Much has been made of the Titans offensive play-calling late in the game against the Chicago Bears, and rightfully so. After a successful first half, the Titans offense stagnated for only 126 yards in the second half, and almost let the Bears pull off the upset. The common gripe I’ve heard among Titans fans is that Derrick Henry should have had more carries down the stretch. I agree with this sentiment, but I also was perplexed by their usage of Marcus Mariota in the final few series.
Mariota is on fire right now. In his last eight games, he is averaging 259 YPG, with 21 TDs to five turnovers (three INTs and two fumbles), and averaged just over a 120 QB rating in that span. At halftime against Chicago, Mariota was 10-14 for 139 yards and two touchdowns, while the rushing attack combined for 13 rushes for 68 yards and 1 TD. With a 24-7 lead, it made sense at the time for the Titans to start the second half by running the ball and trying to bleed out the clock. But the NFL is all about adjustments, and in the second half the Bears were determined to stop the run. As a result, Murray and Henry combined for 12 carries for 35 yards in the second half. Mariota continued his solid performance, going 5-9 for 87 yards, along with a 29 yard run for a big first down. That run-pass breakdown makes sense, but Marcus was obviously the most effective offensive option at that point in the game.
Not only was the Tennessee’s running game proving ineffective, their defense showed no signs of being able to stop Matt Barkley. The Titans’ focus should have shifted by the fourth quarter. The best way to bleed out the clock is by getting first downs, which they simply couldn’t manage to do. The final two drives were both three and outs, and were what allowed the Bears to creep back into the game. If they gain a first down just ONCE on either of those two drives, the Bears most likely don’t have an opportunity to make a comeback. Yet Marcus really only got one chance to make a play, which was a deep pass to Tajae Sharpe that fell incomplete.
The biggest head scratcher of the game was Tennessee’s call on 3rd and 2 towards the end of the game. If the Titans could manage to get a first down, victory is all but guaranteed. With a struggling rushing attack, common sense usually dictates you put the ball in the hands of your franchise QB and let him make a play to get that first down. But instead of letting Mariota drop back, Robiskie called a designed shovel pass that barely got a yard. Can you imagine the Patriots calling a shovel pass for Tom Brady on a crucial third down? At this point, Marcus has earned the right to have the ball in his hands in high pressure situations, not being forced to run gadget plays with the game on the line.
Tennessee’s play-calling in the Bears game highlights their conservative tendencies. The Titans’ conservatism was also an issue in the previous game against the Colts, and may have cost them the game. Their last three drives ran 13:52 off the clock, but gained them just 112 total yards and failed to result in any points. That slow pace also meant the Colts only needed one first down before they could run out the clock. More aggressive play-calling could have led to more yards (and points) and less time wasted. Mariota has shown he that he flourishes in a hurry up offense, so I’m not sure why the pace of those drives was so slow. But the Titans obviously didn’t learn from their mistakes, as they were again too conservative against the Bears. Lady Luck may have shined on the Titans last Sunday, but moving forward the Titans play-callers need to be less cautious down the stretch. And that starts by trusting your franchise quarterback to make the right plays.