As the Super Bowl ended and the offseason began, the interim tag was removed from Mike Mularkey’s title as he was named head coach of the Titans.
Many fans and followers were left underwhelmed by the decision, but some took a bit of entertainment out of the statement that Mularkey made when he said that he would like to replicate his old offensive system that he ran in Pittsburgh, which was known as “exotic smashmouth.”
As the offseason ensued, the Titans spent a considerable amount of resources on their run game. Fourth round picks were swapped with the Eagles in exchange for DeMarco Murray, after which he was given an improved contract. In a questionable move, after trading back in the first round from the number one pick, the Titans traded back into the Top 10 to select Michigan State offensive tackle Jack Conklin. With their third second round pick, the Titans selected Heisman trophy winner Derrick Henry. Center Ben Jones was given a contract that currently makes him the 10th highest paid center in the NFL.
Saturday night against the Chargers gave us our first opportunity to see what Mularkey meant by “exotic smashmouth” and find out how Murray and Henry might be used in concert.
While both Murray and Henry had effective nights, this post will look at a specific package the Titans employed on two occasions out of 21 personnel (two backs and one tight end) with the former and the latter.
DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry’s Role in “Exotic Smashmouth”
1st Quarter (14:54) Chargers: 0 – Titans: 0
On the first play of the game, the Titans lined up in a 2×1 formation with Henry positioned as the fullback, Murray as the tailback, and tight end Craig Stevens split out as a wide receiver. The play in essence is a toss sweep to the field side of the play with underneath misdirection to Henry.
Stevens is motioned into the formation pre-snap, the play starts, Stevens and Rishard Matthews crack down and make two great blocks. Stevens is asked to block the five technique and Matthews is asked to block linebacker Kyle Emanuel. Part of the reason to like this play is because of the great angles that Matthews and Emanuel are setup to have when they go to execute their blocks.
While Stevens and Matthews execute their blocks, Henry is used as misdirection to the boundary. When Marcus Mariota steps back from center, notice he turns his back to the defense so that the ball is hidden. He starts to make his pitch to Murray when the ball and Henry are hidden from the defense by his body.
Both linebackers and the strong safety bite on the fake, and this gives Taylor Lewan and Quinton Spain the time they need to pull around the crack blocks and put themselves in position with good angles to make effective blocks downfield.
That brief moment of hesitation that is caused by the fake to Henry allows Murray to not even be touched until he’s 11-yards downfield and rip off a 15-yard gain.
The linebackers are in a tough spot in this situation as the schematic elements of the play put the linebackers in horizontal conflict. If they pursue Henry, they leave themselves open for the pitch; if they stay flat-footed or look for the pitch to Murray, they can get beat by the quick end around to Henry.
As defenses adjust to the pitch to Murray and stay more balanced in their approach, look for the Titans to give the ball to Henry on the initial end around. The fact that defenses know both backs are viable threats while they are on the field will cause them to play passive, and causing defenses to play passive allows you as an offense to stay ahead of them.
[iframe src=<div style=”width: 100%; height: 0px; position: relative; padding-bottom: 56.250%;”><iframe src=”https://streamable.com/e/h9n1″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen scrolling=”no” style=”width: 100%; height: 100%; position: absolute;”></iframe></div>]
1st Quarter (7:00) Chargers: 7 – Titans: 3
The Titans go to this package again on the second play of their second drive. They line up in a 1×3 formation with three wide to the field side and Murray lined up as the No. 2 receiver. Murray is motioned into the backfield, and that leaves the formation as a 1×2 with Matthews in the slot.
This play is another example of the Titans’ ability to put a defender, in this case linebacker Melvin Ingram, in horizontal conflict.
It’s more nuanced than this, but, to keep it simple, my read is that Ingram is the flat defender (they may have been playing 2-read to that side, and that’s why you see Brandon Flowers leave his defender; it’s impossible to tell without actually knowing the call in the huddle, but this is me making it more complicated after I said I would keep it simple), and he is responsible for Matthews on any out breaking route to the flat.
When Mariota fakes the throw, Ingram (LOLB) and Manti Téo (LILB) break toward that side of the field; the fake even causes Denzel Perryman (RILB) to take a step in the wrong direction. Because Ingram is responsible for the flat, he has to respect Mariota’s fake. He can’t very well leave Matthews wide open.
This allows the Titans to have eight offensive players (minus Mariota) vs the Chargers seven defensive players in the box.
While Mariota’s fake allows the Titans to get a numbers advantage in the box, it also allows the Titans’ blockers to get up the field, get good angles on their blocks, and almost spring Murray for a big play.
Henry had a productive performance on the night, but this play may have been his biggest mistake. Besides the fact that it looks like he might have gotten away with a little bit of a facemask, Henry misses his block against Jason Verrett on the perimeter. If it wasn’t for this, Murray would have accounted for another big run on the night.
[iframe src=<div style=”width: 100%; height: 0px; position: relative; padding-bottom: 56.250%;”><iframe src=”https://streamable.com/e/vpde” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen scrolling=”no” style=”width: 100%; height: 100%; position: absolute;”></iframe></div>]
On the night, Murray rushed six times for 93 yards and a touchdown. Henry rushed 10 times for 74 yards and a touchdown. It remains to be seen how effective the Titans’ “exotic smashmouth” offense will be in the regular season.
Keep in mind, this was a preseason game against a team that was 31st in DVOA against the run the previous year. These two plays give us an idea of how it may manifest through the use of misdirection and creativity with the two running backs they invested heavily in last offseason.
- Week 13 NFL Breakdown: Joe Flacco Shouldn’t Make You Think Twice - December 7, 2016
- Week 12 NFL Breakdown: Mark Ingram Rolls Against the Rams - November 30, 2016
- Week 11 Breakdown: DeVante Parker Could Be Turning the Corner - November 23, 2016