NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When a Tennessee Titans wide receiver lines up for a snap, he may have a major equation to sort through. The play call, the coverage and the alignment of the defensive back across from him might create up to five different options regarding where he’s supposed to go.
Under center, or from shotgun, first-year starting quarterback Jake Locker has to read the coverage correctly and know what it means about where targets will go.
And for a pass play to work, both players have to make the correct determinations.
Given that, perhaps we should all be far less surprised about the Titans’ passing struggles to this point.
While the defense and run game can do a lot to help buy time for the passing game, it’s clearly a work in progress. The pace of that progress is the best tool we’ll have to judge Locker, the receivers and ultimately, offensive coordinator Chris Palmer.
That’s a big part of why the Titans are currently majoring in third-and-long, as Palmer puts it.
“The defensive guys are going to dictate to you what you can and can’t do,” Palmer said, revealing much about his philosophy. (It’s one, by the way, that the Titans’ defense would be wise to adopt but doesn’t appear talented enough to execute.)
I asked Palmer if the Titans could run a basic crossing route where they run tight end Jared Cook and have Locker get the ball into his hands, issuing a “stop-us-if-you-can” declaration?
“Some routes are flat out [without an option], but we can’t dictate that,” the coordinator said. “You as a defense can dictate to us where we are throwing the ball. When we start throwing the ball in some of those deals [like I asked him about], you’re going to write that we’re throwing into double coverage, that we’re throwing into triple coverage. And you would be right.
“Once you start locking stuff, you’re saying your guys are better than their guys, and you’re going to win every single time. In this league, they want parity and that doesn’t hold up.”
So there is no daring people to stop an offensive play?
“In this league, not unless you have Larry Fitzgerald or just the premier, the top three receivers in the league, you can’t do that,” Palmer said. “You’ve looking for trouble. Those are things that I think you might win today, but in the long run will probably come back to bite you.”
So let’s call what Palmer and the Titans hope to do anticipatorily reactionary.
Some might see it as passive. But it is designed so that a defender can’t really make the right choice. Outside technique by a cornerback won’t kill a certain receiver for a certain play, because that receiver heads to the line with something to counter it.
Think of it in terms of line play. Offensive linemen make calls and set things up to block based on what techniques and alignments they see from the defensive front.
Palmer’s scheme extends that. If a receiver or a tight end or a back has an option route and sees the defender playing him outside, he heads inside, wary of the trap that could await him.
The option stuff seems to me it might overfill a guy’s head. Sometimes there can be five options. Typically there are two or three. Every coach in the NFL wants intelligent players capable of making smart decisions. But they also want instinctive players who don’t have to think. Guys typically rave about situations where they can “just play.”
That’s not what’s going on here. It’s a process. Mike Munchak has invested in it and given it time, even as some of us may ask whether it’s the best approach at the start with a kid quarterback.
“I don’t think it’s complex,” said Cook, who said he’s only got a few option routes, but they come on plays he runs a lot. “I don’t know why we’re having trouble with it. I’m not sure.”
Remember, it’s not brand new. Locker and the Titans were doing this last year, though he and receiver Kenny Britt haven’t done much together because Britt was hurt and then rehabilitating. After an offseason together, the offense is deeper into it now. And, yes, there is certainly a lot of thinking going on.
Does that get easier?
“You definitely have to think,” receiver Damian Williams said.
“We just take our mind out of it,” Britt interjected from the adjacent locker, seemingly contradicting his teammate.
“Fortunately, at times your body does take over,” Williams continued, clarifying and unifying. “After you’ve done it so many times seeing a certain coverage, it’s just muscle memory, for real. If you’ve seen it enough times, eventually your body will just do what it’s supposed to do. ... Nine times out of 10, you just know.”
Williams said the slot receiver is almost always running an option route -- “Which is cool for us, it’s almost like, ‘Just get open.’ ” Britt, who’s mostly an outside guy, said he’s got about 65 percent option routes.
But even if the route isn’t an option, an adjustment from Locker will be based on the coverage.
“Basically, skill position in this offense is basically based on coverage,” Williams said. “At receiver, you’re reading everything on the fly watching the coverage.”
The Titans have long-term faith in the approach. Palmer sees progress and has evidence it’s the way to go.
He pointed to a scenario where he called the same play two different times this season. The first time there were problems with the decisions, and it yielded nothing. The second time it produced 16 yards.
“When you do it right,” Palmer said he told the offense, “it works.”
Do it right more often Sunday against Detroit, and the Titans could break into the win column. The Lions have a vaunted front, but not the best coverage. Read the option right from both ends, find some big plays and it could help the Titans pull a surprise.
That could be part of a recipe for an upset.
If it’s not, expect a plea for continued passing-game patience.