The Tennessee Titans Need the Pistol Offense
It is time for a change in Tennessee. The Titans offense is as defunct as it has ever been during the Mike Mularkey era. For the first two years of Mularkey’s tenure, the lackluster, Neanderthalian style of offense was semi-understandable because the offense needed to be restocked with talent. It was never going to be an immediate turnaround with Mularkey. However, now in year three, the talent is there for the Titans to open up the offense and move forward.
During the offseason, general manager Jon Robinson signed wide receiver Eric Decker, drafted two rookie wideouts in Corey Davis (fifth overall) and Taywan Taylor (72nd overall), and added athletic tight end Jonnu Smith (100th overall) with a compensatory pick. With wide receiver Rishard Matthews and Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker already on the team, it appeared as if the Titans could spread out their offense in 2017.
Mularkey has yet to commit to that style of play.
Every so often, Mularkey sprinkles in creativity. Option plays, reverses, two-back looks with DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, and even putting cornerback Adoree’ Jackson on the field to add some speed. The core of Mularkey’s offense is still downhill running, heavy under-center formations, and hard play-action, though. It does not fit quarterback Marcus Mariota, nor does it make sense with the revamped receiving corps. Brief moments of experimentation can not outweigh how consistently Mularkey leans on a 1980s style of football.
I present you, Mike Mularkey, with America’s Offense: the pistol.
The pistol is a marriage between shotgun and under-center formations. The quarterback lines up a few yards behind the center as he would in shotgun, but rather than the running back be next to him, the running back is a few yards directly behind him. It creates similar running angles and flexibility as under-center formations, while giving the quarterback the comfort of being in shotgun.
Mariota needs the shotgun aspect. All throughout his Oregon days, Mariota was a gun-spread quarterback executing four and five-man route concepts. That is still where he does his best work. The pistol puts Mariota in that position again without taking away the rushing angles Murray and Henry thrive in. Mularkey can still maintain some of his core beliefs and provide comfort for his quarterback.
Below are just a couple examples of what Tennesee’s offense could look like:
In this example, Notre Dame is in a twins look out of pistol. Two receivers are split out left, while two in-line tight ends extend off the right side of the formation. There is a clear strong side to run the ball to, but the pistol alignment does not necessarily tip the run direction the way shotgun would. A run play could go either way or be an option run. Likewise, a formation like this could still play favorably into Mularkey’s affinity for hard play-action without putting Mariota under center.
Here is a more wide-open look. To the bottom of the screen, Notre Dame is using a stack set with one receiver right behind the other. One receiver is split out right, an H-back sits behind the right guard and right tackle, and the quarterback and running back are in a pistol alignment. From this, the offense could run split zone, read-option, boot-action rollouts, counter—you name it. Notre Dame has even motioned in the second player from the stack set to receiver jet motion hand-offs. Mularkey could still be a run-oriented, play-action team even out of this type of formation.
The Importance of the H-back in the Pistol Offense
Deployment of an H-back is especially intriguing to me. Prolific collegiate offenses like Notre Dame and Oklahoma State feature H-backs heavily. Notre Dame is a more downhill, run-based team and Oklahoma State is an Air Raid offense, but the stark contrast between the two offenses despite their linked pistol and H-back usage is fascinating. It helps illustrate the potential of a pistol and H-back combination.
Delanie Walker could be a brilliant H-back. The position requires abnormal athleticism for a tight end (check) and a willingness to be a solid lead blocker (check).
Highlighted in cyan blue is the role Walker would play. In the first alignment, he is just a normal tight end. Nothing special or out of the ordinary. Next, Walker is aligned in a true H-back position, which is not dissimilar from an offset fullback in an I-formation. An H-back may be removed further from the line of scrimmage than in the example above, but the idea is that he is aligned just inside or outside of the tackle and removed from the line of scrimmage. Lastly, Walker could be flexed out as a ‘jumbo slot’ receiver. He has the athletic ability to be a real receiving threat from that position.
Shifting or motioning Walker between all three alignments could be chaos. It can force defenses to tip coverages or be put in tricky matchup situations. Additionally, Tennessee has Jonnu Smith on the roster, another athletic freak at tight end. Were Mularkey want to flex out Walker as a wide receiver and use Smith as the H-back, that could work, too. The variations are endless.
Derrick Henry: The Pistol Skeleton Key
In addition to embracing the pistol, other changes need to be made. The focal point of the running game needs to become Derrick Henry. Though DeMarco Murray offers more in pass protection right now, Henry is a far superior runner, both in efficiency and explosivity. Henry can better execute stretch zone and pitch concepts without losing functionality as an inside runner. Murray is no longer the menacing power runner he once was. It is time to hand over the keys.
Marcus Mariota simply needs to play better, as well. The offense may not be geared to his skill set, but he has played better in this offense before. It is likely Mariota is still somewhat hampered by the broken leg he suffered at the end of last season. Pile on a hamstring injury from early October and it makes sense as to why Mariota is running less effectively and not generating the same oomph on his throws.
The tornado of discomfort, both physically and in what the offense asks of him, has gotten to Mariota mentally, too. Whereas he was an excellent decision maker in college and through his first two seasons as a pro, Mariota has been reckless this season. He has locked onto pre-snap reads more than usual and been more careless about throwing into double or triple coverage. Given his extended sample size of being a good decision maker, this odd spurt of recklessness does not feel here to stay. Yet, it is here now, and it is hampering the Titans’ chances at a real playoff run.
Tennessee Titans: The College Years
Of course, embracing the pistol does not solve everything for Tennessee. There still needs to be better spacing, more creative route combinations, and better sequencing of play calls and designs so as to keep the defense guessing. As a whole, the offense needs a better run-pass balance and mix up. The passing offense also needs to be geared more toward what Mariota did in college, rather than this archaic devolution of a passing offense Tennessee currently employs.
Change likely will not come during the Mike Mularkey reign. He has proven time and time again that he will stick to his guns no matter what. A newer, more innovative coach needs to be ushered in to save Mariota. There needs to be a Sean McVay or a Doug Pederson for Mariota. Mularkey is not it.