The Titans’ last drive was pretty neat. Vince Young’s still-somewhat-limited success has come with a decent amount of bootlegs and options and stuff. Things that make Young comfortable and use the giant threat of Chris Johnson (who could very well be your single-season rushing record holder) to open stuff up. These are not things that can be as effective in the situation Young faced Sunday. The time on the clock dictated that there would be no running plays, so play-actions were ineffective and thus unlikely. This drive demanded that Young stand back, mostly in the pocket and read defenses and make big throws and stuff. If this stretch has been a mirage, this was the sort of situation that would expose it.
The thing about this drive, though, is that there were 18 plays, and lots of them were pretty boring. So we'll skip those. Eight plays of this drive made up 93 of the 99 yards, so we'll just focus on those.
On the first play of the drive, from the Titans 99-yard line, Young is under center with a tight end on either side of the offensive line. Both of the tight ends run little out routes, going a few yards downfield before cutting to the sidelines. However, they don't keep going too far, they slow down and avoid going too far towards the sideline. That's important because it keeps their defenders from junking up the area underneath the outside receivers. Those outside receivers are running curl routes, and I think they had the option to cut it upfield, as Nate Washington does after doing the curl. Britt stays in the curl. The outside linebacker to Britt's side is blitzing, so Adrian Wilson, the safety, comes up to the line and covers the tight end. That leaves no help for the corner on Britt. The corner responds by just keeping Britt in front of him. despite the fact Britt has cut off his route and is just standing waiting for the throw, the corner does not come up, afraid of the double-move. That's probably not a terrible idea: they have 99 yards to go, picking up 6 here won't kill you. Young stands tall--in the end zone, keep in mind--and goes through his reads. He needs to scramble a little to buy time, but he does so laterally, with no indication that taking off is an option for him. In the end, he finds Britt and picks up the six yards that are available. His patience in such a pressure situation is impressive.
The Titans pick up two yards on the ensuing two plays, setting up a 4th and 4. The Titans go four-wide with Young in the shotgun and Chris Johnson standing on his right. On the left, the slot receiver, Lavelle Hawkins, runs about 12 yards and turns towards the sideline, again not going far from there, so as to not interfere with the curl Britt is running. There is one deep safety, and Bryant McFadden is in man coverage on Britt. Judging by how far off McFadden is playing and how he reacts during the play, I don't think McFadden expects much safety help. Part of that is his eyes are locked on Britt the entire time, never once looking back to find the ball. McFadden is also a step slow coming back to Britt. That leaves a little window for Young to throw the ball to, and McFadden is not adjusting to the throw. That's pretty key: Young is taking a risk here. If McFadden turns around while the ball is in the air, he has inside position and has a good chance for an interception. But he does not, and the ball is placed well, over his head, and Britt makes a nice catch, going up to get it.
Again, the Cardinals are not playing a passive scheme, since they're blitzing and all, but they players are executing it conservatively, preferring to give up catches like this in order not to give up long plays on double-moves.
The following play is an odd one. Young is in the shotgun. He tries to check down to Chris Johnson, but Cardinals defensive lineman Calais Campbell defeats his blocker and is standing in front of Young. Campbell tips the pass pretty hard, and there are three Cardinals and one Titan in the area it comes down.
The one Titan, Bo Scaife, ends up catching the ball and running for a few yards. This might be overstating things, but this encapsulates the drive in a way: players making aware, focused plays that only happen through a certain degree of luck.
Save for the first play, the Titans use just two formations, the shotgun four-wide with two receivers to either side and the shotgun four-wide with three receivers to the open side and one to the closed. This is the first play we're looking at with that second formation. This is also the first play with rookie tight end Jared Cook, who lines up as the receiver closest to the offensive line on the three-receiver side. After an incompletion on first down, this play is a 2nd and 10. I would say the defense is in zone coverage with two deep safeties. You can't see the deep safeties, but I think they bring in three 'safeties' for their nickel or dime packages because Adrian Wilson is not one of the deep defenders, he is up near the line playing more of a middle linebacker and looks to be responsible for the shallow middle. Chris Johnson releases into a pass pattern and heads to the right. Cook meanwhile, is coming from the right to the left. Wilson choose to go with Johnson running in front of him rather than Cook sneaking in behind him. The other middle defender, responsible for the deeper portion of the field, is linebacker Gerald Hayes. Hayes just can't keep up with Cook running across the field. Britt is running deep on the left side of the field, occupying his corner and the safety over there, so with Hayes trailing Cook considerably, Cook is open to catch the pass about six yards downfield and turn it into a 12-yard gain.
After another incompletion, the Titans again face 2nd and 10. This is one of two attempted scrambles by Young on the drive. Because of the lack of a throw, the camera never moves off Young, so it's impossible to see what the receivers are doing. Just watching Young, though, I was happy to see it looked like he was going through multiple reads, moved out of the pocket only when he faced real pressure, and kept his eyes downfield. I guess it's silly to guess whether he was really looking for receivers or just looking off defenders to open running room, but this play felt like he gave the pass as much a chance as he could and only tucked it to run when he had no options left. That was a criticism in his first two years, that he would be content to run for four yards on a play when he could have had the chance to throw for 10, so watching this play felt like proof Young has matured a bit in this respect.
Young throws an incompletion on the ensuing third down, setting up a fourth and four. This play is from the shotgun set with two receivers to each side. As is the norm, Britt is wide left with Hawkins in the slot. On both sides the slot receivers run shallow out routes while the outside receivers run deeper square-in's behind them. The Cardinals run a zone blitz, and their one deep safety is super deep to prevent long passes rather than cover receivers. On the left side, Britt's man is playing well off of him and follows him inside, while Hawkins' defender is playing close and tries to bump him. Hawkins uses the contact to push off on his break and create separation. Hawkins executes much better than the corner trying to jam him, and he's open to not only make the catch but add yards afterwards for a 13-yard gain. The line does a good job picking up the blitz, Hawkins gets open quickly, and Young makes a quick throw. The offense works together to take advantage of the Cardinals' blitz in a super-key situation.
Two downs pick up five yards, triggering a third and five. The Titans have the two wide receivers to either side. On the left, Hawkins motions to be in a stack right behind Britt. They both go pretty deep, taking the coverage with them. Cook is again in the slot to the right and runs the same route across the field from right to left. Arizona rushes six, leaving Cook again one-on-one with a linebacker. This time it's Clark Haggans, and he again cannot keep up with Cook.
Just as last time, Cook creates space to make the catch and run after it. Cook was a third-round pick out of South Carolina who played wide receiver in high school. He didn't really display the ability to run routes or any of that, but he showed that he is too fast to be covered by a linebacker, which is a nice place to start.
That sets Tennessee at their own 10. The first three plays generate no yards, putting the Titans in a fpurth and goal with eight seconds on the clock. They set up with the three receivers to the right side, but Hawkins motions from the right slot to the left to change to the balanced formation also featured on the drive. The two slot receivers run curls just inside the end zone while the outside receivers run square-in's in the back of the end zone. The corner and safety both go with Britt, but they don't really react fast enough to Britt cutting inside. Young has to buy considerable extra time on the play and ends up throwing from an odd position while on the run. Despite this, he places the ball up, to get it over the defender on the slot receiver running the curl, but the key part is that he led him enough that Britt could jump to get the ball and not have to worry about reaching back in the air to get it.
By leading Britt, Young also does not give the defenders the opportunity to catch up to Britt. But Young's pass is only half as impressive as the catch, where Britt goes up to get the ball, plucks the ball while in the air, and holds on despite hitting against a defender on the way down.
It was interesting how little Chris Johnson was used on this drive. He was only targeted on the play where Scaife got the catch off the tip. For most of these plays, Johnson's first move was to chip on the blocking and was not really in a good spot clear of the line to catch a pass before Young had already made his throw. This is a confusing decision by the coaching staff (I guess they felt like protection was a priority, but why wouldn't they keep a tight end in to block and let Johnson catch passes. He is a more dynamic receiver than the Titans' tight ends, or any other players pretty much.), but the result is encouraging for Young and the Titans' receivers, who are not a particularly distinguished group. But Britt, Hawkins and Cook certainly stepped up on this drive. Young also really impressed me with his placement on some of these throws, fitting throws into tight spaces when necessary, and leading receivers and setting up yards after catch when available. For someone with a career completion percentage of 58.1%, that was not something I expected. Then again, even in this drive, there were so many incompletions. Some looked like the receivers could have made a better play on the ball, and there were instances where the teammates were not on the same page, but other times it looked like Young simply missed them. Eli Manning has won a Super Bowl and garnered the largest contract in football despite having this kind of hot-and-cold accuracy, so it's not the sort of thing that would doom Young to the sort of fate he looked like he might be headed to in 2008. I guess the main thing to take away is the an exceptionally obvious one: Young is capable of executing this kind of drive. He did it. It took a bit of fortune and excellent play by his receivers, but he has the ability to direct a 99-yard game-winning drive from within the pocket. While it had its flaws, it was certainly amazing to watch.