NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Watch the Tennessee Titans offense during a TV timeout and you’ll find 11 guys on the field close together, ready to huddle.
Eleven without a quarterback.
While Marcus Mariota visits with coaches on the sideline to sort out whatever needs sorting out, the Titans put the people on the field intending to complicate things for a defense.
“We have a mode during TV timeouts, we put 11 players in the huddle without Marcus," coach Mike Mularkey said in a long chat with The Midday 180. "When you do that, you put 11 guys in the huddle, you’ve got three different personnel groupings. If you’re on defense and you know what the personnel is on the field and the down and distance, you could be at the coffee shop and call a game.
“That’s what the two key ingredients are for a defensive call, personnel and down and distance. So when you put all these guys in the huddle and they are asking, 'What is the personnel?', well, the personnel guy is saying, ‘We’ve got 21 [two running backs, a tight end and two receivers] in there, 12 [one back, two tight ends and two receivers], 11 [one back, one tight end, three receivers] are all in there.”
With the five linemen on the field, the Titans couldn’t have all those potential combinations ready to huddle. But they jump in and out to keep multiple options.
“We do some things, even while the TV timeout is going on, you’ll see players coming in and out, so we constantly keep changing the personnel groupings to where they don’t have a bead on us, which one is going in. It’s all legal. It’s just another way for us to keep them working even when there is a TV timeout and there is nothing going on.”
This is not a giant advantage, but it’s an advantage. A defense doesn’t get an early read on the personnel it needs to match on the play coming out of a timeout. It's also an illustration of the type of small things Mularkey and his staff concern themselves with that can go unseen and might gain them an advantage at some point.
The Titans can also be clever out of it.
Coming out of a stoppage after a change of possession in Week 8 against Jacksonville, the Titans had DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry in the backfield. They quickly snapped it directly to Murray, who faked a handoff to Henry moving right, then ran to the left side and gained 11 yards before Mariota came back on the field.
The play happened so quickly, the CBS broadcast was late switching from a sideline shot to the action.
Does the Titans defense see the same maneuver from offenses it's trying to get a handle on?
“Nobody,” Mularkey said.
The idea came to him when he was offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh. Preparing for the draft, he was watching college tape. In college, players can come in from the sideline and go right to the line of scrimmage, and the offense isn’t stopped by the officials to allow the defense to match a late change.
Mularkey wondered how defenses had any idea what grouping was coming with a giant roster filling the opposing sideline and the ability to substitute late.
He decided to start putting 11 players on the field without a quarterback and to switch them up to make things more difficult on a defense.