Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

14 Mar 2016

Film Room: Titans' New Weapons

by Cian Fahey

When the Tennessee Titans named Mike Mularkey as their permanent successor to Ken Whisenhunt this offseason, it was a clear signal of intent from owner Amy Adams Strunk. It wasn't a sign that she was intent on building a winning team, though; instead, it was a move that signaled an intent to settle for mediocrity. Mularkey wasn't hired after an extensive search. He wasn't in demand for other teams, and he wasn't a coach who had achieved great things in his past. The 54-year-old just happened to be the coach in the building, someone who had taken over the interim role from Whisenhunt without making any real impact.

Mularkey can't even fall back on a track record of success. He had previously been the head coach of the Buffalo Bills a decade ago, where he went 14-18 over two seasons, falling from 9-7 the first year to 5-11 the second. The Jacksonville Jaguars gave him a second opportunity in 2012, but he was fired after one 2-14 season. The hiring of Mularkey was so uninspired that resident Titans fan and Football Outsiders staff writer Thomas Gower resigned his post covering the team. Gower wasn't alone; ESPN beat reporter Paul Kuharsky outlined a variety of issues he had with the hire while offering valuable insight to the process they undertook.

Settling for mediocrity can be beneficial for those who run NFL teams. It's why the salary cap floor has to exist. The problem with overtly settling for mediocrity is that you will lose sections of the fanbase.

When you are trying to mask those specific intentions, the best thing to do is to acquire something shiny. Something shiny in this instance is DeMarco Murray. Despite his struggles in 2015, Murray is a big-name player whose acquisition inevitably created excitement and intrigue. More importantly, he is a big-name player who came at a cut cost. Murray's contract was reworked, and he only cost the Titans a swap of fourth-round picks.

Murray was the biggest move for the Titans during the first week of free agency. He arrived with center Ben Jones from the Houston Texans and wide receiver Rishard Matthews from the Miami Dolphins, both ancillary pieces from their respective teams. Even though these aren't expensive or highly-regarded acquisitions, they could prove to be valuable ones to a Titans offense that needed to improve on those three spots from last year. Jones will likely have to earn his starting spot because he is a limited player on par with carryovers Brian Schwenke and Andy Gallik. Murray and Matthews, though, will be key pieces.

There's no question that Murray's best days are behind him. In most walks of life, 28 years of age isn't old, but for an NFL running back it's the beginning of the end. Murray has just turned 28, so the Titans should expect to get at least one full season from him as their feature back. After leading the league in rushing for the Dallas Cowboys in 2014, Murray didn't even cross 200 carries for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015. How often he carried the ball was an issue, but how he carried the ball was a greater issue.

Chip Kelly was supposed to get the most out of Murray by relying on his decisive, abrasive running style to get downfield quickly. Instead, he negated those traits by having Murray running outside so often. Of Murray's 193 carries last year, 63 came on plays when he was directed outside the tackles on horizontal handoffs, while taking the ball from the quarterback. On those 63 plays, he averaged just 2.95 yards per attempt. Running outside schematically didn't work for Murray, while the Eagles weren't built to run between the tackles because their guards and center struggled all season long. Even with his line struggling, Murray averaged 3.97 yards per carry when directed between the tackles by the design of the play with vertical handoffs. That is a difference of 1.02 yards per carry.

The Titans don't know what kind of quality they can expect from their run blocking in 2015, but the coaching staff should at least understand how to use Murray.

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On this play, Murray gains 3 yards on a horizontal handoff. This is one of the most impressive plays of this kind from last year in terms of execution around Murray. It only gains 3 yards because Josh Huff can't seal the cornerback with his block on the edge. Even though Huff is the main problem here, Murray's lack of comfort executing the play is also obvious. Murray doesn't exactly turn like a cruise liner, but he lacks the fluidity and flexibility of his peers. Murray isn't built to run around the edge before squaring up to a defensive back to make him miss in space. His lack of comfort leads him to drop his shoulder and attempt to run beneath the defensive back rather than around him. Running this type of play with Murray should be done rarely, if ever.

Very few backs in the league can excel on every type of running play. We have a tendency to view the running game as simple and the passing game as complex. While it's true the NFL is moving towards more complex passing concepts than ever before, running the ball isn't simply a matter of picking a direction and going. Murray can run outside behind zone blocking, but he needs to be in a position where he can comfortably cut back inside. If he isn't, then he can't threaten the defense in different ways and the offense becomes predictable.

It's much easier for Murray to break outside on inside runs than it is for him to break inside on outside runs. The Titans coaching staff must understand this to make him a worthwhile addition to their offense.

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Most of the Eagles' outside runs were sweep plays where Murray's primary responsibility was to follow his blocks rather than read to create. When he ran between the tackles, he had more opportunities to manipulate the defense and create better leverage for his offensive line. In the slowed-down GIF above, it's easy to see Murray's process after he receives the ball from Sam Bradford. Murray has to read the center's block against the defensive tackle. The center can't seal the defensive tackle off from the outside because he has to reach past him to do so. As such, the left running lane is immediately taken away. The defensive tackle is holding the center off inside, so Murray can't run directly past his inside shoulder either.

Murray stops his feet -- not something you typically want him to do, but it works in this instance. He stops his feet to turn his eyes back towards the other side of the field. It's an unnatural cutback lane, but one that Murray is able to find through his improvisation.

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On this play, Murray has to create a cutback lane by pressing the initial running lane that appears in front of him. His blocking to the right side is failing, so Murray has to manipulate No. 90 (rookie Malcom Brown) to create space inside. He does that by pressing the right side of his line before shifting his weight back at the perfect time. Murray is quick through the hole and tightens his body so no defender can extend an arm and obstruct him. Even though Murray isn't hugely fluid or quick in tight spaces, he is quick enough to make sharp cuts and redirect his route downfield. He creates another 7 or 8 yards by working his way back towards the far sideline.

The blocking wasn't perfect on either of these runs, but it was good enough to allow Murray space in which to work. He wasn't forced to try to get to a spot as quickly as possible, he was allowed to use his vision and acceleration to create and attack space. If the Titans use him as a back who primarily works between the tackles, they can complement him with Marcus Mariota as an outside threat on read-option plays from shotgun as well as designed runs or play-action where Mariota is encouraged to move his feet.

In 2015, the Titans never really had a settled backfield. Bishop Sankey, Antonio Andrews, Dexter McCluster, and David Cobb all played varying roles at different stages of the season. McCluster was used on outside runs, whereas Andrews was the closest thing the offense had to Murray. Someone who could run through defenders and consistently carry the ball between the tackles. Murray will solidify the running back spot. Neither Sankey, Cobb, nor Andrews should be able to compete with him for playing time, while McCluster is the obvious choice as a third-down back.

Rishard Matthews won't solidify anything at the receiver position; he will just add to a group that has a lot of question marks. Delanie Walker is the team's best receiver. The tight end is a phenomenal player and Mariota's most reliable target. Kendall Wright is hugely talented also, but needs to prove his reliability and durability. Dorial Green-Beckham should be the third option, even though he was regularly uncertain of his assignment during his rookie season. Matthews will be the fourth option, an upgrade over the extremely limited Harry Douglas. Douglas' greatest contributions to the Titans offense last year came in the form of defensive pass interference penalties, a reflection on his inability to create separation through his routes to any level of the field.

In truth, Matthews isn't a huge upgrade over Douglas. He runs soft routes that lack decisiveness or aggression in their cuts. He doesn't consistently show off the subtlety required to set up defensive backs in space with his feet, while also boasting a small catch radius. On 51 catchable targets last season, Matthews failed at the catch point eight times. A majority of those failures came when he was open, concentration drops where the ball slid right through his hands.

What Matthews does offer over Douglas is greater athleticism. Twenty of his 43 receptions last season gained 15 or more yards, and 10 of those went for at least 20 yards.

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Like Ryan Tannehill, Mariota has the ability to throw Matthews open. This will alleviate his issues in creating space and escaping from coverage. Once Matthews is in space, he shows off impressive speed and awareness to make the most of what the defense gives him. This was his most impressive play of the season as he actually set up his route very well before breaking infield. Matthews won't beat the better cornerbacks in press coverage, but his strength allows him to fend off weaker cornerbacks. He also understands how to release when cornerbacks line up tight from the line but don't look to engage him.

Once Matthews got the ball he was decisive in accelerating away from the recovering linebacker underneath. The safety coming across the field took a poor angle, but Matthews made sure he wouldn't have had an opportunity to atone for his error.

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The Dolphins didn't scheme Matthews open often enough. Only two of his 51 catchable targets were screen plays. In the above play, the Dolphins schemed Matthews open on a downfield throw with a pick. (This is something they didn't do often enough either, instead forcing the ball to Jarvis Landry, who is a less impressive YAC receiver.) Once Matthews was in space, he showed off the awareness to set up the arriving safety with one hard cut as well as the upper-body strength to fend off his diving tackle attempt. His comfort with the ball in his hands is easy to see, as he naturally regained his balance after turning past the safety before trying to set up his final blocker downfield. Matthews did everything with precision and speed.

In 2015, when Mularkey was the head coach for the majority of the season, the Titans didn't use enough of these types of plays for Mariota. Even while his receivers were failing at the catch point more often than any other quarterback's receivers, losing one reception every nine attempts, Mariota ranked 32nd out of 35 quarterbacks in Simple YAC Completions (throws where the ball travels no further than 2 yards past the line of scrimmage). It wasn't just that Mariota missed time and threw the ball less often than his peers. He ranked dead last in Simple YAC throws as a percentage of his total attempts, with 12.7 percent. For comparison, nine quarterbacks finished the season with at least 25 percent of their attempts qualifying as Simple YAC throws. The addition of Matthews is hopefully a sign that the coaching staff wants to rectify that mistake.

Mariota's rookie season suggests that the Titans have a quarterback around whom they can build their future. He immediately established himself as a quality starter despite the Titans' failures as a whole. Those failures have set the franchise up with the top pick in this year's draft. That pick should become left tackle Laremy Tunsil or safety Jalen Ramsey, two players who are considered exceptional talents. Quarterback, left tackle, and safety may be the three toughest positions to fill in the NFL right now, or in the top five alongside pass rushers and cornerbacks. Only a franchise completely lacking in on-field ambition would settle for mediocrity after stumbling on exceptional talents at those positions.

We can't be certain that the Titans are heading in that direction, but the signs right now aren't good.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 14 Mar 2016

13 comments, Last at 07 Oct 2016, 4:48pm by espiar

Comments

1
by galactic_dev :: Mon, 03/14/2016 - 7:49pm

I can't get enough Film Room! (And I don't even care about the Titans; I'm just glad they're not feeding our fossil fuel addiction.)

4
by jtr :: Tue, 03/15/2016 - 10:31am

If the Oilers had stayed in Houston, they'd probably be the Hydraulic Fracturers by now. Or maybe the Shale Gassers.

2
by Parmenides :: Mon, 03/14/2016 - 10:23pm

I almost wish I didn't read enough of you to notice when you reuse lines. Great article.

3
by Cian Fahey :: Mon, 03/14/2016 - 11:07pm

Which?

5
by bubqr :: Tue, 03/15/2016 - 1:20pm

The "Film room, Analysis beyond the numbers" one is kinda obvious

7
by Cian Fahey :: Tue, 03/15/2016 - 3:35pm

Umm, that's not part of the article though. That's describing what the Film Room section is for.

6
by Parmenides :: Tue, 03/15/2016 - 1:32pm

Its not exact now that I look more carefully. I guess its hard to reword an analysis too differently.

It was more pronounced in your reworking of your Pre snap read article on Brock for this sight which would obviously have a lot of similar which primed me to notice similarities in this article.

So this sentence, "Running outside schematically didn't work for Murray, while the Eagles weren't built to run between the tackles because their guards and center struggled all season long."

Is similar to something else I've read from you but for the life of me I can't find it. Which means it may be only in my head.

8
by dryheat :: Wed, 03/16/2016 - 9:02am

Is Justin Hunter no longer in Tennessee, or has he underachieved so badly that he doesn't merit a mention with the WR corps?

9
by Dan Slotman :: Wed, 03/16/2016 - 3:04pm

The later.

10
by payp23 :: Thu, 06/16/2016 - 1:50pm

I hope that the titan's new weapons is going to work for them. I am big fan of Titan's and hope for their best.It has been really an informational blog and now i am reading some post regularly.
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11
by logan35 :: Fri, 07/01/2016 - 3:36pm
12
by logan35 :: Fri, 07/01/2016 - 3:37pm
13
by espiar :: Fri, 10/07/2016 - 4:48pm

"Its not exact now that I look more carefully." Exactly!

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