Separation Anxiety

In 2016, the Tennessee Titans were one of the pleasant surprises of the NFL.  Every part of the offense performed at a higher level than expected, and with the additions of Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, and Jonnu Smith in the draft, many expected the Titans to become one of the best offenses in the league. Unfortunately, the 2017 season did not produce the desired results.  The offensive line play was significantly worse, injuries hampered Demarco Murray, Davis, and others throughout the season, and Marcus Mariota’s decision making was far less effective.  While many factors contributed to the offensive struggles, one major reason was the play calling and lack of wideout production throughout the season, especially in the skill of separation. In 2017, the Titans wideouts and tight ends ranked 29th in yards gained after the catch. Individually, Corey Davis averaged 2.7 yards of separation per target, which was best on the Titans but only 56th in the league, with 29 other teams having a player ranking higher than Davis. These stats certainly translated to the field, as the Titans had very few long gains after making a catch, and Mariota threw into far more tighter windows than in 2016. Our receivers’ inability to get open was a big reason for Mariota’s regression.  As a result, despite earning the first playoff win for the Titans in over a decade, Mike Mularkey and his staff were replaced with Mike Vrabel and Matt Lafluer, with the priority being the development of Mariota and the Titans young offensive players. 

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In one of his first interviews as the Titans new offensive play-caller, Lafluer made it clear he wanted more big plays in 2018.  In a league where success is becoming more correlated with effective passing, it is critical for offensive coordinators to create gameplans that maximize their quarterbacks skillets. Marcus’s strengths as a quarterback are his short to medium accuracy and quick decisiveness on his throws.  That type of quarterback skill set flourishes with receivers who can find quick separation.  This point is further proven by the fact that Mariota was the most improved deep passer in the NFL in 2016,  and the highest ranked play action passer in the NFL in 2017.  In other words, Mariota is one of the NFL’s best decision makers when he can get his receivers open.  The key for Lafleur is finding ways to make that happen consistently.

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With the way the Titans roster is currently structured, the ability to create more open opportunities for the receivers will involve improved play from all of our offensive units.  Some of the Titans beat writers, primarily Cameron Wolfe, have stated that the ability of our receivers to get open on their own still remains a work in progress. This is not surprising with the fact that Davis, Taylor, and Tajae Sharpe each have only one full year of NFL experience (Sharpe missed all of last year with an injury).   The young receivers are still adapting and learning the NFL game, and with Davis and Sharpe coming off injury filled seasons and learning a new offensive system,  it will take time to find a high level of play.  Furthermore, Sharpe, Davis, and Rishad Mathews, along with Delanie Walker,  are receivers who find success through effective route running, body control, and sure hands, displaying skill sets usually associated with possession type receivers and red zone targets.  While these receivers do not need a lot of separation to still produce, the tighter windows their targets present typically do not lead to large gains after the catch or big plays down the field.  As a result, the effective use of Taywan Taylor and Jonnu Smith is one way to improve the big play ability and separation of the Titans offense.  Taylor led college football in 20 yard plus plays as a receiver in 2016, and made big plays when featured in 2017, including being the fastest recorded player in the NFL against the Jaguars in week 2 and scoring the decisive touchdown against the Colts on Monday Night Football, both of which went for more than 40 yards.  Smith showed good effectiveness on screens and in the short passing game, displaying the ability to get free for long gains or creating space in the red zone for touchdowns.  This idea is further emphasized by the lack of receiving additions this offseason, showing Jon Robinson feels he currently has the weapons that can produce quality results. 

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Along with Taylor and Smith, the effective use of the Titans lone major offensive addition is critical to improving our offensive play.  Dion Lewis was signed as a complement to Derrick Henry’s physical, straight ahead running style.  Lewis’s success is based on elusiveness and decision making, skills that allow for him to run both inside and outside the tackles.  He also can create mismatches against linebackers and lineman due to his ability to create separation in small spaces in the short passing game, a weapon Mariota has not consistently had in his career.  Of course, the running backs success will be primarily influenced by better play from the offensive line.  The play of our interior line has to return to its 2016 form. One encouraging sign is Matt Lafluer’s offense seems to be a better fit for Quinton Spain, Ben Jones, and Josh Kline, and with Taylor Lewan playing at his normal elite level and with Jack Conklin returning to form from injury, our line has a good chance to return to the NFL’s elite.  An effective running game will naturally create space for the receivers as more defenders are focused on the running game, and thus allow Mariota to also have time to make the best decision.  Jon Robinson has earned the reputation of being a dealmaker, and the overall quality of our receiving core could be improved with a trade for someone such as Corey Coleman or signing Dez Bryant.  While those additions could be positives, Robinson and Vrabel both have been consistent in displaying faith in their current options. Two big reasons to have confidence in that faith comes from Mariota, our offensive line and running game having shown high levels of play in the past, and Lafluer’s resume being apart of multiple staffs that have maximized the potential of its wide receivers.   These reasons, along with good health, make the Titans offense a good bet to again surprise many in 2018.

TitansShawn Coleman