you to trust me on this one.  It was Hayden Hurst running a deep cross that Lamar gave up on even though it was clear that he would be open as soon as he made his break.

These are things I expect that Jackson can work on.  The problem is that to get better in these areas, you have to throw the ball more than 15 times a game.  Especially in a system that doesn’t rely much on the quarterback anticipating a route – or even reading a zone defense.  The Baltimore system is based on getting the defender to drop his coverage reacting to some flavor of play-action, and having Lamar throw the ball to the abandoned receiver.  These are things that can be practiced, but if not employed in games . . .

And then there are some things that I’m not sure can be improved with practice.  Things like . . .

Composure: Viewed honestly, Jackson didn’t sustain his focus as he tried to bring his team back from behind.  I often think this is the hardest part of quarterback play in the NFL.  Here are a couple of examples – both from the fourth quarter with the Ravens down by 22 points.

It’s first-and-ten from the Ravens’ 23.  Baltimore had four vertical routes called, with Tennessee in man, but backpedaling to keep the play in front of them – so there was lots of opportunity for a comeback route.  Lamar doesn’t even give the deep routes a chance to develop as he immediately dumps the ball off to outlet receiver Justice Hill for a 3-yard gain.

About a minute later Baltimore is first-and-ten on the Titan 42.  A similar story.  Four vertical routes running against man coverage – remember, we are trailing by 22 with 13:07 left – and Jackson immediately dumps the pass to Mark Andrews for no gain.

If Lamar were under siege, then, of course you check the pass down.  On both of these plays, Jackson had plenty of time in the pocket and could easily have waited two or three seconds to see if one of his verticals could shake free.

Accuracy: Even a bigger problem.  Far too many of Lamar’s passes are just off target.  His receivers in this game were charged with 7 drops – and, in the NFL, if you get your hands on the pass, you are expected to pull it in.  But, Good Lord at least half of the drops were on passes behind the receiver, or over his head, or some other poor location that adds unnecessary difficulty to the play.

The best example of this is the first interception – the one that slid through Andrews’ fingertips.  Andrews has been making that catch – elevating above his defender – all season.  I have thought all along that he is one of the most consistent I have ever seen in coming down with the hard-thrown pass just over his head.  He didn’t make it high enough for this one – and his sore ankle may have had much to do with that – so it could be construed as bad luck.

But here’s the thing.  There was no one in front of him.  With Logan Ryan trailing him, the next closest Titan was Vaccaro who was almost 8 yards away with his back turned to Andrews as he was busy chasing Boykin up the sideline.  This wasn’t a tight window that he was throwing into.  If Jackson had just led him, it’s likely that instead of the interception, Jackson and Andrews could have a sizeable gain.

With 13:47 left in the game, Hurst got in behind Tennessee’s Amani Hooker despite a cover-four defense, but could only watch as the pass sailed over his head.  With 1:58 left in the game, Brown and Boykin are both running deep crossing routes and end up colliding with each other.  It doesn’t matter as the pass was way over both of their heads.  On the final play of their season – fourth-and-eleven from Tennessee’s 21 yard line – Miles Boykin beats Tramaine Brock cleanly on a crossing route and is wide open at the sticks – but the throw is too far in front and Miles can only feel it slide through his fingertips.

There are about a half-dozen more examples I could cite.  Additionally, his accuracy falls off sharply the farther up-field he tries to throw.  Saturday night, Jackson was only 5 of 15 on passes more than 15 yards up-field (just 4 for 11 at more than 20 yards).  Comparing to other quarterbacks in the divisional round who trailed by double-digits at some point during their game, Patrick Mahomes was 5-9 at 15 yards or more, and 1-2 over 20 yards.  Deshaun Watson was 10-14 with a TD over 15 yards, including 7-11 at 20 yards or more.  Russell Wilson was also 5-9 at more than 15 yards – including 2-3 at more than 20 yards.

And Lamar’s problems with accuracy are even more pronounced when he tries to make . . .

Passes Deep Outside:  This was actually part of Tennessee’s game plan.  I won’t go back and cite chapter and verse here – Dan Fouts did a fine job pointing these out during the broadcast.  Some of these throws sailed out of bounds, some were short – all were late.

These are areas that I’m not sure how much better Lamar can get.  Some of these are arm-strength issues.  I don’t know if there is anything you can do to get more arm strength.  I mean, if there were exercises that could improve that, then everyone would be throwing 70-yard lasers down the field.

If he can improve his anticipation, he could throw those deep routes earlier.  That would make some difference.  But that is problematical, too – if for no other reason than it allows more time for bad things to happen (receivers falling down, defenders baiting the throw, etc).

Who Lamar Jackson is right now is a gifted, gifted runner with about average passing skills who is cocooned in a brilliant system that – as much as is humanly possible – features his skills while masking his deficiencies.  Harbaugh may eventually do this well enough that he might get Jackson that Super Bowl ring someday.  But at this point I rather doubt that Lamar will ever be a great passer.

He will certainly never be as great throwing the ball as he is running with it.  I don’t know that it’s possible for anyone to ever be that good at throwing the ball.

For those of you thinking the results of this game were just rust, the critical understanding that needs to come out of this is that the Titans expected this to happen.  They weren’t just hoping Lamar would have a rusty game.  They knew that if they could get ahead and force the Ravens to pass that Baltimore would be in for a struggle.

Oh, And By The Way

So, Tennessee won this battle of Neanderthal football teams, and I have spent the entire post writing about Baltimore.  The Titans, it seems, are headed to Kansas City for the AFC Championship Game.  How will they do?

Considering that this team has just gone into New England and Baltimore and authored huge upsets, it’s getting harder and harder to pick against them.

But the challenge they will face in Kansas City is different than any they have faced so far.  The Chiefs are the most proficient and diversified offense in football.  Where the Titans could game-plan around Jackson’s weaknesses, they won’t find any in Mahomes’ game.  Patrick can make all of the throws and read all of the defenses.  And he can come from behind, too.

If Tennessee can keep it close through the first half, their chances increase.  The second half is almost always when Henry takes off.  Keeping the game close enough through the first half, though, will be a significant challenge.  The Titans are not an elite defense.  They were twenty-first overall and twenty-fourth against the pass.  Facing an elite offense that is currently firing on all cylinders may be too much to ask of this courageous Tennessee squad.

The more I think about the upcoming Super Bowl, the more it shapes up as a contest between the irresistible force (the KC offense) against the immovable object (the SF defense).  The Packers and Titans will be greatly challenged to re-write the script.

Two Questions Following the Titans’ Conquest of the Patriots

The pass game and the run game support each other in so many ways that it is difficult to quantify the impact that each has on the other.

The Tennessee Titans began last Saturday’s contest in New England with a 12-play, 75-yard drive that ate up 6:58 of the first quarter clock.  Coming into the game with the NFL’s third most prolific running attack – backboned by the NFL’s leading rusher – The Titans played nearly the entire first drive with three tight-ends on the field.  Although this is a pronounced running formation, the Patriot defense’s respect for the Tennessee passing attack was such that they responded to these formations with a standard 4-3 defense and two deep safeties.

This provided an edge that Tennessee took full advantage of, as running back Derrick Henry chewed up 49 yards on 7 carries.  He did the heavy lifting in a drive that produced the touchdown that gave Tennessee a temporary 7-3 lead.

The Patriots responded quickly to the problem, switching to a 3-4 defense, replacing Deatrich Wise with Jamie Collins.  They also began dropping secondary players toward the line.

This strategy enjoyed a brief success, as Tennessee went three-and-out on its next two possessions, with Henry held to 4 yards on 2 carries.

So Tennessee responded just before the half by playing two wide receivers and just two tight ends.  Two tight ends is still a strong run formation, and in previous versions of the Titans might have had no impact on the Patriots.

But the reborn Tennessee passing attack – featuring the NFL’s top rated passer – is increasingly impossible to ignore.  Ryan Tannehill finished 2019 with a 117.5 passer rating.  His 70.3% pass completion percentage didn’t come by virtue of a series of dump-off passes either.  Ryan also led the NFL in yards per completion (13.6) and yards per attempted pass (9.59).

So when the Titans introduced a second wide receiver, the Patriots responded with five defensive backs.  That was the personnel grouping they were in when Henry broke a 29-yard run off of right tackle – the first play of a 7-play, 75-yard drive that consumed most of the last 2:16 of the half.  Henry carried 4 more times in that drive for 24 yards – including the last yard for Tennessee’s last offensive score of the game.

This was the beginning of the chess match between Bill Belichick and Titans’ OC Arthur Smith.  Throughout most of the second half, New England returned to the formation that frustrated the Rams in last year’s Super Bowl – a 6-1 that was really four down-linemen with a linebacker wide to each side and one linebacker roaming the middle.  The intent here was to defend the edges – which they did with great effectiveness.

But sending Henry back up the middle didn’t stop the Tennessee running game.  It just slowed them down.  Instead of ripping off 7 to 12 yard bursts, the Titans wore down New England under a series of 3-to-6 yard body blows.  After gaining 106 yards on 14 carries in the first half, Henry ground out 76 second half yards on 20 grueling second half runs – allowing Tennessee to run the clock for 19:42 of that last half.

For the game, it was another sizeable rushing performance by Henry.  Derrick finished the evening with 182 yards on 34 carries.  He was the engine that fueled the Titans’ 20-13 WildCard victory over the defending champions from New England (gamebook) (summary).

Wither the Patriots

In the aftermath of this win that apparently caught everyone but me by surprise, there are the expected questions about the Patriots.  Is that it for the dynasty?  Is Tom Brady finished?

Well.  Every dynasty does, eventually, end.  And some day Brady will – in fact – have to yield to age and mortality.  Those days may not necessarily be upon us yet.

Clearly, New England and Brady took steps backwards this year.  The 420 points they scored was their fewest since they managed 410 in 2008.  That, of course, was the year that Brady missed and Matt Cassel quarterbacked the team.  The Pats also finished fifteenth in total offense – their lowest in 16 years.

As for Brady, his 60.8% completion percentage was his lowest in 6 years, his 24 touchdown passes were his fewest (in a full year) since 2006, his 3.9% touchdown pass rate was the lowest of his career, his 10.9 yards per completion was his lowest since 2002, and his 88.0 rating was his worst since he rated 87.3 in 2013.

Far too often in sports you are only as good as your last game.  Exercising a bit of memory is frequently more effort than fans and sports writers want to expend.  There are some things that need attention in New England, but the future isn’t as black as it no doubt appears to some of the faithful.

About 80% of everything wrong in New England can be fixed by fixing the offensive line.  Over the long history of the New England dynasty, the Patriots have had to rebrand themselves several times depending on the skill sets of the roster at any given time.  Throughout all these re-inventions, the Patriot offensive line was always ready to enable whatever offensive focus the team decided to embrace, from power running to short passing game.  Without any exaggeration, the most underappreciated aspect of the New England dynasty has been the consistent excellence of its offensive line.

More than any other part of the team, the line drastically underperformed this season.  There was never a running game to turn to, as there were never holes to run through.  New England finished 18th on the ground this year (106.4 yards per game) and 25th in yards per carry at a struggling 3.8.

On the pass blocking side, Brady finished as the fifth hardest quarterback to sack as he went down on just 4.2% of his dropbacks.  That number belies the struggles his line had in pass protection.  A frequent sight in any New England game this season was Brady flinging the ball into the dirt to avoid a sack.

This year, football reference has been tracking – among other things – passes thrown away.  To no one’s surprise, Brady led the league in that dubious category, his 40 throw-away’s being almost a third more than the next closest quarterback (Aaron Rodgers threw away 31).  Brady only tossed away 22 passes last year.

At no time was the offensive line’s shortcomings more apparent – or more costly to the team – than on the goal line situation that provided the turning point of the game.

With a little more than five minutes left in the first half, a 12-yard pass from Brady to Rex Burkhead gave the Pats a first-and-goal at the one yard line.  Running back Sony Michel lost a yard on a first-down carry.  Burkhead gained that yard back on a second-down run.  Then Michel lost two more yards running on third down.  Then Nick Foles kicked the field goal.

This kind of futility is never seen in New England.  Not until this year, anyway.

Yes, their receivers didn’t get the separation they have in the past, and there was almost zero production from the tight end spot (in the absence of Rob Gronkowski).  But the season long headache in New England was a poor offensive line.

The Patriot dynasty will end one day.  But as long as Belichick and Brady are still wearing Patriot blue, New England will never be more than a tinker away from their next Super Bowl run.

Can the Titans Do It?

The other question that deserves a look concerns the prospects of the Titans authoring another upset tonight in Baltimore.  Can Tennessee take down the seemingly unbeatable Ravens?

Yes, I believe they can.  But it won’t be easy.  There are a couple of enormous challenges that any opponent of Baltimore faces.

First, of course, is Lamar Jackson.  Almost every team has difficulties with him the first time they face him.  His quickness is nearly impossible to simulate in practice.  Most teams play much better the second time around against Lamar, but his athleticism is an extreme shock the first time you line up against him.

But, while Jackson garners most of the attention, I believe the more remarkable story (and challenge) is the Baltimore defense.  After allowing 96 points in consecutive games against Kansas City, Cleveland and Pittsburgh in Weeks Three through Six, the Baltimore defense has become inviolable.  Over the last 11 games of their winning streak, Baltimore is yielding just 14.5 points, 16.5 first downs, and 268.9 total yards – including just 174.1 passing yards – per game.

Along the way, they have accounted for 19 turnovers, while allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 56.3% of their pass attempts while struggling to a 70.7 passer rating against them.

The secret sauce here is the blitz.  Baltimore comes at you from all over at the highest rate of any team in the NFL.

If Tennessee can’t come up with an answer for the Baltimore blitz, they will be in for a long evening.

The way I see this game, the first half will tell the story.  If the Titans can get out in front by ten or more points, it will be difficult for Baltimore to keep running throughout the second half – especially with Tennessee being all too willing to drain the clock with their own running game.  This could force the Ravens into a situation where they will have to rely on Jackson’s passing skills.  For the record, Lamar has never overcome a deficit of more than seven points to lead his team to victory.

On the other hand, if the Ravens take a nice lead into the second half, they will be nearly uncatchable.  They will continue to grind the clock with their running game and the Raven pass rushers will pin back their ears and come full speed for Tannehill – who will be forced to take on a larger role as Tennessee won’t be able to use Henry as much as they would like.

And if the first half ends more or less even, then we’ve got a coin flip.  It will depend on which defense wilts under the pounding of the other team’s sledge-hammer running game first.

The Titans have a significant (but not impossible) challenge ahead of them.

Fear the Titans – Fear Them

The game had already been – essentially – decided.  With slightly more than three minutes left, the Tennessee Titans held a 28-14 lead in Houston over their division rivals.  But they still had a little bit of unfinished business.

Entering the game 165 yards behind Cleveland’s Nick Chubb, Tennessee’s Derrick Henry – after a huge game on the ground – now stood just 7 yards behind Chubb for the league rushing title.  And so, as Henry cruised down the sideline on his final carry of the day for the 53-yard touchdown that would push him past Nick, his sideline erupted with, perhaps, the most emotion they had shown all game.

What began as a must win for Tennessee to even extend its season into the playoffs, ended as a rout, and a coronation – of sorts – as the Titans rode Henry’s 211 rushing yards – and 3 rushing touchdowns (along with another excellent effort from quarterback Ryan Tannehill) to a 35-14 wildcard clinching victory (gamebook) (summary).

One of the tipoffs to Henry’s success came just after the touchdown as he stood along the sidelines embracing his offensive linemen.  If you didn’t know which one was Henry, it would be a little difficult to tell which was the running back and which was the offensive lineman.

Even as the running game has regained importance over the last few years – and even with the rise of a new generation of hammer backs – it is still unusual to see that running back standing eyeball to eyeball with his offensive line.

Listed heights and weights for NFL players are notoriously imprecise, but – as a point of comparison – Derrick Henry is listed at 6-3 and 247 pounds.  Of the other running backs that finished in the top ten in rushing, the next tallest was Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon, listed at 6-1.  Toiling in relative obscurity in Cincy, Mixon rolled up his second consecutive thousand yard season (1137) this year.  Taller than most, Mixon is still (officially) 27 pounds lighter than Henry at 220.

By listed weight, the next heaviest to Derrick are the bowling-ball backs – Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott and Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette.  Both are listed as 6-0 and 228 pounds – again almost 20 pounds lighter than Henry.

So Derrick’s sheer size is a factor – and the primary reason that his production rises notably in the second half of games.  On Sunday, Henry went into the locker room with just 47 rushing yards.  In the second half, he rolled up 164 – almost as many in those two quarters alone as he needed to catch Chubb.  For the season, Derrick earned 543 yards in the first halves of his games, averaging 4.1 yards per carry.  In the second halves he added 997 yards at 5.8 per carry.  In his combined third quarters alone, Derrick ran for more yardage (669 yards) than in the first two quarters of his games.

But Henry’s size is well-known.  What, perhaps, doesn’t get as much play is his speed and overall nimbleness.  Two plays before his 53-yard touchdown, Derrick popped for a 23-yard run.  Both plays were very similar.  The first run was a pitch to Derrick going down the left sideline.  He basically took the ball and outran Texan linebacker Brennan Scarlett around the corner.

The touchdown run was slightly more complex.  It began as a zone run left that Derrick cut back up the middle.  There was a lot of green in front of him, and only linebacker Peter Kalambayi waiting for him in the hole.  Peter was probably waiting for Henry to lower his shoulder and plow through him, but – channeling his inner scat-back – Henry pivoted adroitly off his left leg and cut sharply to the right.  With Kalambayi diving after him in vain, Derrick burst through the thinnest of openings between linebacker Barkevious Mingo and cornerback Keion Crossen and outran the rest of the defense for the last 40 yards down the right sideline.  I’m not sure Lamar Jackson could have done it better himself.

It is this unique combination of size, power, speed and quickness that makes Henry such a devastating weapon.  Derrick has now spent four complete seasons in Tennessee.  He has only one previous 1000 yard season, and has made just one previous trip to the playoffs.  After the 2017 season, the Titans went into Kansas City and won a wildcard game 22-21 fueled by 156 yards from Henry.  The next week – in the Divisional Round – they were dumped in New England (the site of today’s playoff game) 35-14, with Henry piling up just 28 yards.  He only carried 12 times.

Derrick has always been this kind of weapon.  His enduring problem in Tennessee is that the Titans could never muster a consistent enough passing game to allow them to keep handing the ball off to Henry for the whole game.  In fact, 2019 began the same as all of those other seasons.

Six weeks into the season, Tennessee was 2-4, with Henry averaging 18.8 carries a game for a modest 69.3 yards – averaging 3.7 yards per.  At that point, the team was handed over to Tannehill, and as the passing game picked up, so did Henry’s effectiveness.

Since the change in quarterbacks, Henry is averaging 21.1 carries and 124.9 yards per game – 5.9 yards per carry.  Over his last 6 games, he has been almost otherworldly, carrying 23.2 times a game for 149.3 yards per contest – almost 6.5 yards per carry.

The life brought to this offense by Tannehill almost can’t be overstated.  All Henry really needed was a solid passing attack.  To everyone’s surprise, what he got was arguably the most effective passing attack in the league.

Out of the mediocrity of his seasons in Miami, Ryan Tannehill has exploded onto the NFL scene like the second coming of Tom Brady.  His numbers are stunning.  His 117.5 passer rating leads the NFL – as does his average yards per pass (9.59) and his yards per completion (13.6).  His 7.7 touchdown percentage is second in the league, and his 70.3% completion percentage ranks third.

He passes the eye test, too.  If you watched him against Houston, you saw him following up his excellent decision-making with laser-precise throws into very tight windows.

You would not have expected this at the beginning of the season, but by every measure available to us, Ryan Tannehill looks to be the real thing.

All of this makes Tennessee one of the most intriguing darkhorses in the playoffs.  Two years later, they will be getting a second shot in New England – this time against a Patriot team that doesn’t seem to be a match for them.  Whether this Tennessee team could hold up against the Baltimore Ravens is a discussion we’ll have if that ever becomes relevant, but today I fully expect to see them end New England’s season.

As to the Texans, yes, they played this game under wraps.  Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Kenny Stills, Laremy Tunsil, D.J. Reader, Benardrick McKinney and Bradley Roby never saw the field, while their star running back – Carlos Hyde – didn’t play after the first series.

The defensive players who made cameos that day included Zach Cunningham (20 snaps), Angelo Blackson (20 snaps), Mike Adams (13), A.J. Moore (11), Johnathan Joseph (7) and Whitney Mercilus (7).

While we have to take Sunday’s final with a grain of salt as far as Houston goes, it is nonetheless true that this has been a mostly disappointing team all season – never more so than when they followed a transformational victory over New England with a head-scratching loss to Denver in weeks 13 and 14.  In Week 15 of this season, they traveled into Tennessee to win the game that essentially gave them the division title and left them with little to play for last Sunday.

But even in that game, one came away believing that Tennessee was the better team.  After a shaky first half that saw them fall behind 14-0, the Titans came roaring back after the intermission to narrow the final to 24-21 – a performance that makes me doubt whether Houston could have won this game even if they had tried.

While Tennessee enters their playoff game this afternoon as a team on the rise, I can’t feel the same for the Texans – who also play this afternoon.

I don’t trust them.  Even playing at home, I don’t trust this team to rise to the occasion.  Their opponents today from Buffalo have consistency issues with their offense, but they are a legit defense.  Truthfully, the Bills have precious few victories over quality teams on their resume, so it’s hard to favor them going into Houston and winning.  But I do expect them to give the Texans all they can handle.

And I can no longer feel any surprise when Houston loses a game that most feel they could have won.

Tennessee’s Tumbling Playoff Chances

One week ago we were lauding the Tennessee Titans after their decisive conquest of the Patriots.  One week later, those same Titans were eaten alive by the Indianapolis Colts, 38-10 (gamebook) (box score).

The list of distressing elements of this one – if you are Tennessee – is long and hard to prioritize.  But let’s begin with the defense.  The game started with Tennessee as the league’s top scoring defense, having allowed just 151 points.  Further, they had allowed the fewest touchdown passes – just 11 through the first 9 games.  They came in ranked sixth overall in yardage, and sixth against the pass, as they held opposing passers to just an 89.5 rating.  Additionally, they were tenth against the run – allowing just 99.8 yards a game and 3.9 yards a carry.

But, quietly rebuilding after a 1-5 start, the Indianapolis Colts have undergone a kind of re-birth, and the centerpiece has been the offense.  Even when they were losing games early, they still scored points.  They had scored 260 (nearly 30 per game) as the game began.  And in the middle was Andrew Luck.

Andrew Luck burst on the scene back in 2012 as the heir to Peyton Manning.  He led the Colts to three consecutive 11-5 seasons and three consecutive playoff berths his first three seasons in the league.

His rising start was interrupted by an injury plagued 2015, and he then missed all of 2017 with arm miseries.  The promising career that was Andrew Luck – and the resurgence in Indianapolis – both seemed to have ended before they had truly begun.  With the 1-5 start – even with Luck back and starting to look healthy again – 2018 looked like it would be yet another lost year in Indianapolis.

Quietly, the Colts started figuring things out, but it was easy to dismiss the early stages of the turnaround.  Victories over the Bills and Raiders (teams that are a combined 5-15) didn’t generate tremendous attention.  A tight 29-26 win over Jacksonville made it seem more real – but last years’ division champs have been fading as well.  Now 4-5, Indy needed a statement win before they could really be taken seriously.  Their dismantling of this Tennessee team more or less qualifies for that.

During the route, Luck completed 11 of 12 second half passes (91.7%) and tossed 2 of the 3 touchdowns passes he had for the game.  He finished 23 of 29 for 297 yards and with 143.8 passer rating.  He was 9-for-9 throwing to T.Y. Hilton for 155 yards and 2 of the touchdowns.

As I start to sour on the Titans playoff chances, it’s not so much because they lost this game.  Even with this loss, their soft remaining schedule still gives them a strong chance.  It was a couple of other elements arising from this loss that makes me wonder about the Titans going forward.

One of the elements is the team they lost to.  It’s hard not to be convinced by the Colts the way they’ve played their last four games.  Their ending schedule is also manageable.  The Colts, though, if they earn that final playoff spot will have to do so on the road (they are 2-3 on the road, so far).  Their final three road games will be against the division.  Before all is said and done, they will go into Jacksonville, into Houston and into Tennessee (for the season’s last game).  They will have to earn it.

For that reason, I might still lean toward Tennessee.  But here’s the other thing.  On a fairly routine sack at the end of the first half, quarterback Marcus Mariota’s day ended.  It was a mild re-occurrence of the elbow issue he had earlier in the year and seemed to be over.  He is officially listed as questionable for Monday night in Houston.

The injury is sobering, because it means that this is a shadow that will hang over the Titans and their quarterback at least all the rest of this season.  Even if Mariota comes back, any random hit – and Marcus is one of those QBs that run an awful lot – could send him to the sidelines and bring in Blaine Gabbert.

As I look at the Titans now, I am not convinced that they will have Mariota on the field enough to make this happen for them.

More Flux in the NFC East

Every week in the NFC East a new front-runner emerges.  Two weeks ago, when I first projected the division, I backed the defending champion Eagles to eventually emerge.  They have lost two straight games since then, and seem to be in considerable disarray.  So last week, I conceded that Washington was probably the team that would enter the playoffs from this division.  They not only lost their last game, but their starting quarterback for the rest of the season.

Who’s left?  Could it be Dallas?  The Cowboy team that was left for dead all those weeks ago?

Don’t look now, but the Cowboys have pulled off back-to-back, must win games against the Eagles and the Falcons.  Now, tomorrow the Redskins limp into Irving with first place on the line.  Suddenly, everything is before the Cowboys.

Minnesota’s Blueprint?

Down 14-0 at the half and 22-6 with about half the fourth quarter left, the Minnesota Viking made a spirited comeback against the Chicago Bears.  They fell short, but made a game of it, 25-20 (gamebook) (box score).  The Vikings found success in their hurry-up offense, throwing underneath the Chicago coverage.  When they tried to get greedy, they suffered (Eddie Jackson’s crushing 27-yard interception return coming on one of Kirk Cousins’ last attempted long passes).

After passing for just 57 yards in the first half, Cousins completed 23 of 33 in the second half (69.7%), but for just 205 yards.  But he kept moving the chains.  Receiver Stefon Diggs was targeted 15 times in the second half alone.  He caught 11 of the passes for 93 yards and one of the two second half touchdown passes.  Adam Thielen was targeted 7 times in that half, catching 5 for 48 yards.

Whether it’s a blueprint remains to be seen.  But for 30 minutes last Monday night, the Bears’ defense seemed to be on its heels a lot.

Patriots Dominated in Tennessee

The formula for stopping Tom Brady has actually been known for a long time.  Pressure up the middle.  Break up the pass attack before anything can develop.  Easy to say – much harder to execute.

Over the years of the Patriot domination, one of the unspoken foundation pieces has been an elite offensive line and protection schemes focused on keeping Brady upright.  In fact, perhaps the most iconic image of the New England offense might be of Brady standing in his clean pocket for six or seven seconds while he thoroughly scans the field for open receivers.  The Patriots also know the formula.

Adding to the level of difficulty is the fact that the Patriot receiving corps is usually plentifully populated with very quick, very intelligent receivers who make very quick adjustments and almost always give Brady somewhere to go quickly with his throws in those infrequent occasions when he has to unload in a hurry.

And, of course, there is almost always a quality running attack that New England could turn to should they ever need to.  The running game gets little notice, being overshadowed by the passing attack, but it has made significant contributions to the Patriot cause. 

Last week – in their game against Green Bay (discussed here) – the Packers were actually able to sustain more pressure than usual against Brady.  This game could have been much more difficult for New England, had the running game not supplied 123 yards and 3 touchdowns on 31 rushes.

Cracks in the Foundation

Quietly, though, there has been some erosion among the foundation pieces of the Patriot dynasty.  Nate Solder – underappreciated, perhaps at left tackle for the previous seven seasons – is now in New York.  Shaq Mason – the highly acclaimed right guard – is out with an injury.  Dion Lewis, Brandin Cooks, and Danny Amendola are all elsewhere.  This – along with some reshuffling of the defense – has made the Patriots look fairly mortal from time-to-time this season.  With their most dynamic receiver – TE Rob Gronkowski – on the shelf with back and ankle injuries for a couple of games – the Patriots would appear to be as vulnerable now as they have ever recently been.

Still, the Packers didn’t have enough pieces to stop them, and the Patriots rolled into Tennessee with a 7-2 record and just a step behind Kansas City for the top seed in the division.  If this upset was to take place, few would have believed it would happen last week against the Titans.  Yes, Tennessee’s defense – statistically, anyway, seemed like it might present problems.  At 141 points, the Titans had surrendered the fewest points in the league, while ranking eighth in both total defense and pass defense.

But as impressive as they have been on defense, they have been that woeful on offense.  Their 134 points scored were twenty-ninth in the league, and they ranked thirtieth in both passing and total offense.  Yes, the Patriots might not score their customary 30 points.  But it was assumed that they would score some, and that punch-less Tennessee would have to mount some kind of substantial offense to have a chance in this game.

Patriots Ambushed

Two hours and 59 minutes later, the Patriots walked off the field, victims of a stunning 34-10 beating by the lightly-regarded Titans. (gamebook) (box score).

The stunning offensive display was, perhaps, less surprising than it should have been.  Yes, their numbers were bad to this point of the season.  But they have also played the entire year to this point with a compromised quarterback.  Over the last couple of weeks – and especially last Sunday – Marcus Mariota has shown himself mostly recovered.  This notably changes the narrative, both for this game and for the playoff picture.  Making throws that he couldn’t have imagined making earlier in the year, Mariota sliced the Patriot defense to the tune of 16 of 24 for 228 yards and 2 touchdowns.  His recovery combines with the continued emergence of wide receiver Corey Davis to give the Titans reason to hope that their offense could be considerably more explosive coming down the stretch.  Davis finished with 7 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown.

Still – even with the emergence of the passing attack – the offensive foundation in Tennessee remains the running game.  Controlling the line of scrimmage from start to finish, Tennessee pounded the Patriots to the tune of 150 rushing yards on 36 rushes.  Both feature back Derrick Henry and ex-Patriot Lewis finished with over 50 yards for the contest.

As stunning as the offensive performance was, it couldn’t overshadow the buzz generated by the defense as they dismantled the Patriots point-by-point. 

First, they inhaled the Patriot running game.  With no run gaining more than 9 yards, the Pats finished with just 40 yards on 19 carries (2.1 per).

Additionally, the Titans were able to fully exploit the absence of Gronkowski.  With young cornerback Adoree’ Jackson contesting every pass thrown to Josh Gordon, Tennessee was able to double-team running back James White

Then, with the relentless pressure forcing Brady to play fast the entire game – and with few available open receivers – Tom Brady finished with one of the worst games of his career.  Tom finished with just 21 completions in 41 attempts (51.2%) and finished with just a 70.6 passer rating.

It was the third straight game that Brady finished with a rating under 100 and the fifth time this season – including his 65.1 rating against Detroit earlier this season.  The Patriots are still 7-3 and in good shape.  But not looking as invincible as in season’s past.  Not yet anyway.

Two plays in particular underscored the disarray that the Titans caused in the New England offense.  With 10:34 left in the third, and trailing 24-10, the Patriots faced a second and ten from their own 30.  With a rare clean pocket, Brady tossed a strike 14 yards over the middle for a certain first down.  Receiver Julian Edelman never looked for it.  The ball hit Edelman flush in the helmet and bounced harmlessly away. 

Later in the fourth, down 27-10, the Pats faced third and seven.  New England had a little razzle-dazzle up its sleeve.  A handoff to White running to his left became a toss back to Edelman, coming back around to the right.  With linebacker Harold Landry bearing down on him, Julian jump-tossed to Brady, who had circled out of the backfield.  In the sense that the defense was totally fooled, the play worked as well as could be imagined.  As Brady pulled the pass in, there were no defenders within fifteen yards of him.  However, as he turned up field to run, Brady’s feet tangled.  He stumbled and finally went down – one yard short of the first down.  Going for it on fourth-and-one, a false start moved them back, and Brady’s fourth-and-six toss to Edelman over the middle was perfectly defended by Logan Ryan.

That’s how the day was for New England.

Titans Trending Up

On the other hand, this victory brightens things considerably in Nashville.  Last week when we discussed playoff situations, we noted that with a fairly soft closing schedule Tennessee needed to find a way to win one of their next three.  Mission more than accomplished.  Now – even should they drop their next two games (division road contests in Indianapolis and Houston), Tennessee still has a reasonable shot at a 10-6 record, which should earn them at least a wildcard spot.  Remember, Baltimore still holds the tie-breaker here, so the Titans will still have to finish with a better record.

Other Shifting Playoff Situations

The NFC East continues to be a division without direction.  In last week’s discussion, I championed the still underachieving Eagles as the team I expected to see hold forth.  Even with a vulnerable Dallas team playing in Philadelphia on Sunday night, the Eagles still managed to lose another game in the standings.  They now trail by two games.  With their disappointing loss to the Cowboys, coupled with Washington’s impressive victory in Tampa Bay, I am forced to admit that Washington is looking more and more like they are the class of that division.  With Carolina and Seattle in the same conference, it is unlikely that there will be a wildcard spot for the NFC East, so only the champion here is liable to go.

Saints Rolling On

While the Patriots, Falcons and Eagles all lost important games during Week Ten, the New Orleans Saints kept rolling on.  Showing no let-down after their huge conquest of the Rams, the Saints steam-rolled the Cincinnati Bengals, 51-14 (gamebook) (box score).

Much more perfect than this, an offense cannot hope to get.  They converted all of their first seven third-down opportunities.  They scored touchdowns the first five times they touched the ball, including going 4-4 in the red zone.  They had 10 possession for the game, scoring on the first 9 (6 touchdowns and 3 field goals).  Well ahead on their final possession, they settled for running off the final 4:42 of the game.

The final tally showed 244 rushing yards on 47 rushes (5.2 per), while QB Drew Brees recorded a 150.4 rating on 22 of 25 passing for 265 yards and 3 touchdowns.  New Orleans is making it look very easy right now.

Watching them, though, it seems that they are starting to get a little full of themselves – especially the defense.  This is curious, because the defense is the underachieving aspect of this team.  While the explosive offense continues to go about its business in a professional manner, the Saints defense (23rd in scoring defense, 23rd in total defense, and 31st in passing defense) celebrate all of their interceptions (they have only 6 on the season) by posing for pictures in the end zone.

Just a reminder: Pride goeth before a fall.

Patriots Advance — Again

With Jacksonville’s victory last Sunday, the NFL’s final four this year include three Cinderella teams.  The Jaguars were 3-13 last year – their sixth consecutive losing season.  This team hadn’t made the playoffs since 2007 and has never played in a Super Bowl.

The two teams that will battle it out for the NFC crown have also never won Super Bowls, although both the Minnesota Vikings and the Philadelphia Eagles have at least made it that far (the Vikings are 0-4 in the big game, the Eagles 0-2).  Those two teams have made it to the verge of the Super Bowl behind backup quarterbacks who have been lightly regarded and largely given up on.

The fourth team is the shark in the tank.  While this season of upheaval has seen most of the old guard falling by the wayside, even this monumental shift in the balance of power can’t unseat the New England Patriots.  Sunday, they will play in their seventh consecutive conference championship game.

Same Old Patriots?

The 2017-18 version of the Patriots are an intriguing blend of the expected and the mostly un-suspected.

On the expected side is quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski and a prolific offense.  In last Saturday’s 35-14 elimination of Tennessee (gamebook), the Titans thought to take the big play out of the Patriot arsenal and force them to drive the length of the field five yards at a time.  To a degree, they succeeded.  Of New England’s 80 offensive plays, only four gained 20 or more yards – and only one of those gained more than thirty.

The fly in the ointment, of course, is that the Patriots exhibited no trouble at all grinding up and down the field.  New England put together two drives that lasted more than five minutes – both consisting of 15 or more plays. Four times they scored touchdowns on drives that exceeded 50 yards (two of those traveling 90 yards or more).  They converted 6 of 9 third downs in the first half, and followed that by converting 5 of 8 in the second half.  That first half featured Brady throwing 7 times to the exceedingly quick Danny Amendola.  Danny caught all 7 passes for 62 yards – none of them longer than 15 yards.

New England scored touchdowns in all five red zone possessions.

Relentless, precise, methodical – everyone who faces the Patriots understands that they will have to find some way of coping with this elite offense.

Don’t Overlook the New England Defense

Less recognized are the week-in, week-out contributions of the Patriot defensive unit.  As opposed to the offense, there are no splash players here.  No one from the Patriot defense was named to the Pro Bowl – even as replacements for injured players (by comparison, three members of the offense and one from the Patriot special teams were named).  But as the 2017 season reaches its critical juncture, the Patriot defense is playing as well as any unit still playing – especially against the run.

In one of the most impressive displays of Wildcard weekend, The Tennessee Titans brutalized the Kansas City Chiefs with their running game (that game is discussed in some detail here).  With battering ram running back Derrick Henry pounding the center of the KC defense and quarterback Marcus Mariota sprinting around the ends, Tennessee amassed 202 rushing yards – 156 of them from Henry.

This ground dominance ended abruptly in New England.  Henry finished the game with 28 yards on 12 carries (a 2.3 average) with no run exceeding four yards.  Tennessee finished with just 65 rushing yards for the evening.

Brown and Flowers

At the center of the impenetrable defense was nose tackle Malcom Brown.  Listed at 6-2 and 319 pounds (modest measurements by NFL standards), Brown isn’t an imposing figure in the Vince Wilfork mold.  But the Patriots’ first-round pick in the 2015 draft has developed into an excellent technician in the middle.  All evening, he repeatedly got under the pads of Tennessee center Ben Jones (who was one of the heroes against KC).  Henry never had the middle of the field open for him as Jones was constantly being pushed back in his face.  Similarly, Trey Flowers – a rangy presence at defensive tackle/end – kept the Tennessee linemen that he faced in place, collapsing all of the running lanes.

Neither Brown nor Flowers are marquee names.  Flowers led the team with a modest total of 6.5 sacks.  But as the pieces have come together for the Patriots as they come down the stretch, Brown, Flowers and the rest of the role players in Bill Belichik’s (and Matt Patricia’s) defense commit to the inglorious work of taking on blocks, closing running lanes, and making sure tackles.

They were great.  But if I were to pick two running plays to illustrate what has made this New England run defense so tough, it would be the two times that Henry tried to get around the end.

Big Stops

There is 4:31 left in the first quarter, with the game still scoreless.  Tennessee faces first-and-ten on New England’s 45-yard line.  Mariota tosses to Henry, trying to race around left end.

Charged with sealing the edge is tight end Delanie Walker, but Flowers is having none of it.  He rides Walker right down the line, stringing out the sweep.  Wide receivers Eric Decker and Corey Davis were charged with clearing out defensive backs Devin McCourty and Malcolm Butler. Both failed, leaving both defensive backs free to meet Henry as he tried to turn the corner.  But most impressive on this play was safety/linebacker Patrick Chung.

The play called for much decorated tackle Taylor Lewan to peel away from the formation and head downfield to throw a key block against a smaller defensive back.  Chung never gave him the chance.

Listed at just 5-11 and 207 pounds, Chung would seem to be the kind of smaller back that Lewan would gobble up.  But Chung diagnosed the intent of the play immediately and flew into Lewan at top speed before he could get untracked, further stripping away Henry’s blocking on the play.   Derrick managed to pick-up three yards before McCourty and Butler halted his progress.

Chung Strikes Again

Now there is only 25 seconds left in the first half.  By this time the Patriots had opened up a 21-7 lead. The Titans sat on the Patriot 46-yard line, but faced a fourth-and-one.  Their decision to go for it would prove to be one of the turning points of the game.

Again Derrick Henry would test the left edge.  This time Decker lined up across from defensive end Kyle Van Noy, but lost that confrontation immediately.  At the snap, Van Noy pushed through Decker deep into the Titans’ backfield, allowing first Butler and finally Stephon Gilmore un-abated access to the ball carrier.  Tight end Jonnu Smith lined up just behind the tackle on that side, positioned where they thought he could double-team Van Noy.  But Kyle was through Decker before Jonnu could arrive.

But the compelling thing about this play was that it wasn’t designed to go around the end.

Supposing that Decker and Smith could push Van Noy wide, and that tight end Luke Stocker could seal Flowers inside, the Titans thought they could open a crease just off tackle.  Figuring that a defensive back would flow down to fill the gap, Tennessee pulled guard Josh Kline and sent him through the hole first to clean it out.  But Kline met with the same fate that Lewan had a quarter earlier.

Flying in at top speed, Patrick Chung met Kline in the hole and closed it immediately, leaving Henry with no escape route.  Derrick and the Titans lost five yards on the play.

Is Anyone Taking Notice?

Taking 300-pound linemen head on isn’t usually in the job description of 200-pound defensive backs.  Rare is the defensive back who will even try to take on a lineman.  Mostly, when they find themselves isolated against a lineman, you will see the defensive back try to find some way to slip around them.  Chung is a rare article.  He’s a defensive back who takes on linemen – and wins.

From a statistical standpoint, Chung probably ranks in the lowest tier of defensive backs.  He intercepted just one pass during the season, and never recorded a sack.  But Chung, I think, has quietly become the soul of this defense.  To a not-inconsiderable degree, the rest of the Patriot defense feeds off his fearlessness.  Chung, Brown and Flowers are the leaders of a workman-like defense – a defense that adheres to Belichick’s motto of “do your job” even when the job is less than glamourous.  Running the ball consistently against this defense will be a challenge.

Why Run Defense Matters

And this is a more significant development than many fans realize.  All of the other teams left standing are heavily run-dependent on offense.  In Blake Bortles, Nick Foles and Case Keenum, none of the other teams has a quarterback they can send out there with the mandate to win the game.  If Jacksonville finishes with 65 rushing yards on Sunday, they will lose the game.  The emergence of the Patriot run defense is a huge deal, indeed.

The other pressure weighing on opposing running games is the New England offense.  Trailing 21-7 at the half, the Titans closed down their running game.  Henry took one handoff (a 4-yard dive up the middle) after halftime.  Toss in a scramble from Mariota, and the Tennessee running game accounted for 10 second half yards on two attempts.  There is a significant onus on Jacksonville’s defense to keep the score close enough Sunday for the Jaguars to keep running the ball.

That matchup – for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl – has suddenly gained several new layers of intrigue as injuries to Tom Brady’s wrist and thumb have been in all the headlines.  If the Patriots are forced to compete without Brady – or perhaps with a compromised Brady – it will significantly improve Jacksonville’s chances.

And ratchet up the pressure on the New England defense.