Stopping the Run Key to Stopping Titans

Stopping the run key to stopping Titans
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An in-depth look at the Minnesota Vikings’ weekly opponents, with a focus on specific plays, schemes, and players.

There’s an eerie ‘deja vu’ feeling around Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans. The Minnesota Vikings travel to Nashville as road favorites, prepared to face a team with a mobile quarterback and power running game. They’re expected to win, however, and should start the regular season with a ‘W” in the win column.

Unless, that is, Mike Zimmer’s team repeats its opening performance from 2015; a 20-3 loss to the San Francisco 49ers that saw Carlos Hyde run for 168 yards and two touchdowns. The Vikings looked sloppy, unprepared, and overmatched at the line of scrimmage, repeatedly failing to set the edge or fill run gaps.

When the game begins on Sunday, the Vikings will once again have their hands full. The Titans boast one of the league’s best running back duos in Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry, a one-two punch that averaged 161 yards per game this preseason.

Titans head coach Mike Mularkey, who was elevated to the position this offseason, made it clear early in his tenure the ground-and-pound approach would define Tennessee’s offense.

“(Opponents) are going to know we are going to be very hard to defend, and it is going to be a physical football game,’’ he said in February, per Titans Online. “When it is all said and done they are going to know they have been in a fight.”

Mularkey’s team took the words heart this preseason, dominating defensive lines and barreling over would-be tacklers. Through four games, they rushed 120 times for 644 yards, good enough for 5.37 yards per carry. The Vikings, meanwhile, allowed 4.5 yards per carry this preseason, though Lindsey Young points out the defense was missing multiple starters.

One of those, an injured Eric Kendricks, was a full participant in practice Wednesday and should give Minnesota a boost this Sunday. “I think it was OK..It’s hard to evaluate when No. 1, you’re not game-planning, and No. 2, you’re missing some guys.“ Zimmer said, when asked about the Vikings’ lackluster run defense. “Kendricks would probably make a big difference in a lot of those things.”

With a healthy Kendricks and Sharrif Floyd, the Vikings have a complete puzzle in the front-seven. Minnesota’s combination of stout defensive tackles, do-it-all defensive ends, and ultra-athletic linebackers has the talent to shut down Murray and Henry, if they play sound, gap-disciplined football.

Unlike Mularkey’s brand of “Exotic Smashmouth,” Minnesota’s game plan for Week 1 is simple — stopping the run is key to stopping the Titans.

Demarco Murray

After a lost season with the Philadelphia Eagles, Murray looks like the player who rushed for 1,845 yards in Dallas two years ago. Even Zimmer, long tight-lipped when doling out praise, has taken notice of Murray’s sudden resurgence.

“I think that they have an excellent running game, obviously. I think their offensive line is playing well,” Zimmer said, per Young. “DeMarco Murray is a heck of a back. I think he’s had a transformation when he came there, as opposed to where he has was last year. He looks a lot like he was in Dallas.”

Where Murray struggled in Philadelphia, he’s thriving with the Titans. Whether it’s runs from under center or out of the shotgun, he’s proving to be more than a product of the Cowboys’ premier offensive line. It does help, though, that Murray is working in a system tailor-made for his strengths as a one-cut runner.

“I’m seeing old-school gap schemes … Russ Grimm, the offensive line coach … they look like the old Washington Redskins under Joe Gibbs,” Jon Gruden said, in an interview with The Tennesseean. “You see shifts, you see all kind of different power, counter-gap schemes and you see big backs that can get downhill.”

Against the Oakland Raiders in the third preseason game of the year — a “tune up” of sorts –both Murray and Henry enjoyed massive running lanes and exceptional lead blocking from fullback Jalston Fowler. But it was Murray who showed the versatility that makes the Titans such a difficult team to defend.

Play No. 1

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  • 2nd and 10 at TEN 19
  • (14:51 – 1st) D.Murray up the middle to TEN 36 for 17 yards (M.Smith)

Murray and Henry are most dangerous when running downhill, similar to Adrian Peterson lining up eight yards behind the quarterback and barreling through the line of scrimmage. And like the Vikings, the Titans know how to accentuate these strengths — through ‘Power’ and ‘Counter’ calls.

These ‘sister’ runs, of sorts, work well to confuse defenses and keep linebackers from diagnosing plays at the snap. While ‘Power’ attacks the strong side of an offensive formation (usually to the tight end side) with down blocks and pulling guards, ‘Counter’ attacks the weak side, all while giving the defense the impression of a ‘Power’ run. What does that mean?

It all starts with the running back, who takes a ‘Counter’ step away from the direction of the play. He and the backside blockers (tight end, left tackle, left guard, center) step left, forcing the defense to flow that way. On the frontside, the right guard and right tackle double-team the 3-technique, walling him off and washing him down. The fullback, lined up offset left, acts as a pulling guard, coming from left-to-right to lead the running back through the appropriate gap.

This action creates a giant hole for the running back, Murray, who follows Fowler through the void. Fowler feigns a block at Khalil Mack, who reacts too quickly and takes himself out of the play. Murray then cuts upfield, making the force defender, a corner, miss in space.

As soon as the ball’s snapped, the Titans have won. The movement from the offensive line, coupled with Murray’s hard step to the left, takes Oakland’s linebackers completely out of position. With that much room to run, it’s almost a guarantee Murray picks up five or six yards. It will be critical for Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and Chad Greenway to read their keys and maintain gap responsibilities; falling for Tennessee’s deception will lead to multiple plays like the one above.

Play No. 2

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  • 1st and 10 at OAK 31
  • (14:54 – 2nd) (Shotgun) D.Murray right tackle to OAK 14 for 17 yards (N.Allen)

Outside of the traditional ‘Power’ and ‘Counter’ runs, the Titans also take advantage of Marcus Mariota’s lengthy experience running the read-option at Oregon. Although it’s out of the shotgun, the read-option can still be considered a downhill attack; more than that, it’s an attack that creates additional confusion or hesitation for the defense.

Last season, Mariota rushed 34 times for 252 yards and two touchdowns. He knows how to read defensive ends, when to keep the football, and when to give it to his running back. The read-option, in particular, puts extra stress on defensive ends, who are often tasked with crashing toward the running back or staying square and waiting for the quarterback to pull the football.

If the end crashes down the line of scrimmage, the quarterback pulls and either runs the football or throws a quick-strike pass. If he remains patient on the line of scrimmage, the quarterback gives to the running back, who is now working against a reduced box. That’s the read-option at its most basic; the Titans have built post-snap RPO reads and wrinkles into their offense to expand on this concept.

On this play, the Titans appear to run a traditional read-option. Murray starts offset left of Mariota, and at the snap, begins what looks like a classic option exchange — the quarterback keeps his eyes on the left defensive end while the running back cradles the football.

Mariota looks like he’s reading the defensive end, who slow-plays the exchange and shuffles on the line of scrimmage. At the same time, Tennessee’s wide receivers run routes down the field, taking two cornerbacks and a safety out of the box. Mariota doesn’t pull the football, and it appears he never had the option to do so; the routes were simply decoys to create the impression of a read-option in the backfield.

This freezes the middle linebacker and the defensive end, again creating a giant hole for Murray. His blocking up front is solid, with the Titans getting a ‘hat’ on every Raiders defender. Murray starts the play inside, but bounces through a crease between the right guard and right tackle. Like the first play, he’s presented with a one-on-one situation, which is quickly taken away when rookie right tackle Jack Conklin peels back and pancakes the safety.

Once Murray breaks free from the scrum, he accelerates past the trailing Mack and finishes for another 17-yard gain. The Raiders do a poor job at the line of scrimmage, as nearly every defensive lineman is taken out of the play. The linebackers don’t flow with the running back, instead focusing all their attention on Mariota.

For the Vikings, it’s a simple matter of physicality up front and discipline from the linebackers. Winning at the line of scrimmage will allow Barr and Kendricks to move freely, while players like Harrison Smith should have no issue bringing down Murray in one-on-one situations in the alley.

Derrick Henry

He’s 6’3″ and 237 pounds, runs a 4.54-second 40, and makes current NFL running backs look like pop warner players. It’s no wonder the Vikings were reportedly interested in Henry, who fell to the Titans early in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

Henry averaged 6.4 yards per carry this preseason and tied for the league lead with three rushing touchdowns. As he did for so many years at Alabama, Henry beat defenses in every which way; with quick footwork, powerful, behind-the-pads running, and deceptive speed.

He’s built to succeed in Tennessee’s offense, and it’s something Zimmer has noticed on film. “Henry is a guy that really everybody liked in the draft. He’s a big, physical guy that has great feet and acceleration,” he said, according to Young. “So I think all of those things and then the combination of Mariota with the things he can do with his legs, as well. It makes it difficult.”

Play No. 1

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  • 2nd and 9 at OAK 49
  • (7:30 – 2nd) D.Henry up the middle to OAK 39 for 10 yards (K.McGill)

With Henry in the game, the Titans keep things relatively similar (and simple). He’s best when running downhill, and that’s exactly what Tennessee asks him to do on this play. As they did in the first Murray example, the Titans come out in 22-personnel and run another ‘Counter’-type play.

Although there isn’t a lead blocker or pulling guard, many of the blocks and movements look identical to the previous ‘Counter’ play. The left side of the offensive line — plus two tight ends — block down and to their left. The right side of the line executes a double-team on the 1-technique and a down block on the 4i (inside shade of the right tackle).

It’s Henry’s hard counter step, plus the movement of the backside blockers, that makes this play a success. On the frontside, the fullback releases to the flat, pulling the safety to the sideline and out of the box. The Raiders were consistently undisciplined against the Titans, and it showed. That, plus Tennessee’s dominance at the point of attack, helped Henry and Murray cruise on the ground.

Henry immediately finds the hole and accelerates to the edge. Oakland’s linebacker, No. 57, tries to recover after filling the wrong gap, but ends up in a disadvantageous situation. His poor angle is no match for Henry’s raw power, which helps Henry break right through the arm tackle.

These aren’t the types of plays and mental mistakes you’d expect from a Zimmer-coached defense.

Play No. 2

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  • 2nd and 2 at OAK 31
  • (6:13 – 2nd) D.Henry right tackle to OAK 24 for 7 yards (D.Amerson, N.Allen)

The Titans line up in a condensed formation, with the flanker receiver hugging the tight end and the fullback directly behind the right tackle. It’s a run-first situation, and one the Raiders prepare for by loading the box with eight defenders. Still, the numbers game favors the offense, which has eight blockers to Oakland’s eight defenders.

Tennessee’s advantage? Henry. He takes the handoff from Mariota and begins the descent forward, only to find a scraping linebacker in his path. Instead of taking the linebacker head-on, Henry makes the decision to bounce outside; strange, considering his lateral agility was a concern coming out of Alabama.

Fortunately for Henry, the tight end gets enough of a chip on Mack to free the edge. Henry beats the linebackers to the corner, but is met by the corner.  Here, he has one of two choices — continue outside and try to outsprint the defensive back, or cut inside and power forward for a first down.

Henry chooses wisely, showing the decision-making of a much more experienced back. He plants his outside foot and cuts inside the safety, resulting in an easy conversion.

Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry give the Titans an element they were sorely missing in 2015. While Murray is the more balanced of the two, showing versatility in a number of formations, both have the ability to hurt teams as downhill runners.

Much as it was last season, the Vikings have one focus in Week 1 — STOP THE RUN.