Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur is beginning to come into his own as an NFL play-caller.
“Trust the process.” It’s perhaps the most overused cliche in the game of football, second only, perhaps, to “iron sharpens iron.”
Yet, for Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, that phrase has been of particular importance. The 2018 season has been just that for him, a process that needs to be trusted.
LaFleur is a disciple of some of the NFL’s greatest offensive minds, such as Rams head coach Sean McVay and 49ers HC Kyle Shanahan. Last season, LaFleur was the offensive coordinator of the NFL’s highest-scoring offense in Los Angeles. He left to pursue greener pastures in Tennessee.
This season is LaFleur’s first as a play caller in the NFL. He has helped to shape the careers of star quarterbacks like Matt Ryan and Jared Goff, but he has never been the person calling the shots on game day. In the first half of the season, LaFleur’s lack of experience showed.
It wasn’t all bad for LaFleur, as he orchestrated excellent gameplans that helped the Titans defeat Philadelphia with a powerful aerial attack and Houston, in a game where the team was absent starting QB Marcus Mariota. For every step forward, though, there seemed to be a subsequent step back.
The Titans offense was largely to blame for the team’s three-game losing-skid from Weeks 5-7. They looked woefully unprepared at the start of each of those three games (against the Bills, Ravens, and Chargers). They struggled to move the ball, committed back-breaking turnovers, and allowed 15 total sacks in the three games, including 11 against the Ravens.
LaFleur discusses the extent to which his first seven games as a play caller have been a learning experience. pic.twitter.com/dz3Yaimk74
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Those games served as an opportunity for LaFleur to get his feet wet. He got to see firsthand what worked and what didn’t. “I think every game is a learning experience,” LaFleur said. “I think you get better and more comfortable with reps. Hopefully, that will continue with me, just like it is with the expectations of the players. You can get better and better as you move forward.”
Historically, bye weeks can serve as a blessing and a curse for teams. Heading into the Titans’ bye in Week 8, LaFleur knew that the offense had two major issues that needed to be cleaned up: third down and red zone situations.
“You never quite know how it’s going to turn out coming out of a bye week,” LaFleur said on Thursday, “but fortunately for us, our guys put in a really good performance.”
Indeed they did. Against the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football, the Titans offense was stellar. Everything clicked for the unit that had struggled so mightily to find their way in the team’s previous three games.
QB Marcus Mariota discussed the comfort level the offense felt on Monday night, saying, “When you’re in it, you are kind of just playing. Afterward, when you’re able to talk about it—to be whatever the number was, was very efficient. It’s kind of the standard, hopefully, that we can live by.”
That standard came, in large part, due to the excellent performance of LaFleur in the booth. His play-calling helped the Titans offense overcome their disastrous start and get into a rhythm.
LaFleur tried to deflect the praise to his players, saying, “It’s a credit to our players. They’re the ones out there executing the plan.” Yes, but someone had to come up with a plan that’s executable.
The timing and cadence LaFleur showed in his impressive effort on Monday allowed Mariota to have some easy reads at his disposal and move the ball efficiently. Most notably, LaFleur was extremely effective at designing and calling screen passes.
“I think the screen game is a little feast or famine at times,” LaFleur said. “Luckily, we called a couple at the right time the other day, the one to Dion hit big for us. That’s always fun as a play caller.” The Titans’ screens on Monday certainly fall into the “feast” category, and LaFleur alllowed that to be the case.
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LaFleur went on to explain how the scheme of a defense is one of the key elements of a successful screen. “If you call it into a blitz, that’s usually a good time to call a screen. It’s also how fast the defense is rushing and how fast—we call them the ‘stack monsters’—the guys inside, how fast they can recover and get out and cover the screens. I think there is an element to trying to hit the call, if you have a feel of when somebody might bring pressure, that’s typically a good time.”
That’s exactly what LaFleur seems to be developing: a feel. Offensive play-calling in the NFL is all about getting into a flow, and LaFleur was able to do that on Monday night. As LaFleur’s comfort-level continues to develop, Mariota and the rest of the offense’s confidence will also grow.
Asked if the Titans offense has “graduated” to an extent, LaFleur said, “I don’t know if we’ve necessarily graduated, I just think that we’re executing a little bit better. I think the guys are starting to get a little bit of confidence.”
The Titans will need to build on that confidence if they hope to keep pace with the red-hot Texans in the AFC South. Plenty of it will be needed this weekend against the Patriots.
Cover image: A to Z Sports Nashville/Luke Worsham