In preparation for the Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel should use one of former coach Mike Mularkey’s old strategies.
Mike Mularkey certainly had his flaws as head coach of the Tennessee Titans. He ran an ineffective offensive scheme and he often put the blame in the wrong places following losses.
That said, there was always one thing that Mularkey was consistently good at during his two years in Tennessee: keeping elite players from wrecking games.
Mularkey talked a lot when he was with the Titans about just that. He frequently spoke of identifying an opponent’s “game-wreckers,” and prioritizing ways to neutralize those players.
For the most part, his strategy was successful. Aside from Todd Gurley’s explosion against the Titans in Week 16 of the 2017 season, pretty much every “elite” player who faced the Titans from 2016-2018 struggled in some manner.
Among these players are Adrian Peterson, Von Miller, Khalil Mack, and Aaron Rodgers. While the Titans did not win all of those games, neutralizing those players certainly helped their efforts.
In the Texans this week, the Titans have an opponent with multiple players who could be considered “game-wreckers” in receiver DeAndre Hopkins and defensive lineman J.J. Watt. If the Titans want to win the game, Mike Vrabel will need to use Mike Mularkey’s strategy.
Hopkins is one of the NFL’s hardest receivers to cover. He is incredibly good at high-pointing the ball to make contested catches, perhaps the best in the league at that.
What’s the key to third down plays against the Texans’ talented front for the #Titans?
Matt LaFleur: pic.twitter.com/1myk8uclxz
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) September 13, 2018
Though Watt played just eight games from 2016-2017 due to injury, he has consistently remained one of the NFL’s most dominant players of any position. He was snubbed of an NFL MVP award in 2014, when the three-time defensive player of the year recorded 20.5 sacks to go along with three receiving touchdowns on offense.
In his Thursday press conference, Titans head coach Mike Vrabel admitted that he does look for game-wreckers and that he understands how important it will be to neutralize Hopkins when his defense is on the field.
“Last year, they threw the ball to Hopkins 189 times. Last week, they threw it to him 14 times. I know that [Texans head coach Bill O’Brien] is telling them to throw the ball to Hopkins. That’s no secret. So, we better know where he’s at and we better be able to cover him.”
He did add, however, that a balance must be found in focusing on a single player, regardless of talent, versus the team as a whole. “We only get 11. They get 11. We can only double team so many people. They don’t let us double team everybody. So, we’ll have to have a game plan in order that gives us the best chance to go out there and perform.”
The biggest challenge of this game likely falls in the hands of the Titans’ offensive line. Not only will they have to face Watt, but they also will have to face two other high-quality pass rushers in Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus.
There’s a chance they have to meet that challenge with Dennis Kelly and Kevin Pamphile as their starting offensive tackles with both Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin recovering from injuries. That scenario would, obviously, not be ideal.
I thought maybe Dean Pees would slightly tip his hand as to how the #Titans will approach DeAndre Hopkins. I was wrong.
This is my favorite answer I have ever been given to a question: pic.twitter.com/CDJY1W7CQv
— Luke Worsham (@luke_worsham) September 13, 2018
Offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur says that, on third downs, it will be crucial for the Titans to develop an effective protection plan. “Get guys open, quickly. You definitely have to have a protection plan in terms of how you’re going to try to neutralize those guys, and we feel good about it. But at the same time, you’ve got to go out and execute it. We’ll see how it goes on Sunday.”
LaFleur added that he, too, goes through a process of looking for “game-wreckers” as he gameplans. “We went into a similar mindset with the two defensive ends (Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn) from Miami. We’re going to do whatever we think is necessary so that doesn’t happen, and that’s why you game plan. So, absolutely. What’s so challenging with the Texans is that it’s not just J.J. Watt, it’s Jadeveon, Whitney, and [nose tackle D.J.] Reader as well. It is quite a challenge, but one that we’re looking forward to.”
It seems like the Titans do usually look for players who could potentially wreck the game, but this week they need to take an even deeper look.
If they can’t neutralize Watt and the Texans’ other pass rushers, quarterback Marcus Mariota will get killed. If they can’t keep Hopkins in check, Watson will have a repeat performance of his stellar game against the Titans last year.
Cover images via Titans Online and Sporting News.