The Tennessee Titans had the perfect gameplan in their victory over the Houston Texans. Three ingredients made it work.
At the end of Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel’s postgame press conference on Sunday, he gave a quote that will certainly endear him to Titans fans and players alike.
“Losing in the NFL is on the coaches, winning is on the players.”
Vrabel may believe that, and it is certainly is a phrase worthy of being printed on a t-shirt, but it was not the case in the Titans’ victory over the Houston Texans.
That doesn’t mean that the players did not do their jobs, because they certainly did. The players executed very well throughout the game.
But the reason that the Titans were in a position to win Sunday’s game was that the coaching staff put together the best possible gameplan. Some might call it the perfect gameplan.
Not having your starting quarterback due to injury is a tough blow, but plenty of teams overcome it every season. Not having your Pro Bowl left tackle is hard, but teams get past it. Not having your best pass catcher because he’s out for the season is also hard, as is missing your All-Pro right tackle.
Anyone of these problems could be considered relatively minor in isolation. Combine the four of them, and you have a recipe for cataclysmic disaster.
With seemingly insurmountable blows dealt to them, the Titans rose to the occasion. The coaching staff created a gameplan that was the perfect balance between conservativeness and aggressiveness
Most fans and media members (including me) figured that, because of the injuries to the Titans offensive line, whoever the team played at quarterback against the Texans would be in for a long and very painful day. And why wouldn’t people think that?
When you see J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus (the Titans had some good luck in that Pro Bowl linebacker Jadeveon Clowney was inactive due to an injury) going up against the likes of Kevin Pamphile and Tyler Marz, it’s not hard to figure out which side of that battle is the favorable one.
Yet the Titans were able to keep backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert mostly upright throughout the game. He was sacked just once.
The reason they were able to do this is that, very wisely, the Titans scheme very rarely called for Gabbert to hold on to the ball for more than a second or two. There were a lot of quick passes, screens, and even some plays designed to get Gabbert outside of the pocket.
Not only were the Titans able to keep Gabbert comfortable, but they were able to avoid asking him to be the hero. Almost every pass he completed was set up to be simple, allowing the offense to play mistake-free football.
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) September 16, 2018
The most famous implementation of the wildcat in the NFL is undoubtedly the Miami Dolphins’ 2008 victory over the Patriots when they used the formation six times to yield five touchdowns.
Back then, Titans head coach Mike Vrabel was wearing a Patriots uniform. He recorded six tackles in that game.
With that being the case, Vrabel has firsthand knowledge of how difficult it can be to defend the wildcat. It was an approach he used heavily against the Texans.
Vrabel said that running the wildcat was about giving the Titans the best possible chance to win. “The coaches were able to install it and Derrick (Henry) was able to execute it with (Luke) Stocker and Taywan (Taylor)…I’m proud of the way they handled it, they acted like pros, they came in, they were able to appreciate what we were trying to do to give us a chance, and there was a lot of movement involved.”
Running back Derrick Henry seemed to be very comfortable in the wildcat, plowing over Texans defenders all game long. Though not all of his rushes came out of the wildcat, he finished the day with 18 carries for 56 yards.
He looked a lot better than what his stats would seem to say, a rarity for Henry.
By running the wildcat, the Titans accomplished a few important feats. First, they kept the ball out of Gabbert’s hands. Second, they kept Houston’s defense off-guard. Finally, they used the run to keep Gabbert in third-and-manageable situations.
Because the offense wasn’t constantly getting themselves into obvious passing situations or behind the chains, Gabbert was able to be quick and decisive on third down. That alone neutralized the Texans’ pass rush.
Weapons in space
A big cliche in the game of football is the idea of “getting playmakers the ball in space.” It is certainly important, but a lot of teams take the wrong approach to doing it.
Getting the ball to playmakers in space does not mean throwing them a rocket as soon as the ball is snapped and calling it a “screen” play. What it means is getting creative, getting them open, and allowing your quarterback to make an easy throw that can gain big yardage.
Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur achieved those three things masterfully against the Texans. He did a nice job of creatively getting his playmakers the ball with room to work.
Wide receivers Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor had particularly nice games on that front, combining for 87 yards and a touchdown.
Taylor said that the Titans knew they had a challenge in front of them today, but they never faltered in their attitude. “We knew it was going to take a little bit of everything. Coach said it wasn’t going to be pretty, but we’ve got to get it done. We’ve got to find a way, whatever it is, we’ve got to execute to make it work.
So, that is what everybody has been priding themselves on this week. We know we had some guys down, some of our top guys, our top playmakers. We said we’ve got to step up, no matter what was called, we just had our mind on executing.”
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) September 16, 2018
By beating the Texans with such a limited offensive repertoire, the Titans showed how good a job they can do at overcoming adversity. It also allows fans to breathe a sigh of relief after last week’s disaster in Miami.
The Titans will head to Jacksonville next week, and there’s a good chance they do so with Marcus Mariota and Taylor Lewan on the field. They looked pretty good without those guys, and they should look exponentially better with them.