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The Titans Have the Punishing Offense the Seahawks Used To

Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” scheme overwhelmed Seattle on Sunday and has Tennessee looking like an AFC contender

DeMarco Murray runs the ball for the Tennessee Titans Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Watching DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry, and Marcus Mariota rack up 195 rushing yards in the Titans’ 33-27 win over Seahawks on Sunday, I kept having the same thought: This Tennessee offense reminds me of what Seattle’s offense used to look like.

Through three weeks, it’s tough to see what the Seahawks are, or can be on that side of the ball. Behind a porous offensive line, Seattle hasn’t been able to establish anything resembling its signature run game or offensive rhythm, and, until the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game, the passing attack hadn’t picked up any of the slack. But the Titans’ identity as a dominant and physical run team is more clear than that of just about any other franchise in the league. Over the course of four quarters, Tennessee won the battle in the trenches and wore down the Seahawks, showcasing a couple of hallmarks recent Seattle teams were known for: supreme confidence and a little bit of an attitude. When paired with its convincing performance against a tough Jaguars defense last week, this Titans squad looks like it can run all over just about anybody.

The heart of the Titans’ success the past two weeks has been third-year head coach Mike Mularkey’s self-described “exotic smashmouth” offense, which has leaned on the ground game to overwhelm opponents, chew up big chunks of the clock, and generate explosive plays. Over the past two games, Tennessee has outscored its opponents 70-43 and run the ball a combined 70 times for 374 yards and four touchdowns.

And while Mularkey's scheme differs in many ways from what Seattle ran during Russell Wilson’s formative years as a passer from 2012 to 2015, stylistically and philosophically, there are plenty of parallels to what the Titans are doing this season—particularly in marrying physical running backs in Murray and Henry with an efficient passer in Mariota. Like Tennessee now, those Seattle offenses crafted their identity around punishing opponents with a relentless commitment to the ground game, never finishing worse than fourth in rushing yards over that four-year stretch. Those Seattle squads, like the Titans this season, mixed and matched their base run scheme with a repertoire of college-style read-option runs. They also complemented their foundational rushing attack with an efficient and explosive passing game, then threw in a few well-timed and demoralizing escapes and scrambles by their versatile signal-caller.

Tennessee’s investments in its run-first approach over the past few years—including first-round picks on bookend offensive tackles Taylor Lewan (2014) and Jack Conklin (2016), a second-round pick on Henry (2016), and a big-money contract to Murray—seem to be paying off. It took the Titans two quarters to soften up Seattle’s defense Sunday—they rushed for just 30 yards on 17 carries in the first half—but short runs quickly gave way to long ones in the third quarter as the Seahawks showed signs of fatigue in the suffocating 88-degree, 97 percent-humidity Nashville heat. Tennessee pounced, scoring 21 straight third-quarter points to turn a 14-9 deficit into a 30-14 lead.

The mix of styles and looks the Tennessee offense can present to a defense can be both mentally and physically taxing, and the way the squad fuses the new-school with the old is a thing of beauty. On one play, the Titans will run a college-style read option, freezing unblocked defenders and forcing them to respect Mariota as a runner. On the next, they’ll run “power” looks right at you, pulling one of their big interior linemen around to kick out a defender and spring Murray or Henry for a big gain. Then they’ll mix in plenty of play-action fakes in the pass game, and even run screens to the outside, where they get their big offensive linemen out on the perimeter and bearing down on smaller defensive backs. This 55-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Rishard Matthews was set up by a few key blocks by Lewan and guard Josh Kline.

The Titans can spread out and run three-receiver passing concepts on the one play, then follow up with a play that features a sixth offensive lineman and a tight end (lining up as a fullback) as the primary target on the next. Late in the third, Mariota found rookie Jonnu Smith on a wheel route up the sideline for a touchdown. Tennessee’s commitment to the run early in the game got Seattle linebacker Michael Wilhoite to bite hard on play-action, and Smith got in behind him for the score.

Tennessee scored a touchdown out of a similarly “heavy” formation later in the quarter, this time with 254-pound Jalston Fowler lining up at fullback. Fowler got the key block on Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane, opening up a running lane on the edge for Murray, who weaved his way through 75 yards for a score.

That run not only illustrated Murray’s talent, but was also a microcosm of the full commitment that the Titans have given to the run game. It wasn’t just offensive linemen creating push or Fowler nearly shoving Lane out of bounds to open up a cut-back crease (and make another block on Lane again downfield); it was a few seals on defenders trying to pursue on the backside, and it was Matthews’s block on Earl Thomas about 55 yards downfield that helped spring Murray into the end zone. For that kind of play to succeed, it takes full buy-in from all 11 players on offense. That’s exactly what the Titans got, and the play put the game on ice for Tennessee.

It wasn’t a perfect outing for the Titans. Wilson did throw for a regular-season career-high 373 yards, and he tossed four touchdowns as the Seahawks went into fourth-quarter comeback mode. Tennessee’s pass rush failed to exploit Seattle’s terrible offensive line, sacking Wilson just once. The secondary struggled to cover in the back end, giving up big plays to Jimmy Graham, Doug Baldwin, C.J. Prosise, and Luke Willson. There are still plenty of areas in which the Titans defense must improve.

But against a Seahawks defense that’s more used to dishing out punishment, Tennessee was the hammer. The Titans won up front in both the run game (195 rush yards were the most Seattle’s given up since 2013) and in the passing attack (the offensive line gave up just two pressures on 37 dropbacks). Mariota looked poised when he needed to step up and make throws, completing 20 of 32 passes for 225 yards, two touchdowns, and a 104.3 passer rating. In short, the offense ran exactly how it’s been designed to run. If the Titans can continue to follow that blueprint, they should be legit contenders in the AFC.

An earlier version of this story misidentified Jalston Fowler’s position. He is a fullback, not an offensive lineman.