Daily Focus: Titans aiming to ground and pound?
Editor’s note: Every day in “Daily Focus,” PFF analysts take the latest NFL news and translate what it really means for each team involved.
Titans aiming to ground and pound? The majority of the Tennessee Titans’ personnel changes this offseason were geared toward one goal: becoming more physical. The success of the Carolina Panthers’ power running game cannot have gone unnoticed around the rest of the league. Marcus Mariota is not Cam Newton, but defenses still have to account for him when defending the run. The Titans began the process by overhauling their backfield personnel. DeMarco Murray was acquired in a trade that included a swap of fourth-round picks, and Derrick Henry was drafted in the second round. The former’s struggles in Philadelphia are well documented, but there remains some hope a change of environment will bring out the dominant player of 2014. Murray was one of the most physical runners that season, breaking 71 tackles (second) as well as averaging 2.5 yards after contact per attempt (top 20). Derrick Henry faces some longevity concerns after carrying the load for the Crimson Tide, but should be an impact player from day one. He broke 76 tackles last season in the FBS (fourth) and averaged 3.4 yards after contact per attempt. Henry is an unstoppable goal line threat, finishing with a whopping 28 touchdowns a year ago.
As well as nabbing the most physical runner from the 2016 class, the Titans also added arguably the most physical offensive lineman. Jack Conklin’s power blocking in-line is frightening. Interior defenders were punished frequently on down blocks and double teams. His +25.4 run-blocking grade was good enough for fourth among FBS tackles. On the other side of the ball, the Austin Johnson selection might have been a slight reach in the second round, but he at least illustrates a defined strategy. Johnson is a plug-and-play run defender in the Titans’ front. He frequently rag-dolled opponents in the ground game, showing the power to disrupt plays from the interior. The former PSU standout ranked third in 2015 with a run-defending grade of +36.9, finishing with 36 stops.
Will flexibility ensure Seahawks’ secondary bounces back? No single factor more significantly contributed to Seattle’s poor start last season than regression in the secondary. The Legion of Boom simply failed to replicate the level of performance they’d achieved in prior years. Pete Carroll is optimistic for a specific reason, recently describing how “this is really as strong as I’ve felt … with versatility” when discussing the secondary (Sheil Kapadia’s article is excellent and certainly warrants a full read). For the first time in his career, Richard Sherman saw extensive action at RCB (197 snaps). A lack of depth in the secondary encouraged the Seahawks’ coaches to move him around when playing top wideouts like AJ Green, Dez Bryant and Antonio Brown. Against those three combined, Sherman allowed just eight catches on 19 targets for 87 yards, with four pass deflections and a pick. Not a bad return against the league’s best.
Seattle’s other top corners, DeShawn Shead and Jeremy Lane, also have positional versatility. After Carey Williams’ dreadful start to the season, Shead took over the starting role. He was much more effective outside than in the slot. Overall he allowed just 26 catches on 43 targets for 400 yards and no touchdowns, with one pick and four pass deflections outside. Since becoming a starter, he recorded a respectable -0.9 grade overall and -2.4 in coverage. In comparison, he allowed 19 catches on 28 targets for 190 yards and a score from the slot. In this instance, Shead’s experience in the nickel doesn’t necessarily make him well-suited to the position. Similarly, Jeremy Lane, who took over as the third corner once Williams was benched, played better on the outside. He allowed a QB rating of 132.8 from the slot, compared with 78.6 overall. Watch out for Marcus Burley next season, he’s a darkhorse candidate for the nickel role after allowing a QB rating of just 55.4 from the nickel, albeit in limited snaps. With Brandon Browner back, the Seahawks have better depth and more versatility in the secondary than they have had in years.
Keenan Allen richly deserves new contract: The Chargers rewarded one of their own with a long-term deal Saturday, signing Keenan Allen to a four-year deal worth more than $11 million per season. Allen has been incredibly productive in his three NFL campaigns, recording a +32.6 overall grade since he was drafted in 2013. He’s caught 72 percent of targets for 2,700 yards and 18 touchdowns. Allen has also dropped only 6 percent of catchable balls, and broken a tackle every six receptions. Those impressive numbers have been posted despite a season-ending injury in Week 8 last year. The Chargers could not afford to lose their most talented playmaker.