With the NFL season starting next week, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up today: the Tennessee Titans, who finished 9–7 in 2017.
1. It’s not often that a team reaches the divisional round of the NFL playoffs and then parts ways with its coach (after reportedly discussing a contract extension just a few weeks earlier). It appears that Tennessee’s management (or disjointed ownership?) was concerned about the franchise’s long-term growth potential because QB Marcus Mariota wasn’t thriving in head coach Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” offense.
When the Titans hired Mike Vrabel away from the Texans, Ohio State’s Ryan Day was immediately rumored to be considering the Tennessee offensive coordinator position. But when Day chose to stay at Ohio State, the Titans scrambled and landed on Matt LaFleur, then with the Rams. LaFleur, known for teaching quarterback mechanics (Mariota’s need work), was on Kyle Shanahan’s staff in Washington that built an offense around mobile rookie QB Robert Griffin.
Now LaFleur is tasked with cleaning up a fourth-year QB’s fundamentals while helping him learn a new scheme. That’s A LOT. Then you add this critical question: will LaFleur be pressured into highlighting Mariota’s legs, or will he be allowed to implement entirely his own system?
LaFleur can feature his QB’s legs, but only judiciously. Mariota is not Cam Newton; he can’t be pounded. He’s also not Russell Wilson, who has incredible vision when plays break down and is a brilliant at passing on the move. At his core, especially if he’s trying to right his mechanics, Mariota is a timing-and-rhythm passer whose best chance is from the pocket, which is partly why his passer rating on play-action was a league-high 122.8 last year. Having spent 2017 as McVay’s offensive coordinator and ’15-16 as Kyle Shanahan’s QBs coach, LaFleur is intimately familiar with the best two play-action passing schemes in football. That, more than designed QB runs, will dictate Mariota’s success.
2. The biggest difference between McVay’s offense and Shanahan’s is that McVay’s featured a lot of three-receiver sets, while Shanahan’s played in base personnel, with two backs or two tight ends. LaFleur will have to go the Shanahan route. Tennessee’s wide receivers don’t have enough speed to generate chunk yardage on their own. Explosive plays must come through design, whicht means passing on first down and out of running looks.
3. It helps that LaFleur has options for playing in base personnel. He has said tailbacks Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis are 1A and 1B. Henry is a methodically strong runner, while Lewis is an extremely refined one. Either can hurt you on carries, and Lewis’s ability to split out wide (which he did often in New England, prior to James White’s emergence) presents a passing dimension when both backs are in, creating many schematic options. The same goes for two-tight end sets, where second-year pro Jonnu Smith is a capable blocker and 13th-year veteran Delanie Walker can play near piles or transform into a third receiver.
4. Next to Mariota, last year’s No. 5 overall pick Corey Davis is Tennessee’s most important offensive player. If he doesn’t become a viable perimeter receiver, LaFleur will have nothing to build around in obvious passing situations. Davis struggled with build-up speed and transitional movement last season, and if that continues, he’ll never be more than a knockoff Alshon Jeffery. The hope is that Davis’s struggles can be attributed to rookie growing pains made worse by a hamstring injuring that cost him much of training camp and six of the first eight regular season weeks (i.e. his prime learning periods).
5. The Titans return the same offensive line from a year ago, but outside of stud left tackle Taylor Lewan, there are questions. Right tackle Jack Conklin is coming off a January ACL injury and was an inconsistent pass-blocker to begin with. The interior—Quinton Spain, Ben Jones and Josh Kline—must get stronger on the ground. This run scheme will be different because LaFleur’s background is in outside zone (think east and west runs). Under Mularkey, the Titans primarily ran inside zone, gap scheme and split zone—all north and south designs.
6. Malcolm Butler joining Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson gives Tennessee perhaps the NFL’s best cornerbacking trio. All three can play true solo coverage, with Ryan and Jackson capable of doing so from the slot. Ryan will match up to stronger receivers (think DeAndre Hopkins), while Jackson will take the quicker ones (think T.Y. Hilton), making Butler the logical No. 3. With three matchup corners, the Titans can afford to remove safeties and linebackers from coverage and deploy them on blitzes—something Vrabel and new veteran defensive coordinator Dean Pees love.
7. It will be interesting to see Tennessee’s blitz-coverage combinations, because most teams prefer man coverage behind blitzes. The idea is the blitz will force a quick throw, so it’s best for a team to have defenders up on his man right away. Vrabel, however, hails from a Houston defense that played a lot of matchup-zone out of two-deep safety looks. Pees played a lot of traditional Cover 2 zone last year in Baltimore. Tennessee’s corners can stifle in man coverage, but turnovers tend to come out of zone, where defenders are looking at the ball and not just their receiver. Even with outstanding cover corners, don’t be surprised if the Titans mix in notable snaps of matchup zone.
8. On the topic of turnovers, Kevin Byard recorded 10 last year, including a league-high eight interceptions, earning First-Team All-Pro honors. But it’d be wrong to think the third-year safety is just an interception machine. Byard is an excellent run-filler, and he’s a diverse blitzer who can cover tight ends. If he continues on his current trajectory, he’ll be a consensus top-five safety by Thanksgiving.
9. Pees gives offenses fits with his double-A-gap pre-snap looks. He’ll pair those with Vrabel’s increasingly popular “diamond” front, which features five players aligned across the D-line. Those blitz packages are one reason Tennessee drafted versatile Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans in Round 1. Between the rookie and 32-year-old Wesley Woodyard, the Titans have one of football’s best blitzing linebacker tandems.
10. Another reason why blitzing will be prominent is because Tennessee doesn’t have great edge rushers. Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan have their moments, but neither is a week-to-week destroyer. Both could be allowed to leave in free agency after this season. That helps explain the selection of Boston College’s Harold Landry, a top-20 projection who fell to the second round because of possible knee and back problems.