A couple weeks ago, FO colleague Doug Farrar wrote me an email asking about what aspect of the Titans he should write about for his series on Yahoo on addressing how every team might address their biggest weakness. The biggest weakness last year for the Titans was, in my view, pass defense. Unfortunately, the offseason attempts to improve that, drafting Morgan, signing Witherspoon, finding a new starter at corner opposite Finnegan, and hoping Michael Griffin (a) is healthy and (b) pulls his head out of his you-know-what, aren’t very interesting schematically.
The more interesting question was, if those defensive improvements don’t work or have only moderate effect, how will the Titans win games? As Andrew chronicled, CJ2k is likely to end up more like CJ1.4k, so it will have be on the strength of Vince Young throwing the football. VY’s most visible comparative strength, for NFL quarterbacks, remains his mobility, and I glommed onto plays using that, most notably the touchdown pass to Kenny Britt in the Monday night win against the Texans. A closer look at that play, though, reveals the basic weakness of a scheme built around plays like that.
Keep in mind I believe this was the first time the Titans ran this particular play, so the Texans were seeing something at least fairly new. Watch the replay, though, and look at VY’s potential reads for getting a first down.
(1) Keep it himself. Mario Williams has kept contain, so this is not an option.
(2) Toss/pitch to CJ. The Titans have shown a variant of this counter-option before, so OLB Cushing and SS Pollard have him fairly well contained. This is a possible last resort, but a risky one.
(3) Short pass to Crumpler. Ryans, who committed hard, and Cody are hampering Alge’s release, so this is not an option.
(4) Britt in the end zone on a drag route. This was open and worked, but look at what had to go right for it to work:
(i) Britt gets a good inside release. Not too hard, since Robinson is playing off coverage.
(ii) Britt doesn’t get caught up in the inside trash and gets a free run across the field. If his route is disrupted, Robinson has time to close in on him and possibly break up the play, and Williams may be able to bring more pressure on VY.
(iii) The CB covering Washington follows him on his end-around action. I’m not sure exactly how much man coverage the Texans play in red zone short-yardage situations, but if he’s playing zone, this play doesn’t unfold the same way.
(iv) Cushing bites hard on the end-around fake and has to retreat quickly to cover his man CJ. I was much less a fan of Cushing’s play as a rookie because of plays like this. He’s excellent going a single direction, but is overly aggressive and too slow to move any direction other than directly forward.
(v) Because Cushing gets sucked in for no good reason, Pollard, who’s playing deep half, has to rotate over and cover CJ28. This vacates the area where Britt will be running through, and Pollard is a step away from deflecting VY’s pass anyway.
(vi) Ryans joins Cushing in attacking the middle of the offensive line hard. If he doesn’t do this, Cody can still muck up Crumpler’s release and he can drop back and fill in a little for Pollard in the newly-vacated zone, disrupting VY’s read of the play and timing.
If any single one of those six things doesn’t happen, it could easily be enough to prevent the touchdown. Plays like this one may be cool, but they’re simply not versatile enough to base your offense around.
Instead, Doug ended up writing about a different pass play, one that better illustrates successful and repeatable offense: VY’s 49 yard pass to Gage against San Francisco. I’m not going to break down this play in as great detail, partly because the replay isn’t as good but partly because, though it’s quite effective, it actually isn’t hugely interesting, plus Doug did a good job of it himself. A couple key elements:
(1) There are really only three potential receivers on the play: Gage, Washington, CJ slipping out, and maybe Crumpler with a late release to the right side. It’s not the number of receivers, though, but the stress you place on the defense.
(2) The play action both denies the play and enables it, if that makes any sense. The three key defenders are LB Willis, S Goldson, and CB Spencer. Willis responds to the play action and that and Washington’s initial move threaten Spencer, preventing him from releasing deep. This means Gage’s initial inside move occupies Goldson. As the play continues, Goldson is kind of stuck covering Gage while Spencer follows Washington back inside and then has to turn and help on Gage deep. Fundamentally, Spencer is in the same dilemma a CB is against smash routes.
(3) Fellow fans of NFL Network’s NFL GameDay Final will recognize Deion Sanders’ response to “How’d he get so wide open?” “Double move!” The 7-man protection gives Gage and Washington enough time to make their double moves, which leaves the defenders in unfortunate (for them) positions.
(4) VY throws it to the right person at the right time. If he tries to go short, or force it to Washington early, the 49ers have it fairly well defended.
(5) VY underthrows the ball a little bit, but still puts it in a very good position. Compare to some of the woefully off passes he threw in 2007, or Collins’ awful throw that led to Polamalu’s interception in Week 1.
Points (4) and (5), I think, show the maturation of Vince Young. The heavy protection means he has a good pocket, he’s matured enough to recognize he has enough time to stand there, set his feet and make a good throw, and then he makes a good throw. That sort of heavy protection won’t always be there, but the rest of those skills will stand him in good stead going forward.
I’m leaving out a couple of the little nuances of that last play, I’m sure, but plays don’t have to be complicated to be successful. Putting that sort of stress on opposing defenders from plays inside the pocket is what the Titans will need to do more of to have a better offense in 2010.