NASHVILLE – The rest of the NFL is now on notice.
The man who starts every offensive play for the Tennessee Titans, center Ben Jones, is going to get his hands on the ball for than just the snap at some point.
“You just try to get creative and find ways to move the football and use the strengths of the personnel we have,” offensive coordinator Arthur Smith said Thursday. “We’re still waiting to put one in for Ben Jones.”
Smith was joking, of course. At 6-foot-3, 308 pounds, Jones is strong enough to go toe-to-toe with the game’s best defensive linemen. No one is looking to have him run with or catch the football anytime soon.
Any one of the Titans’ skill position players, however, is an option to get the ball any time, any way. That has become particularly apparent in recent weeks when tight end Jonnu Smith took a handoff and went 57 yards (vs Houston) and wide receiver A.J. Brown scored on a 49-yard touchdown run (New Orleans).
Brown and Smith are first and fourth on the team, respectively, in pass receptions but the Titans have not been content simply to throw them the ball. Each also has taken three handoffs through the first 15 games.
Wide receivers Adam Humphries and Kalif Raymond also have run ball the once apiece this season. Offensive linemen Dennis Kelly and David Quessenberry have caught touchdown passes and running back Derrick Henry has thrown a pass (it was incomplete, but the defense was called for pass interference). There have been times when the offense has operated out of the wildcat formation and there have been others when the quarterbacks have gained yards on designed runs.
Smith, a first-year coordinator, declined to put a label on it, but a case can be made that Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” approach has been reborn in Tennessee.
After all, the Titans are sixth in the NFL in rushing offense (131.9 yards per game) and Henry is the league’s third-leading rusher. The offense is on pace to finish just above 2,100 rushing yards for the season. The only other time in the last decade that unit hit that mark was 2017, Mularkey’s last season as head coach.
So, the smashmouth element is undeniable.
The exotic part has become more obvious in recent weeks.
“It just kind of evolves as it goes, and you see where it takes you,” Smith said. “You’re certainly looking for different ways. Sometimes you put something in weeks ago and it’s just not the right time to call it. … That’s the stuff that as the season goes, you’re constantly trying to improve and tweak things and get ideas, no matter where they come from.”
With one week to play in the regular season and a playoff berth at stake with Sunday’s game at Houston, it fair to wonder what else there is in the Titans’ offensive playbook that hasn’t been called this season and whether this is a game when anything and everything is an option.
“It’s about what the players can understand,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “The plays are great. The players are the ones that make them work and make them successful. So, I think it’s a fine line between just running a bunch of stuff that we think may work or running things that the players have shown confidence in, have a belief that it will work and have answers versus multiple coverages, multiple fronts.
“If there’s a play that we think that can help us, then we try to add it each and every week, if it’s – again – watching it on the practice field and it’s something that we feel like the players understand.”