Until last season, NFL teams saw teams from the other conference only once every four years unless they reached the Super Bowl. The New York Giants last played their opening day opponent, the Tennessee Titans, in 2018. It was a game Giants fans would like to forget. Tennessee dominated both lines of scrimmage on a rainy day. Derrick Henry ran wild for 170 yards and two TDs, Saquon Barkley (the 2018, 2000+ yards version) was stuffed most of the day, and Eli Manning looked every bit a quarterback whose time was nearing the end as the Giants were shut out, 17-0.
The Giants team that faces the Titans this coming Sunday hardly remembers that day. Only three current Giants made the stat sheet for that game: Barkley (14 carries for 31 yards), Sterling Shepard (nine targets, two receptions, 37 yards), and Adoree’ Jackson, then a Titan (seven targets, four completions, 37 yards, seven tackles).
But it’s a different story for the Giants’ coaching staff. Despite not being in Tennessee’s division, Brian Daboll, Wink Martindale, and Mike Kafka have each coached against the Titans four times in the past four years, so they have quite a book on what they will be facing on Sunday. How have they fared in these matchups, and what can it tell us about how they might approach this game with a totally different group of players?
As Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator, Daboll and quarterback Josh Allen split four games against Mike Vrabel’s Titans:
Dean Pees was the Titans’ defensive coordinator in 2018-2019. Shane Bowen took over in 2020 and continues this year. It hasn’t made a big difference overall in the style of defense that Tennessee favors. They play more Cover 1 (single-high safety, man-to-man) defense on average than the rest of the NFL does and less Cover 3 (single-high safety but zone), but a decent bit of Cover 2 (two-high safety, zone) also.
Pees and Bowen took different approaches to dealing with Josh Allen, though. Their tenures coincide with Allen’s difficult first two seasons and outstanding last two seasons, respectively, which may have something to do with that. Here are the breakdowns for the 2018 and 2019 games, from The Kneel Down (broad bar is TEN, narrow bar is the NFL average):
And the same for their 2020 and 2021 games:
Clearly Pees felt that the 2018-2019 versions of Josh Allen and the Bills’ receivers could be handled one-on-one. But in 2020-2021, when Stefon Diggs was added and Allen became one of the best QBs in the NFL, Bowen decided that discretion was the better part of valor and showed Daboll a lot of two-high safety zone looks despite his overall season preference for Cover 1.
For Daboll’s part, in the 2018 game he aligned in 11 personnel (three wide receivers) only 50 percent of the time, much less than his season-average 70 percent, according to Sharp Football Analysis. (Most of the best NFL passing offenses run 11 personnel more than 60 percent of the time.) By 2019 he ran 11 personnel vs. Tennessee 70% of the time, the same as his season average. In 2020 and 2021 he increased that to 83% and 85%, respectively, despite an overall 71 percent 11 usage for the season. In other words, Daboll unsurprisingly became more aggressive with the passing game against the Titans as Josh Allen matured.
Daboll’s results against the Titans’ defense have not been outstanding. The Bills were a bad team in Allen’s rookie year, and they put up only 13 points against Tennessee. Allen passed for only 82 yards and Buffalo only had 233 total yards of offense. But the Bills’ defense was stellar enough to defeat them 13-12, to the chagrin of the Titans’ SB Nation community Music City Miracles.
The next year was not much better. Allen was sharper, passing for 204 yards, but the Bills scored only 14 points. Again though, the defense came through and Buffalo prevailed 14-7 in an ugly game. It didn’t hurt that Marcus Mariota was still the Titans’ QB at that time and was not producing much.
In 2020, now with Ryan Tannehill at QB for Tennessee and revitalizing their offense, perhaps Daboll sensed the need to put points on the board and knew he now had a QB who could do it. Allen went 26-for-41 for 263 yards, including 10 receptions for 106 yards by Stefon Diggs. It went for naught, though, as Allen was intercepted twice, the Bills lost a fumble, and the Titans won easily, 42-16.
Finally in 2021 Daboll seemed to have figured out the Titans’ defense. In a classic Monday night game, Allen threw for 353 yards and 3 TDs. Nonetheless, Tennessee was ahead 34-31 as the Bills drove for the tying or winning score in the final minute. On fourth-and-a-foot with 0:22 left, Daboll and head coach Sean McDermott elected to let Josh Allen keep the ball and run for the first down to give the Bills a chance to win in regulation rather than risk overtime. Allen failed and the Titans came away with the victory:
Kafka’s first coaching exposure to the Titans was as an offensive quality control coach for the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2017 season. The two teams met in the playoffs in January 2018, with KC under Alex Smith at QB blowing a 21-3 halftime lead at home to allow the Titans to eliminate them 22-21.
Starting in 2018, Kafka was the quarterbacks coach, and for the past two years the passing game coordinator as well. There is less to learn from his experience on the KC sideline because (a) he wasn’t calling the plays, and (2) his quarterback was Patrick Mahomes, who was elite from the moment he became a starting NFL quarterback in 2018, but it is still instructive because he was undoubtedly influenced by what Andy Reid and Eric Bienemy were doing.
Dean Pees game planned as if he may not have believed that Mahomes was elite the first time their teams met, in 2019 (despite the 50 TD passes Mahomes had thrown the year before). Pees actually played a lot of Cover 1 in that game. In retrospect, how you decide that it’s a good idea to allow Mahomes and Tyreek Hill to operate with only one deep defender is not clear:
Mahomes saw the single-high safety defense, said thank you sir and passed for 446 yards and 3 TDs, 157 of them to Hill. Nonetheless, KC lost to Tennessee, 35-32. They next met in the playoffs, and the Chiefs prevailed 35-24. This time Tennessee played a lot less Cover 1 and a lot more Cover 2. A zebra doesn’t easily change its stripes, though - they still showed the frequent single-high safety looks that Pees liked, but in the context of a Cover 3 defense:
Mahomes still passed for 3 TDs but only 294 yards this time. By the time KC and Tennessee next played, in the 2021 season (the week before KC played the Giants), the word was out that Mahomes was having trouble with two-high safety looks. The Titans, now with Shane Bowen coordinating the defense, once again played less than average Cover 1, but this time also less than average Cover 3, i.e. Bowen dialed back single-high looks and showed a lot of Cover 2 and Cover 4 instead:
Mahomes passed for 206 yards but had 0 TDs and 1 INT and the Titans dominated the Chiefs, 27-3.
The Chiefs have had an interesting history of personnel groupings the past few years, going from 60 percent 11 personnel usage in 2018 and 2019 , then up to 74 percent in 2020, then back down to 67 percent in 2021, according to Sharp’s statistics. Perhaps this was Andy Reid struggling last year with Mahomes’ difficulties and keeping an extra tight end in some of the time to try to help him. Whatever the explanation, Kafka comes from an environment that is fairly consistent with what Daboll has done as an offensive coordinator, so we should expect the Giants to run more 11 personnel than they did last season.
Regardless of whether Kafka or Daboll calls the plays on Sunday, they share a similar experience with Tennessee’s defensive coordinators: The Titans (if Bowen hasn’t changed his philosophy) want to play single-high safety and a lot of man defense if they can get away with it. An opponent has to be able to take advantage of that to create chunk plays. Josh Allen (by his third season) and Patrick Mahomes (immediately) forced Tennessee into more two-high looks.
Mike Vrabel’s first taste of a Wink Martindale defense was something he’d rather forget. Marcus Mariota passed for only 117 yards with no TDs and was sacked 11 times (that is not a misprint). The Ravens shut out the Titans 21-0. Offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur left to become Green Bay’s head coach the following year. Presumably that game was not part of his pitch to Packers’ management.
LaFleur played only 56 percent 11 personnel that year, tied for fifth-lowest in the league, favoring two tight end looks (12 personnel) more than most teams. Derrick Henry at that time was not yet the beast that he later became. Henry rushed only seven times for 21 yards in that game, and through the first 12 games of that season he had not rushed for more than 58 yards in any game. It wasn’t until Wek 13 (238 yards vs. the Jaguars) and then the next week against the Giants (170 yards) that the Derrick Henry we know today was born. Wink played more Cover 3 and less Cover 1 at that stage than became the norm for him later:
LaFleur was replaced by Arthur Smith in 2019. Smith played 11 personnel 53 percent of the time his first season, and then only 38% in his second season, as his offense evolved to emphasize Henry while putting Ryan Tannehill into situations in which he could succeed without leaning on the passing game too much.
Martindale first game planned for Tannehill in the playoffs that season, with the Titans eliminating Baltimore, 28-12. Tannehill had only seven completions in 14 attempts for 88 yards, but Henry ran for 195 yards (and threw a TD pass). The Ravens’ offense lost that game, gaining 530 yards but not getting into the end zone until the game was all but over. Martindale by that time had pushed all his chips to the center of the table, playing about twice as much Cover 1 as the typical NFL team and virtually no two-high safety:
In 2020 Tannehill had his best game (22 for 31, 259 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) against Wink, with the Titans prevailing 30-24 in overtime. The Ravens’ defense gave away a 21-10 third quarter lead, Justin Tucker kicked a field goal in the closing minute to tie the score, and Henry ran for a 29-yard score to win the game in OT. By that time Martindale had softened a bit, still running a lot of Cover 1 but now mixing in more Cover 2 than before:
The Ravens and Titans met again in the Wild Card game that season, with Baltimore prevailing this time 20-13. Martindale’s defense mostly shut down the Titans after Tennessee had taken a 10-0 first quarter lead. This time Tannehill passed for only 165 yards, 1 TD, and 1 INT and Henry ran for only 40 yards on 18 carries. Wink went back to his more aggressive, almost-no-two-high-safety, defensive strategy that day, and it paid off:
What can we expect when the Giants play the Titans?
Daniel Jones is neither Josh Allen nor Patrick Mahomes (insert Captain Obvious remark here). How the Titans come out on defense against the Giants will tell a lot about how much respect coordinator Shane Bowen has for Daniel Jones’ and the Giants’ receivers’ ability to win with Daboll and Kafka’s play designs.
The Titans are not a blitzing team (19.9 percent in 2021, fifth-lowest in the NFL), and they gave up the eighth-most yards in the NFL overall in 2021, according to Pro Football Reference. The opportunities should be there if the Giants’ new-and-improved offensive line gives him a pocket to work from. The loss of edge defender Harold Landry should help with that, but the OL will still have to deal with Bud Dupree on the other side and interior pressure from defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons. Tennessee gave up the second fewest rushing yards in the league in 2021, so this game may be won or lost by the Giants’ ability to move the ball through the air.
There are a number of ways to beat the single-high safety defenses that Tennessee favors, as BBV’s Nick Falato has discussed here. Single-high defenses allow for deep routes along the sidelines and stress cornerbacks to be able to cover one-on-one. Route combinations such as Mills and Yankee concepts (see Nick’s piece and the illustration from it below, courtesy of Mark Schofield) put the free safety into conflict and force him to choose to cover the high or low option. Tennessee’s free safety, Kevin Byard, is one of the best in the NFL, though.
Daboll and Kafka know what to do with single-high looks from opposing defenses. Will they be confident that Jones can make the Titans pay and have him attack downfield? It will be interesting to see how the first half plays out when the Giants have the ball, and what adjustments if any both teams make after halftime.
Martindale has not faced the Titans since Todd Downing took over as offensive coordinator for the 2021 season. Downing’s first year offense didn’t look that much different in style than it had under Arthur Smith, but the passing offense declined. It was difficult to assign blame for that since the Titans’ offense was without injured stars Henry, A.J. Brown (now an Eagle), and Julio Jones (now a Buccaneer) for significant stretches. Vrabel did hire a passing game coordinator, Tim Kelly, to assist Downing, though there is speculation that Kelly could be a coordinator-in-waiting if Downing’s pass offense doesn’t produce.
The Titans’ receiving corps now features ex-Ram Robert Woods and rookie Treylon Burks. Will Martindale trust the Giants’ cornerbacks to play man defense on them, or will he start more conservatively with a Cover 3 emphasis and some Cover 2 to help Aaron Robinson out (assuming that he starts at CB2)? Will Bowen opt for more of a balanced offense between pass and run with Downing’s influence? The Titans’ mindset has to be that of a very good team that makes the playoffs but hasn’t been able to get to the big game. Is this the year they try to open things up to take the next step, and do the Giants have the cornerbacks to keep them from doing so?
If not, there is some precedent for Martindale playing heavy zone, particularly from 2021 when starting CB Marcus Peters was injured and missed the season. In Week 2 for example, Martindale played this Cover 6-heavy defensive setup against Patrick Mahomes:
After Week 13, when the other starting CB, Marlon Humphrey, had a season-ending injury, Martindale channeled his inner Vic Fangio and began playing mostly zone every week in the Ravens’ final games against the Packers, Bengals, Rams, and Steelers. Given the desultory performance of every Giants boundary CB not named Adoree’ Jackson in the pre-season, it will be interesting to see how far Martindale is willing to go with his preferred man-heavy coverage schemes. Given Wink’s apparent confidence in Xavier McKinney, a lot of Cover 3 wouldn’t be a surprise as a way to help Aaron Robinson out while still freeing Julian Love or one of the other safeties to be involved in the pass rush chaos that Wink tries to create.
Up front, rookie Nicholas Petit-Frere has won the starting job at right offensive tackle for Tennessee, so expect Wink to bring a lot of pressure on Petit-Frere’s side, just as he did to Matt Peart in 2020 to sack Daniel Jones on three consecutive plays. A big question is whether the Giants’ interior defensive line and linebackers can be stout enough against the run to prevent Derrick Henry from taking over the game the way he did at Met Life in 2018. The departure of Blake Martinez only increases the degree of difficulty of dealing with Henry. This is another reason we may see a lot of Cover 3, to have a safety in the box for run support. If Henry picks up where he left off before his injury, it could be a long afternoon for the Giants’ defense.
This will be the fascinating subtext of the Giants’ opener: What do opponents, and what do the Giants’ coaches themselves, actually think of our re-tooled roster? How both sides approach this game will tell us more about that than any pre- or post-game presser.