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With the NFL season drawing near its close, the New Orleans Saints have the No. 1 or 2 seeds in the NFC in their sights. To earn that first round bye, however, they must first take care of their own business. That means beating the Tennessee Titans and the Carolina Panthers in back-to-back weeks, while also hoping for the Packers to stumble against either the Vikings or Lions.
The Saints face an unexpected test on the road in Tennessee, as Ryan Tannehill has led the Titans to a 6-2 record since taking over in October, including a four-game winning streak that was just snapped last week by the AFC South-leading Texans. Tannehill has completed 71.5 percent of his passes this season for 2,272 yards, and he’s thrown for 17 touchdowns this year versus just six interceptions.
Key to Tannehill’s success has been offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, the Titans’ tight end coach turned OC upon the departure of Matt LaFleur to take over the Packers’ head coaching job after last season. In recent weeks, Smith has incorporated former Ole Miss receiver A.J. Brown. Brown has 110-plus yards in three of his last four games, four of his seven touchdowns have come in that span, and Brown’s ability to take the top off a defense makes him a deep threat and a big component of the Titans’ bend-then-break the defense mentality.
The Titans are not unique in how they want to start a game. They want to run the ball early and often in order to open things up later on. Derrick Henry, who is questionable for Sunday with a hamstring injury, has really come into his own in his fourth year. Henry had rushed for 100-plus yards in four straight games before last week’s contest against the Texans, but he still picked up 86 yards on 21 carries. Henry is a workhorse for the Titans, and he’s been putting up career-best numbers this year.
The Titans’ offensive style is predicated upon staying ahead of the chains. With Henry’s 4.9 yards per carry this year, they’ve been able to do just that. The Saints are fourth in the league against the run, giving up 90.8 yards per game. They’ll need to continue that trend and let the Titans try to beat them through the air, as the best way to beat Drew Brees and the offense is to keep them off the field.
The Titans’ offense is by far at its most dangerous when it’s able to establish the play action. Smith runs a balanced offense, but not balanced in the traditional sense. The Titans want to run as many passing plays out of play action as they do dropbacks. In his past four games, Tannehill is 29 for 36 out of the play action and 44 of 65 while dropping back. In last week’s loss against the Texans, the Titans ran just seven play action passes, versus 29 dropbacks. In the previous three weeks, they ran 29 play action passes against 36 dropbacks.
What is it that makes the Titans so dangerous in play action? Simply put, Tannehill is very effective at freezing defenses and moving the pocket, and his arm is big enough that he can make throws other quarterbacks wouldn’t dare make.
This play doesn’t look like much. A busted rollout off of a play action that turned into a dangerous incompletion. But it illustrates two things:
1.) Even as a rookie, Brown feels comfortable enough breaking off his route and going downfield once he sees the high safety break towards Tannehill.
2.) Tannehill feels perfectly comfortable throwing the ball across the field to Brown if he sees him in single coverage.
Smith clearly takes note of this, and he capitalized on it in the very same game.
It’s worth taking a look at the design of this play.
It’s nothing mind-blowing from Smith, just a little play-action bootleg. However, where it works is by isolating tight end Jonnu Smith against linebacker Tahir Whitehead. The Raiders only have one high safety who, naturally, is going to follow Tannehill on the bootleg. While Smith dekes blocking down low, the safety is drawn towards Corey Davis at the top of the formation. The result of the play ends up being a touchdown, as Tannehill drops it to Smith over Whitehead, who was a step behind the entire play.
Whitehead (and the entire Raider linebacker corps) freezes down low and Smith ends up behind him. However, no matter how open Smith was at the end of the play, this is a ridiculous throw from Tannehill over the top of the defense and he deserves a lot of credit for it. Arthur Smith, meanwhile, deserves credit for recognizing he has a quarterback who can make that throw. All good offensive coordinators know that one play needs to set up another. The incompletion to Brown before this play did just that.
So what does all of this mean for the Saints? Put simply, it means that they need to stay disciplined on defense and keep the Titans behind the sticks. With Kiko Alonso and Vonn Bell ruled out — not to mention C.J. Gardner-Johnson being questionable with an injury — they need immediate contributions from new signees Janoris Jenkins and D.J. Swearinger. Even if Marshon Lattimore ends up shadowing Brown, which he likely won’t, Jenkins may have to cover the likes of Corey Davis (who is also questionable with an ankle injury.
The Saints’ three worst games against the run have been against the Texans (180 yards allowed), 49ers (162 yards allowed), and Falcons (143 yards allowed). They lost the latter two games, and they’re 3-3 when giving up 100 or more yards on the ground. Alonso being out means linebacking duties will likely fall on Demario Davis, A.J. Klein, Craig Robertson and Manti Te’o again. Davis and Klein are strong in coverage, whereas Robertson and Te’o are at their best when they’re able to play downhill.
For the Titans, the triumvirate to look out for will be Tannehill-Henry-Brown. If Henry gets going early, that means Brown is going to get going later.
Erik Harris, who had a brief stint with the Saints, learned the hard way what Brown getting going looks like. Early in the second quarter of Titans-Raiders, the Titans lined up with one running back. A play action froze Harris in the high safety spot, and Brown was able to get behind him after toasting cornerback Daryl Worley for a relatively easy 91-yard touchdown.
Marcus Williams will hopefully be a bit more disciplined back deep, but it isn’t easy against a team like Tennessee. At the end of the day, the Texans were able to beat the Titans by jumping out in front early and forcing the Titans to play from behind, a style they’re clearly not built to play. For the Saints, that may well end up being the best solution to avoid what has the potential to be a very long day defensively.