Both the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars have been tipped to go from basement to the stars in recent years. But based on Sunday afternoon’s football, only Tennessee look like they’re coming good on promise, pulling away from the Jags and sealing a comfortable divisional win. For this week’s Why They Won/Lost, Senior NFL Writer Nick Dunkeyson goes south.
There won’t be too many fond memories of the 2014 and 2015 NFL seasons in either north-east Florida or north-central Tennessee. Jacksonville finished with the third and then fifth worst records in football. Tennessee the second-worst and then overall worst. It’s one thing to go all Sam Hinkie and get giddy with tanking and trusting the process. It’s another thing to give up sixteen Sundays to watch the sporting equivalent of fruitbat guano.
Of course, the NFL is supposed to have parity, and bad teams are supposed to be good again in time. We saw Tennessee fulfilling their side of that bargain last year. Jacksonville? Not so much. But that was reversed this year, as Week 1 saw Jacksonville trouncing Houston, and Tennessee slipping to Oakland. Would Week 2 be more of the same for both sides? Frankly, no. So, why did the Tennessee Titans win?
Tennessee Titans Have Better Running Back Depth
Derrick Henry had a pretty good rookie season, notching 490 yards at 4.5 a clip, and catching 13 passes. He was stuck as a backup after DeMarco Murray’s bounce-back season. However, in this game Murray went off in the 3rd quarter with hamstring tightness, Henry came on, and where Murray had struggled to find holes, Henry found gaps. Going up the middle, showing power, speed and wiggle, his 17-yard touchdown to put Tennessee up 16-3. He’d go one to amass 92 yards and a touchdown on 14 mostly second-half carries.
Derrick Henry beats Abry Jones (#95) outside (Reinhold Matay/USA Today Sports)
Henry’s success in the run game, as it so often does, forced Jacksonville to commit extra men for the run, opening up the pass game. This allowed Mariota to find his groove throwing, allowing Mike Mularkey to open up the playbook, and thus the offense clicks.
Meanwhile, Jacksonville have a generational talent in Leonard Fournette. Thing is, he’s a rookie learning the game, and not all rookies start like Kareem Hunt. Fournette struggled to get free, with 40 yards on 14 carries behind an O-Line that couldn’t make holes for him. He gets yards after contact, but that in itself means he should probably have someone to be spelled by. Alas, for the Jags that’s Chris Ivory, who is not Derrick Henry. Ivory is acceptable as a running back, but isn’t much more than a complementary piece. With Fournette struggling and Ivory only okay, Jacksonville never got a threatening rush attack, which weakened them overall.
If Your Elite Defense Is Tired, That’s Not Good
Here’s my take. Playing defense is more draining than playing offense. Why? Offense is primarily proactive – you’re deciding what you’re going to do on each play. Defense is reactive – you’re working out how to maximise your chance of trying to stop the offense. You have to – and have more scope to – adjust during the play. But you’re also chasing down. A receiver has a good idea of how far he has to run on a given play. A linemen knows what block he needs to do. Defense, you might have an idea, but you have to be open to being wrong, and adjusting. Being reactive is, in all facets of life, more tiring than being proactive.
If you want your elite defense to be elite, don’t tire them out! There’s a reason heavy run games are often paired with top defences – more clock-eating drives, more control. Chance to give your 320 lb nose tackle opportunity to get his breath back. When this doesn’t happen, teams with top defences fade and give up lots of points in the mid-third to mid-fourth quarter. What happened in this game?
<Points at box score and looks smug>
Elite Defense Vs Elite O-Line – O-Line Win!
Just a quick one this, but Jacksonville went from ten sacks of Houston’s charity-shop-dummy O-Line to one of Tennessee’s unit. Mariota was sacked once and only hit twice! Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin handled Calais Campbell, Dante Fowler Jr and Yannick Ngakoue. Malik Jackson couldn’t get any traction against the Quinton Spain and Josh Kline. Ben Jones is playing well as ever and executing some fantastic run blocks.
When two strengths of teams are directly pitted against each other, the winner of the battle often wins the game.
Frankly, The Difference Between Blake Bortles and Marcus Mariota
Remember when Blake Bortles was putting up great fantasy numbers in 2015 and kidding people, myself included, that he had a future as an NFL quarterback? Well, he’s still at it.
Bortles was 11-of-25 for 89 passing yards the entering 4th quarter. He went 9-of-9 for 134 passing yards in the final period. #Vintage
— Mike Kaye (@mike_e_kaye) September 17, 2017
The Tennessee defense was able to focus on the run so much more, as Bortles struggled to complete many passes beyond dumpoffs and quick slants to Marqise Lee. Just knowing that there’s little passing threat did for the whole Jags offense. Why? Well, if you’ve got a spare defensive back or inside linebacker, what do you do with him? Against a balanced team, you are often playing situational football, on an as-and-when basis. But if you’re up against a quarterback who struggles to beat single coverage, stick him in the box! That way, you don’t lose much if it’s a pass, and if it’s a run you win big!
Though it’s worth noting, and this ties to the defense getting tired point above, that neither quarterback started remarkably.
(screenshot via me)
But The Situations They’re In Exacerbate That
Unlike Bortles, Mariota is a complete quarterback, which, obviously, makes him harder to gameplan for. We know Mariota loves a seam pass to Delanie Walker, and PFF had him down as the best player on the field. But now, the Tennessee Titans have a wonderful variety of weapons now. So: Mariota uncorks a deep ball for Taywan Taylor, can find Corey Davis on the perimeter, can dump off to Murray or Henry, can chuck a screen pass to Jonnu Smith to take to the house. The Jaguars can throw quick slants to Marqise Lee or run Leonard Fournette into a stacked box.
That injury to Allen Robinson – who admittedly looked about as motivated as a Remain voter working at DExEU this season (SATIRE KLAXON) – has taken out a major part of their offense. Not that Bortles would’ve made the most of him, but still.
Jacksonville Not Built To Take Advantage of Tennessee’s Main Weakness
We’re starting to see second-year free safety Kevin Byard becoming more adept at assisting coverage. I still don’t like those Tennessee Titans cornerbacks, though. Adoree Jackson is going to be a work in progress all season. Logan Ryan was not bad, but still looks like a #2 CB. Problem is, Jacksonville do not have the roster (read: quarterback and healthy WR1) to take advantage of that.
I realise loads of this piece has been “The Tennessee Titans won because Blake Bortles is bad”, but well, they did.
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