by Ben Muth
I have to admit: I was really looking forward to Tennessee’s matchup against the Texans last Sunday. It was a matchup of two teams battling for the lead in the AFC South, and two teams that I thought were both pretty good and fairly equal. By halftime it became clear I was wrong -- only one team qualified as pretty good, and it wasn’t the Titans.
The big debate in Nashville right now is about what’s wrong with Chris Johnson. The most popular theory is that he didn’t work out enough on his own during the lockout to get ready for the season. I could see where that might have some merit. Currently, Johnson is not playing like an elite NFL running back, or even an above average one, really. Johnson has become a guy who gets you exactly what is blocked, and not even two yards more. The problem with that, of course, is that Johnson is not being paid like a guy who does the bare minimum. No, CJ is the second highest paid rusher in the league -- getting only what is there and not making anyone miss is unacceptable at that pay scale -- especially when there isn’t very much there to grab.
Why isn’t Tennessee’s offensive line opening up holes like they used to? Well, the Titans’ line hasn’t been an elite run blocking unit for a while. Last year, the Titans finished 31st in Adjusted Line Yards and in 2009 they finished 22nd. This year they are ranked dead last in the NFL in ALY. It’s not that Tennessee’s offensive line has gotten that much worse; it’s that CJ isn’t covering up for him like they used to.
But this isn’t a running back-centric column (you can find that here), so we’re going to focus more on Tennessee’s problems up front. The offensive lineman that struggled the most against Houston was Jake Scott. He allowed a lot of penetration in the running game that limited the holes that Johnson could hit. When a defensive lineman gets a lot of penetration, the running back either has to cut it up or bubble around him to get outside. Thus, when a guard gives up a lot of penetration, he essentially cuts the line of scrimmage in half -- eliminating either the backside cut back or an outside bounce -- depending on which way the play is designed to go.
Scott also struggled getting up to linebackers at the second level. A lot of Tennessee’s linemen had this problem (particularly on the backside), but Scott seemed to struggle more than most. The right guard also gave up one of Tennessee’s sacks. He was blocking J.J. Watt, who was charging hard up field. Scott rode him pretty good and was driving him into the ground, but he just gave up too much leakage. I do think the sack could’ve, and probably should’ve, been avoided by Matt Hasselbeck. But when you’re having a bad day like Scott was, you never seem to get those breaks.
Tennessee actually blocked pretty well in the passing game on Sunday. That shouldn’t be surprising since, once again, they’ve been among the best in the NFL at protecting the quarterback (second in Adjusted Sack Rate). One thing I noticed that could be cause for concern was that Eugene Amano was giving up a lot of ground before he ever even made contact with pass rushers -- I think Amano’s motivation was to stay on the same level as his guards in order to pass off games and twists better. The guards seemed to be kicking out to defensive tackles that were aligned wider than usual in four-man fronts, and defensive ends aligned head up over the tackles against three-man fronts. As a result, the guards needed to get more depth to block them and Amano needed more depth to stay on their level.
The problem with this is that the guards are getting width as they get their depth and the center isn’t. So Amano would be making contact with rushers three yards behind the line of scrimmage and directly in line with Hasselbeck. Amano actually did a fairly good job of holding his ground once he initiated contact, but the problem was that he was deep to begin with, and that depth was too close for Hasselbeck’s comfort, so the veteran quarterback ended up throwing off his back foot a lot. It was a tough situation for Amano because you do want to stay on the same level as your guards, but eventually you have to either get width to stay level or hold your ground before you give up too much territory without making the rusher take it. Amano did neither. It will be interesting to see if he adjusts as the season progresses.
The rest of the offensive line didn’t really stand out either way. Both tackles and Leroy Harris blocked well against Houston’s pass rush, but failed to generate any movement in the running game. They stayed on their blocks in the ground game, but weren’t violently displacing any defenders from their gaps. Also, all three could’ve been better at the second level. As I mentioned before, Tennessee really struggled to get hats on Houston’s linebackers all game -- that was a big part of the disaster that was last Sunday for the Titans. They were lucky to even get seven points.
|Figure 1: Outside Audible Zone|
When I say Tennessee was lucky to get those seven points, I’m referring to the fact that their biggest play of the day was on a perfect call. It actually seemed to be an audible at the line where Hasselbeck recognized a stunt and changed the play into a shotgun run away from the blitz. I can’t say for sure that it was an audible (although I am pretty sure it was at least a check), but you can see Hasselbeck step up from the gun to yell something to the offensive line, then the linemen make a series of calls. Anyway, the play itself is a simple inside zone, but it was the perfect play for the defense Wade Phillips dialed up.
Before the snap, Houston is pretty clearly in man-to-man with one free safety (Figure 1). To Tennessee’s right, they have a shaded nose and a wide nine technique. To the left they have a defensive tackle head up on the guard (Harris), with Brian Cushing standing up right over the tackle (Michael Roos), and Connor Barwin standing up in the wide nine technique. Houston also had a defensive back (Glover Quin) wandering around near the middle of line of scrimmage.
At the snap, Houston slanted to the right, seemingly right into the play. But they brought Quin on a looping blitz to the left, which meant that Scott and Amano were able to double team Houston’s nose tackle for a long time and seal off the three technique from getting to his gap, creating a huge hole. It was a really nice job by two guys I spent the bulk of this column criticizing. If they were defensive linemen, this block would be the equivalent of a sack -- people who didn’t watch the game would think they played well. Because Houston’s corners were in man-to-man, they didn’t realize it was a running play until Javon Ringer was 15 yards downfield. Houston’s defensive backs did not react to this well, as when they finally did hit Ringer, it was 20 yards down the field and out of bounds, resulting in an unnecessary roughness penalty. It was a great call by whoever made it, and led to Tennessee’s only score of the game.
Before I go into the usual plugs, I wanted to discuss one more possible reason for Tennessee’s ground struggles: With Kenny Britt out, Tennessee’s wide receivers stink. I’m not a passing game expert, but I feel confident in saying that Nate Washington, Damian Williams, and Lavelle Hawkins aren’t inspiring much fear in defensive secondaries or defensive coordinators. As a result, there are a lot of extra guys hanging around the box in running situations, regardless of the formation Tennessee is in. It certainly makes the offensive line’s job much harder. I guess the thesis here is that Tennessee’s running problems are complex and go beyond one player.
That does it for this week’s Word of Muth. If it seems a little short, it’s because the Titans didn’t run very many plays on Sunday. I’m going to try and do two breakdowns on my Twitter account this week, and once again it’s first-come, first-serve in the comments section (Chicago and the teams I’ve picked this year are ineligible). A quick reminder on the Twitter breakdowns: I’m only going to watch one game for each team, so it isn’t a definitive scouting report on any player or offensive line. Instead, it’s more of a quick first impression on a unit or player.