NASHVILLE, Tenn. – One advantage a new NFL coaching staff has is that its team can’t be dissected by upcoming opponents during the offseason.
There’s no tale of the tape on Mike Vrabel as a head coach, no evidence of Matt LaFleur as a play-caller, no degree of certainty what the Titans’ offense will look like when it takes the field against Miami in the season opener.
So it’s not surprising that the Titans have – for the most part – kept mum regarding details of their new offensive schemes.
But they have at least provided the public with hints from time to time, as Vrabel did during the team’s last formal gathering before training camp begins in late July.
If we take those hints – and sprinkle in a little research – maybe we can at least take a guess at some things we’re likely to see more often from the Titans in 2018 than in the past:
Screen passes — The Titans were successful in the screen game last season, but didn’t use it as often as many other teams, with Marcus Mariota completing 17-of-21 screen passes for 185 yards and three touchdowns.
Meanwhile Rams quarterback Jared Goff, with LaFleur as offensive coordinator last season, threw for the third-most yards in the NFL off screens (308), trailing only Drew Brees and Andy Dalton. Goff’s 29 screen-pass completions – on 30 attempts – were fourth-best in the league.
Meanwhile, Titans running backs Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis (in New England) caught 11-of-12 screen passes thrown in their direction last season, totaling 108 yards and a touchdown.
It sounds as if Vrabel is intrigued by the combination of those options.
“I think if you look around the league, there’s a lot of teams that are really good at screens,” Vrabel said. “That’s something that I’m going to continue to harp on our coaches about, to make sure that we can run these things. If Tom Brady can throw screens in a playoff game and gain a bunch of yards, then Marcus (Mariota) should be able to throw screens, and help him out with some of these throws that are easy access throws.
“But they’ve got to be blocked correctly. It’s just one guy away and it takes all 11 – whether it’s a block, or throwing around a defender that’s clean-rushing in the pocket, or the guy catching the ball.”
Play-action passes — With Henry and Lewis running behind a line that should return intact from 2017, the Titans should have at least enough firepower to match last season’s ground attack, when they finished 15th in the league in rushing.
It’s not out of the question that they move back closer to where they finished in 2016 – third in the rushing game.
In any event, the Titans’ running attack should provide more than enough of a threat for a quality play-action passing attack.
The Titans used play-action passes on 23.5 percent of Mariota’s drop-backs plays last season, which was 12th-highest in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
But don’t be surprised to see that percentage increase in 2018.
One reason is the arrival of LaFleur. His Rams used play-action even more than the Titans last season (closer to 30 percent). And if you want to go back even further, LaFleur was quarterbacks coach in Washington in 2012, when the Redskins used play-action on an eye-opening 42 percent of rookie Robert Griffin III’s dropbacks, per PFF.
The second reason to expect more play action is that Mariota has proven very talented in that aspect of the game. PFF ranked Mariota tops in the league in play-action last season with a 122.8 rating, with nine touchdowns, three interceptions and an NFL-best 11.2 yards per attempt.
“First of all, it really all starts with our run game,” LaFleur said when asked about what identity he wants for the Titans’ offense. “That’s how we’re going to try to have a strong marriage between the run and the pass. So that to a defense, it might look like, `Here comes another run,’ and it’s a play-action pass off that run.”
Added Vrabel: “We know that we’re going to have to be able to run the ball, and marry the play action against it.”
Bootleg plays — Yes, a bootleg is usually a form of play-action pass, but we’ll look at it specifically, since there’s a run option involved as well.
Under LaFleur last year, the Rams had good success using Goff on the bootleg right, as he completed 18-of-28 passes (64 percent) in those situations and helped Los Angeles pick up an average of 15.6 yards per contest.
By contrast, the Titans used Mariota on the bootleg right just twice all of last season, per sportradar.com, gaining a total of eight yards on one completion.
The bootlegs also give Mariota the option to run, which sounds like it’s worth the risk for the Titans’ new coaching staff.
In 2017, despite the fact Mariota labored for a good chunk of the season with a hamstring injury, he still produced a career-best five touchdown runs. Mariota also produced first downs on 36.7 percent of his runs, a career best.
“Obviously, (we want to move Mariota) around, get him out of the pocket,” Vrabel said. “That’s something that he does as a special player with his athletic ability, and his ability to throw on the move.”
Added LaFleur: “You don’t ever want to take that element, that creativity, his ability to create off-schedule … you never want to take that away from a quarterback that has the athleticism that Marcus has.”
— Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.