The Titans won the first game of the Mike Mularkey era and they did so by establishing a new identity on the offensive side of the ball. A former pro tight end and tight ends coach, Mularkey's style is predictably heavy on his former position -- an old school identity based on running the ball with power, keeping the defense off-balance and playing to the whistle.
Tennessee's first test after firing Ken Whisenhunt was a divisional road game against a red hot team in New Orleans. The shift in style was apparent from the get-go.
"The thing that stood out to me when I started watching the tape was far more multiple-tight-end sets, and I think that's the difference with Mike Mularkey versus Ken Whisenhunt," said NFL Network's Greg Cosell on Midday 180 on Wednesday, "He's a two tight end, three tight end guy, he wants to play the game with some power. it was evident right away that Mike Mularkey wants to feature multiple tight end sets as a major foundation of the offense."
The three tight ends that benefit from this shift in philosophy are Delanie Walker, Craig Stevens, and Anthony Fasano, who combined played 126 snaps on offense, the high for Tennessee since Week 3. Walker ended up with seven catches for 95 yards and two touchdowns, while Fasano grabbed three for 33 yards and a score and Stevens chipped in two catches for 22 yards. The 12 combined catches at the tight end position was a season high.
The new focus was never more evident than the last two plays in overtime, where Tennessee used "heavy" three tight end sets to win the game.
After winning the toss and receiving to start overtime, the Titans methodically drove down the field to set up a first-and-goal from the 8-yard line. That's where Mularkey and offensive coordinator Jason Michael dialed up some very tough-to-defend concepts.
The first down play was a play-action fake to Antonio Andrews with a Marcus Mariota bootleg toward the open side of the field. This obviously takes advantage of Mariota's athleticism while giving him a run-pass option and stretching the defense laterally. Here's how it was drawn up -- note the three tight ends releasing into pass routes.
Here's how it all went down. The Saints responded to the Titans' three-tight end set in their base defense, which is what you'd expect, because in that personnel, Tennessee could easily run the ball. New Orleans had to be ready for that option with a full complement of linebackers.
Rookie middle linebacker Stephone Anthony played this well as the Saints executed their zone defense, and after initially biting on the play action fake, found his way back to the bootleg side of the field and tackled Delanie Walker, who had settled into a soft zone underneath.
While it only gained 3 yards, in many ways I think this play helped to set up the game-winning touchdown. It gave the Titans a pretty good idea of how the Saints would play this, and on the next snap, Tennessee again rolled Marcus Mariota out to his right in order to give him that run-pass option to stretch the defense out.
Here's how it was drawn up. Again, it was a three-tight end set, so the Saints responded in their base defense. Anthony Fasano, whose route is highlighted in red, started out on the left side of the formation and when he went in motion to the right. That was a dead giveaway that the Saints were again in a zone, as no one followed him across the formation.
Here's the play in real-time.
On the snap, everything for Tennessee is going to the right. They rolled Mariota out, giving him several options at different levels of the field. On the outside, Justin Hunter is an option and runs a corner route deep in the end zone. Craig Stevens, in the slot, runs a little out route at the goal line. And, on the backside, Delanie Walker runs a flat route about halfway through the end zone. This gives Mariota someone at each level of the play (plus Antonio Andrews right in front of him) and it makes the zone defense really stretch out to cover all options.
It also pulls the entire defense with the direction of the play. After chipping in on the Saints defensive end, Fasano releases after a short delay and runs to the opposite side of the end zone, away from the play. Defenders on that side are so fixated on what's going on in front of them, that no one sees Fasano leak out. Great play design, and great execution, as Mariota lofts the ball up for him to win the game.
Now, are the Titans suddenly contenders in the AFC? Well, with the way things are going in the AFC South, anything is possible, but they're still in a building phase. They've still got a ways to go, obviously. But, the way that Mike Mularkey utilized his personnel and attacked the Saints, you could see a real tangible change on the field, living up to what the interim head coach said in his introductory presser.
"We'll do some things differently offensively, scheme-wise, more things that I'm more familiar with from some of the offenses that I've had," Mularkey said. "We're not going to change the whole offense but we're going to do some things philosophically different to help us."
I think a focus on heavy two and three tight end sets is one major turn. Another thing they'll likely focus on in the second half is developing a punishing run game. Antonio Andrews is the hammer for that, and getting David Cobb back into the fold could pay dividends.
"I think balance is important, I always have," said Mularkey. "If you ever look at my years as a coordinator calling plays, I always really watch myself as far as balance, but also trying to keep teams off balance with formations and personnel."
Using those tight end heavy formations is certainly one way to do that, because it doesn't betray run-pass tendencies. It adds up to a new focus for the Titans, and it's a style that could be important for the development of Marcus Mariota, ideally taking some of the pressure off of him to carry it all on his shoulders. Look for Tennessee to continue to re-define some of the ways that they do things on the offensive side of the ball.