As we’ve been doing for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. Like last year, Josh Carney and I will cover the opposing team’s offense. I will focus on scheme, Josh on the players.
Today, checking out the Tennessee Titans’ offense ahead of Sunday’s game.
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT
TITANS’ RUN GAME
Still the bread and butter of this team even after losing Derrick Henry weeks ago. Henry will not play in this game but he was leading the NFL in rushing before his injury. I generally don’t like even noting yards per game but the Titans rank 5th at 137.8 per game on the season. Even without Henry, they’re still averaging 122 yards per game so their commitment has not changed. Their effectiveness, however, has fallen, averaging just 4.0 YPC without him, ranking 25th in football.
On the season, no team has been more run-oriented than the Titans. Their 232 rushes on first down this season lap the NFL. The next closest is 213. Without Henry, their top back will be #7 D’Onta Foreman, whose 55 carries have all come since Henry went down. This team has rolled through several backs to replace Henry, including Adrian Peterson (no longer with the team) but Foreman has been their guy. The next most carries since Henry went down go to #40 Dontrell Hilliard, a much smaller and faster back than Foreman who busted off a long TD run at the end of the first half against the New England Patriots two games ago.
Over the last two weeks, the team has gone fullback heavy with #44 Tory Carter. At 6’0, 244, he hasn’t touched the ball but been an effective lead blocker. It’s worth noting he is on the injury report with an ankle issue and there’s no guarantee he plays this weekend.
On the season, the Titans have 44 runs of 10+ yards (9th in NFL) and six runs of 20+ yards (T-16th). But again, those numbers are skewed for when Henry was healthy. Without Henry, they have 15 runs of 10+ yards, which ranks 15th. The main takeaway here is the Titans’ desire to run the ball hasn’t changed with him down.
The offense is old-school, especially these last two games against the Patriots and Jaguars. Lots of heavy personnel: 21, 12, and 13. They will run anything out of two-back. Examples of zone, lead, and counter.
I didn’t chart it in a quantifiable way but the Titans seem to prefer to the boundary (closed side) as opposed to the field (open side). I think they like to condense things and win with power and physicality up front. Reduce space, get downhill, and win the point of attack.
On the season, their offense is middle of the pack, averaging 24.9 points per game. That’s 15th in the NFL. They’ve been held at or under 20 points the last three weeks and are averaging 19.4 points without Henry in the lineup. It’s been a ball-control, grind it out kind of offense missing its most valuable player. Their third down offense is slightly above average, 14th at 40.8% while their red zone offense cracks the top ten, #10 at 62.5%.
TITANS’ PASS GAME
With Ryan Tannehill at QB. He’s having a down year after a strong 2020 campaign. After throwing 33 TDs to 7 INTs a year ago, he has just one more touchdown than INT, 14 versus 13. He’s had more multi-INT games (three) than multi-TD games (two) this year.
He’s also been under pressure a lot more in 2021. Tannehill’s been sacked 37 times this year after being dropped just 24 times last year. With injuries and turnover to its o-line, his situation is similar to Ben Roethlisberger’s in Pittsburgh.
The injuries continue at WR. Julio Jones is back but has missed a lot of time this season. He’s played in just seven games this season and in last week’s win over the Jaguars, played less than half the snaps. Star WR AJ Brown, who had a big TD against the Steelers last season, will not play due to an injury. It’s led to a bit of a jumbled mess of names at WR. Six active players have between 20-30 receptions this year, including Jones, who is at least winning deep with an impressive 14.5 per catch average.
On the year, Tennessee has just 27 receptions of 20+ yards on the season. That’s tied for dead last in football. They are hitting deep plays when they connect, six completions of 40+ yards which ranks tied for 17th. But overall, this is not an explosive offense unless Henry is healthy and rolling downhill.
The Titans are feeling the loss of Jonnu Smith, who caught eight TDs in 2020 before leaving for New England. But they’re still TE heavy and run a ton of “Hank” aka over-the-ball type of routes. Run 5 to 10 yards, sit down over the center, show your numbers, and have Tannehill hit you. Examples from different groupings and overall route distribution.
As you’d expect for a run-heavy offense, they build a lot of playaction off it. I’m betting they’ll follow in the Vikings’ footsteps with plenty of max-pro, two-man Yankee (crossing) routes against the Steelers. They have a wrinkle to fake the crossing with one receiver breaking down on a deep curl and the other either running the cross/post or a corner route, which is how KJ Osborn scored on Cam Sutton in Week 14. Two examples.
Pittsburgh likes to cut the crosser but if that WR breaks off, it won’t be an effective coverage. They may be better off playing inside leverage on the WR against 2 WR sets to take away any crosser and letting Minkah Fitzpatrick handle anything vertical, post or corner.
JOSH’S INDIVIDUAL REPORT
It’s Titans week, Steelers’ fans!
After a recent rough stretch overall for the Steelers, the black and gold appears to be catching a bit of a break with the Week 15 matchup against the Tennessee Titans, who will be without star running back Derrick Henry and standout wide receiver AJ Brown on Sunday inside Heinz Field.
Despite being without two of its top offensive weapons, the Titans continue to hum along offensively, led by quarterback Ryan Tannehill and a pair of backup running backs in Dontrell Hilliard and D’Onta Foreman, as well as a talented offensive line up front led by star left tackle Taylor Lewan and Pro Bowl caliber left guard Rodger Saffold III.
It’s not a sexy offense like the ones the Steelers have had to deal with in recent weeks, but the Titans do one thing extremely well that the Steelers have really struggled to stop in the last six weeks or so: running the football at a successful high rate even without perennial MVP candidate Derrick Henry.
Foreman and Hillard are certainly journeymen running backs that are nowhere near the level of Henry individually, but they’ve definitely carried the load for the Titans in recent weeks, having both eclipsed 100 rushing yards against the Patriots, while providing balance and ball security in a 20-0 beatdown of the Jaguars one week ago.
Hilliard is more of the home run threat as he has more of the speed and explosiveness elements to his game.
Against New England, Hilliard took a draw play late in the half to the house, scoring from 68 yards out by utilizing his straight-line speed and burst to destroy angles and go seemingly untouched to paydirt in a situation that the Patriots rarely make mistakes in.
Just look at the decisiveness on the draw play as Hilliard sticks his foot in the turf and gets north in a hurry, stressing the Patriots’ defense in a situation in which they were anticipating a pass.
Later on in the same game Hilliard ripped off a 12-yarder on the same draw. Don’t be surprised if the Titans try to counter the Steelers’ pass rushers and over-aggressiveness on defense with a draw to Hilliard for a big hitter.
With Foreman, he’s the thunder to Hilliard’s lightning. He has some burst to his game overall, but he’s best served as a thumper between the tackles that can absolutely wear down an opponent, matching the style Henry plays with.
He does have issues with ball security though and cost the Titans on the road against the Patriots at the end of a 30-yard run, fumbling the football in space for a critical turnover.
The Titans like to run a lot of inside duo with their linemen, which was a staple when Henry was healthy. They’re able to utilize that some with Foreman carrying the rock. That could be a key recipe to success on Sunday against the Steelers.
What the Titans do so well though with Tannehill is play-action, an area in which Tannehill has really taken a step forward as a passer.
It definitely helps to have a successful rushing attack to lean on and then hit teams with play action.
Rookie wide receiver Dez Fitzpatrick has come on strong in recent weeks, making more of an impact offensively with the losses of Brown and Julio Jones to injuries.
He does a fantastic job here selling the vertical route before breaking it off for the comeback route, making himself wide open on the play-action fake from Tannehill, who delivers a dart for the first down. Check out how the Patriots’ linebackers sell downhill against the play-action fake, creating even more of an underneath window for Tannehill.
One week later, with Jones back in the lineup, the Titans were able to dial up easy completions for Tannehill off of play-action to his star receiver.
Jones, when healthy, can still throttle into and out of cuts with the best of them. Notice the cornerback on his side of the field bite on the run fake before dropping late and failing to get into a throwing lane, making for an easy sideline throw for Tannehill for 12 yards and the first down.
When not utilizing play-action fakes, the Titans are really good at the screen game, especially to the tight ends.
Geoff Swaim is really good at selling he’s blocking before slipping out into space as a receiver. Tannehill has the patience to not panic in the situation either, which leads to the perfect sell and the explosive play of 24 yards down the left sideline against the Jaguars, catching a young pass rusher in K’Lavon Chaisson off guard.
Everything that the Titans do on offense is predicated by the offensive line though, which shouldn’t be surprising.
Yes, they have a ton of skill guys with high ceilings, but this offense goes as the offensive line goes. Here’s how I expect them to line up left to right on Sunday:
LT — Taylor Lewan
LG — Aaron Brewer
C — Ben Jones
RG — Nate Davis
RT — David Quessenberry
It looks like Saffold will not play on Sunday having missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday with a shoulder injury. That’s a big blow for the Titans in the ground game as Brewer isn’t the people mover that Saffold is.
Jones and Davis are a really strong pairing inside, with Davis serving as the road grader in the run game. He’s big, physical and nasty and really moves people off the spot. Lewan is the voice of the group though. He plays with the most passion, is unafraid to mix it up with guys and will absolutely tell you how it is in the moment.
He fits the offensive line to a T in Nashville.
On special teams the Titans are a bit of a mess.
Kicker Randy Bullock is easily one of the worst in the game this season. He’s missed four extra points on the year and has missed four field goals on the year. He has really struggled with consistency on the year, and his leg looks relatively shot.
Punter Brett Kern continues to punt at a Pro Bowl pace, averaging just under 44 yards per punt. He remains incredibly solid overall, pinning guys to the sideline allowing his coverage units to hold returns to a minimum.
Kick returner and punt returner Chester Rogers has really struggled with holding onto the football and making sound decisions back deep. He was fortunate to recover his own fumble against the Jaguars, with both of his fumbles this season coming in the last two weeks. He also had a punt bounce off of his leg while trying to get out of the way, resulting in a turnover against Houston.
There’s a clear advantage on special teams for the Steelers that they’ll need to take advantage of on Sunday.