What your favorite NFL team can learn from Mike Vrabel’s Titans: Sando’s Pick Six

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The NFL is so volatile, not even Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers can count on winning this season.

The New York Giants and New York Jets tied for the league’s worst record over the previous five seasons, but both will take winning records into Thanksgiving, despite rough outings Sunday. The Minnesota Vikings, humbled 40-3 at home by Dallas, are nonetheless 8-2 and running away with the NFC North after some thought they should have blown up their roster to initiate a rebuild.

So volatile is the league that teams over the past couple seasons have gone all-in to acquire Matthew Stafford, Deshaun Watson, Tyreek Hill, Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz, A.J. Brown and others.

Through all this tumult, only two teams have winning records this season and in each of the previous four: the Kansas City Chiefs, who would have been your first guess, and the Tennessee Titans, who have outperformed oddsmakers’ preseason expectations every year under coach Mike Vrabel and crushed the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field to kick off Week 11.

The Pick Six column leads this week by revealing from league sources and research what other teams can learn from the 7-3 Vrabel-led Titans, who maximize their chances for winning through tactics available to everyone, but rarely discussed or even noticed.

“They are New England 2.0,” a rival coach said of the Titans.

The full Pick Six menu this week:

What your team can learn from Titans
Commanders’ defense transcends Sunday
Bench Zach Wilson? He’s 41st out of 41
Great day for Lions, now and in future
Jerry, can the Cowboys handle success?
Two-minute drill: Browns, Raiders, Broncos

1. The Titans own the NFL’s fifth-best record since Vrabel became head coach in 2018. That includes 29-19 (.604) outside the AFC South and 41-21 vs. teams that had winning records. Here’s how they keep proving skeptics wrong.

Some coaches call plays. Not Vrabel. He coaches the entire team and focuses on gaining competitive edges in critical moments.

Because of the Titans, the league closed a loophole that Vrabel exploited against New England in the 2019 playoffs when Tennessee, leading 14-13 with 6:39 remaining, incurred intentional penalties to drain the clock to 4:44 without running a play. Tennessee won other games after taking intentional penalties while seeking competitive advantages. The Titans also are known for being better than others at laying on offensive players during two-minute situations, and for incurring well-timed injuries to defensive players, which opponents see as buying time for defenders to regroup.

There is more than that beneath the surface.

“They are not known for analytics at all, but in terms of difference-making plays in crucial situations and coaching it better, they have won multiple games off stuff they have done situationally, tactically,” an exec from another team said on the condition of anonymity for competitive reasons.

When Vrabel gave his acceptance speech in February after winning Coach of the Year at the NFL Honors Show, he thanked the people coaches of the year typically thank — the team owner, his own family, players and assistant coaches. There was one conspicuous addition.

Before Vrabel acknowledged Titans players and coaches, he nodded toward a very important person in the audience and said, “I want to thank Stretch,” even though nobody outside a tight circle of NFL insiders had any idea who “Stretch” could have been.

John “Stretch” Streicher is the Titans’ football development coordinator. He is Vrabel’s answer to Ernie Adams, the retired Patriots researcher and strategist Bill Belichick said he “leaned heavily on” for decades. Adams’ role in New England became mystical as opponents suspected the Patriots of stretching or outright breaking rules to gain whatever edge they could gain.

Many teams employ staffers in Adams-type roles, but there’s evidence beyond Vrabel’s NFL Honors shout-out that Tennessee does a better job than anyone of implementing competitive advantages.

For example, the Titans under Vrabel lead the league in opponent false starts, according to TruMedia. They have drawn more of them overall, more of them on field goals and extra points, more of them on fourth-and-1, more of them when opponents were on the fringes of field-goal range, more of them inside their own 10-yard line — basically more of them when it matters most. Their defensive linemen are known among opponents for moving subtly or not so subtly — “stemming” is the parlance — to draw offensive movement in critical moments.

Nose tackle Teair Tart sometimes aligns in a stance with one knee on the ground. As the snap nears, he raises the knee off the ground, sometimes triggering movement from the offense. Fellow nose tackle Naquan Jones and other linemen sometimes shift abruptly, with similar results. The Titans have done this so well in critical situations, they lead the league in expected points added (EPA) on opponent false-start penalties since Vrabel took over, and it’s not particularly close: plus-58.5 EPA for the Titans, which is 1.5 times the league average. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who have employed more formidable outside pass-rushers, rank second since 2018 with 47.4 EPA on these opponent false starts.

The Titans account for two of the three largest EPA gainers on 2,517 regular-season opponent false starts from Vrabel’s hiring through the Titans’ victory at Green Bay. Tennessee owns four of the top 18, nine of the top 76 and 17 of the top 185. The Titans’ top four EPA gainers on opponent false starts all featured stemming, an aggressive arm wave or subtler movement by defensive linemen. That included one at Brady’s expense while the quarterback was still with the Patriots.

The Titans’ biggest EPA gainer on an opponent false start added 2.0 EPA in a 20-17 victory against the San Francisco 49ers last season. The score was 10-10 late in the third quarter when obvious stemming got the 49ers to jump on fourth-and-1 from the Tennessee 35. The 49ers went for it on fourth-and-6 from the 40, failed to convert and then watched Tennessee drive for a touchdown on its ensuing possession. The 2.0-point EPA gain was a little more than the Titans gained from completing a 16-yard touchdown pass against the Packers on first-and-10 early in the fourth quarter Thursday night. That’s adding significant value.

Tennessee opponents have said the Titans, mindful that holding is rarely called on defensive linemen, do a great job holding offensive linemen to maximize pass-rush stunts. They said the Titans have also been known to mimic opposing quarterback cadences. Both tactics became easier when the NFL relocated umpires to the offensive side of the ball.

“Every little thing you can think of to get an advantage, they have,” an opposing coach said. “Vrabel is on the competition committee. He has come from New England. He doesn’t call plays, so he can just work the officials and think of different ways to find an edge. You have to appreciate the gamesmanship and the attention to detail that they do it with.”

Vrabel’s membership on the competition committee lends itself to gaining an even firmer grasp of the rules and how to maximize advantages within them, while also giving him influence over potential changes. Earlier this season, Vrabel tweaked the league’s officiating department with a “reply-all” email to all head coaches and general managers suggesting the league focus more on getting basic officiating correct instead of drilling down on finer points of emphasis featured in weekly officiating videos.

None of this would matter much if the Titans did not do the basic things well. They play a physical brand of football rooted in some of the game’s most established fundamentals: running the ball, stopping the run, maximizing pass efficiency through the use of play-action. The offense has fallen off since the start of last season as the weaponry has declined, but the Titans are still outscoring opponents by 2.7 points per game, same as their average margin from 2018-20, because the defense has improved with an assist from Jim Schwartz’s hiring as a senior defensive assistant in 2021.

Players matter, too.

“It’s not like they are barren of talent like everyone thinks,” an exec said. “There is a toughness to Ryan Tannehill that, as maligned as he has been, he has had some really good performances. Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry are really physical, tough players. You have Kevin Byard, one of the better safeties, and then David Long at linebacker is really coming along.”

Analysts still might question how the Titans keep winning after missing on some high-profile draft choices such as 2020 first-rounder Isaiah Wilson, while subtracting talented weapons in free agency (Jonnu Smith) and via trade (A.J. Brown), and while suffering injuries to key contributors such as left tackle Taylor Lewan and pass-rusher Harold Landry.

“Because they play complementary football, that is why,” another coach said. “If you play complementary football, you avoid the downfalls of certain jolts that come via draft picks. New England plays a lot of complementary football, but they also have six or seven guys who are special-teams only guys, guys who help them transition from one phase to the next.”

All bets on the Titans might be off if something happened to Derrick Henry, their tone-setting running back, except that Tennessee went 6-3 without him down the stretch last season while earning the AFC’s top seed.

“All their pieces work really well together,” the exec said. “What they try to do is have heavy run, great play-action. Well, Tannehill is really good under center off play-action. He is really good at throwing those in-cuts. If they are covered, he is really good at scrambling and taking off. That makes them unstoppable in the red zone when you add that to what Derrick Henry does.

“Defensively, what do they like to do? Rush four, get after you with those big guys up front and grab and hold on the back end, almost like Legion of Boom, to where officials are just sick of calling illegal contact and defensive holding. They limit turnovers on offense and create turnovers because they are stuffing the run, putting you in longer distances and playing from the back end with tight man coverage and guys being really handsy.”

It’s all pointing toward another winning season for Tennessee, which should be the expectation by now.

2. The Washington Commanders’ defense is suddenly one of the NFL’s best. Before you point out that Houston was the opponent Sunday, check this out.

Houston suffered its worst offensive game of the season (minus-18.4 EPA) against Washington. If you look at all the games Washington’s defense has played this season, a pattern emerges. No team has enjoyed better than its fifth-best offensive EPA game of the season against Washington, which is now 6-5 after winning for the fifth time in six games.

The table lays it out below. Detroit (Week 2) and Indianapolis (Week 8) enjoyed their fifth-best offensive games against the Commanders. That’s as good as it has gotten for any team against Washington. Philadelphia had its seventh- and eight-best offensive games against Washington.

The Commanders now rank ninth in defensive EPA per game, up from 25th last season. They held the Texans to five first-half yards in their 23-10 victory Sunday, the lowest total for any NFL team in a first half since the Jets held Kansas City to four in 2011 Week 14.

We know the Texans are bad on offense — really bad. But they were worse against the Commanders than they were against any other team, which reflects well on Washington. The Commanders are getting dominant play from tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. They are getting strong play from young safeties Kamren Curl and Darrick Forrest, who were late-round picks in 2020 and 2021, respectively. They unloaded unhappy cornerback William Jackson III before the trade deadline. And they could be getting an emotional boost from quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who will remain the starter after Carson Wentz’s return for obvious reasons, and because coach Ron Rivera, as a former defensive player, knows how all these things fit together.

3. Jets coach Robert Saleh said there’s zero thought about benching quarterback Zach Wilson even though the offense performed like “dog s—” in the second half Sunday. How bad is the QB situation?

The Jets, like the Commanders, have a defense that is high-performing enough to deliver victories if the offense simply doesn’t screw up the games. Unlike Washington, the Jets also have a young, highly drafted quarterback they are trying to bring along, which is why Saleh sounded adamant that Wilson would remain his starting quarterback, even after a brutal showing Sunday.

How long can this go on?

With Wilson completing 9 of 22 passes and taking four sacks during a 10-3 defeat to New England, the Jets finished the game with minus-21.4 EPA on offense. That was their worst figure of the season and third-worst in 27 games under Saleh. It was the second-worst figure for any team in Week 11, better only than Carolina’s irredeemable performance against Baltimore.

It was unsustainably bad for a team that could contend for the playoffs with even moderately below-average play from the quarterback position.

“What does more for your program, seeing Zach play a couple more weeks, or trying to squeak in the playoffs and lose the first wild-card game?” an exec from another team said. “Do you thoroughly vet him or mess around with Mike White, who has barely any starting experience?”

That’s a conversation for Saleh to have with general manager Joe Douglas. Wilson’s postgame comments about the windy conditions sounded like excuse-making. His refusal to say he let down the defense seemed clueless.

Wilson is 20 starts into his career. He has averaged minus-0.17 EPA per pass play, which ranks last through 20 starts among 41 quarterbacks who were drafted since 2012 and have started at least 20 times. Wilson is last by a wide margin, too. Davis Mills ranks 40th at minus-0.10 EPA per pass play, with Blake Bortles just ahead of him. The leaders were all on better teams. That list, from the top, features Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Jimmy Garoppolo, Justin Herbert, Deshaun Watson, Nick Foles and Andrew Luck.

The last time the Jets were coming off an especially bad performance on offense, they still emerged with a 16-9 victory against Denver in Week 7. After that game, the team elevated White into the No. 2 QB spot, moving him ahead of Joe Flacco. I thought it could have been a sign the Jets were considering a change. But Saleh said the team simply planned to evaluate White if an injury sidelined Wilson. Whatever the case, Flacco tossed as many touchdown passes in a Week 2 game against Cleveland (four) as Wilson has tossed in seven starts. White hasn’t played since suffering through a four-pick game against Buffalo last season.

4. The Lions are 3-0 since we noted Dan Campbell had a worse record through his first 24 games than Matt Patricia had in his final 24. That’s not the only good news for Detroit.

Campbell was 4-19-1 through 24 games with the Lions, the second-worst start for any coach in franchise history with at least that many games. Only Jim Schwartz (4-20) started worse, but he was able to turn it around, delivering the Lions to the postseason. Campbell is not close to that point, but he’s closer now than he was three weeks ago. There is hope again.

With the Los Angeles Rams in a free-fall, Detroit could be in line for a top-five 2023 draft choice as part of the Matthew Stafford trade, after getting the 32nd pick from Los Angeles in 2022. That was the trend Sunday for teams that traded away their 2023 first-round picks. Denver lost, meaning Seattle would hold the fifth pick under current draft order, thanks to the Wilson trade. Cleveland also lost, which means Houston would pick seventh, with a choice acquired from the Browns in the Watson trade.

The Rams lost Stafford to what could be his second concussion of the season Sunday. They likely will be starting their 11th offensive line combination in 11 games next week, after losing another left tackle to injury. They have lost four in a row heading into a closing stretch featuring games against Seattle (twice), Kansas City, the Chargers, Denver, Green Bay and the Raiders.

Some luck is breaking the Lions’ way. The bad news is, they play Buffalo on Thursday in Detroit, where the Bills won Sunday after their game against Cleveland was relocated to avoid the western New York snowpack.

The Lions under Campbell will go down swinging, at the least. They lead the league in fourth-down go-for-its in first halves with 13. They are one of four teams to try an onside kick in the first three quarters. They are one of three teams to execute more than one fake punt this season.

“Detroit is interesting, just how Campbell does things,” an exec with NFC North experience said. “He does everything different, but at least they are consistently different. They are biting kneecaps, firing non-coordinator assistants, which is rarely done during the season, and saying it’s all the best thing for their program. Their fourth-down strategy, their special-teams fakes — they are squeezing every last drop.”

5. The Cowboys exposed the Vikings, which raises the question we always have to ask about Dallas.

The Cowboys’ 40-3 pummeling of the previously 8-1 Vikings showcased Dallas at its best: nine pressures and two sacks from Micah Parsons, 109 yards receiving from running back Tony Pollard, Dak Prescott completing 22 of 25 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns. It also showcased the Cowboys at their worst: owner Jerry Jones embracing Super Bowl talk after the game, as if that helps anyone in Week 11.

“Jerry acts like he is talking to Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, the guys who can handle that kind of a scope,” an exec from an AFC team said. “He thinks by talking about it, they will live up to his expectations. The opposite is true. For most of the guys on these teams, you literally want them to be on time to the facility, park in the right spot, sit up straight with their notebooks and pens ready, making sure the next drill gets done correctly.”

The Cowboys did dominate in all three phases. They became the seventh team since 2000 to finish a game two touchdowns better than average in both offensive and defensive EPA, and one touchdown better than average in the special-teams realm.

Yr-Wk Score OFF | DEF | ST Total


SEA, 58-0 (AZ)

+14.1 | +34.0 | +9.9



DET, 48-3 (KC)

+15.4 | +20.3 | +9.3



SF, 48-3 (TB)

+19.2 | +18.4 | +7.4



BAL, 48-3 (DET)

+22.5 | +14.5 | +7.9



NE, 47-7 (AZ)

+16.6 | +15.3 | +8.1



GB, 45-7 (DAL)

+15.7 | +14.9 | +7.4



DAL, 40-3 (MIN)

+14.2 | +15.7 | +7.1


As for the Vikings, we knew they were fortunate to be 8-1 heading into Week 11. The Vikings knew it, too. They were a ridiculous 7-0 in one-score games, tied with the 2006 Colts for the most through Week 10 for any team since at least 2000. We knew all that, and knew the Vikings could be vulnerable at home against Dallas. But 40-3 vulnerable? The losing margin for Minnesota was the NFL’s second-largest since 2000 for a team that entered the game seven or more games above .500. Only the 2010 Jets lost by more under such circumstances, 45-3 to New England.

6. Two-minute drill: Browns, Broncos, Raiders and more

Browns general manager Andrew Berry was optimistic during the offseason when the team drafted kicker Cade York and signed veteran special-teamers Corey Bojorquez and Jakeem Grant in free agency.

“It was a big priority for us this offseason to make sure that we had added some competition and talent to the kicking game,” Berry said then, before a torn Achilles ended Grant’s season in training camp.

As the Browns suffered a 31-23 defeat to Buffalo, they had a field-goal try blocked for the third time this season, and their coverage units allowed long returns. Cleveland lost the special-teams battle by 14.2 EPA, nearly double the second-worst differential for any team in Week 11.

The Browns have the NFL’s youngest starters on defense this season, which could affect the special teams as well. Whatever the case, the chart above shows the special teams and defense heading south this season while the offense continues upward, even without Watson, who becomes eligible to replace Jacoby Brissett behind center beginning Dec. 4. …

The Eagles’ late 75-yard drive to beat the Colts 17-16 featured nine rushes for 28 yards, two passes for eight yards and one pass-interference penalty for 39 yards. Yes, it was a fourth-quarter comeback victory for Philly, which never even trailed in a second half this season until last week, but the drive began with 4:37 remaining and didn’t reveal much new about the Eagles. As for the third-and-goal execution on Jalen Hurts’ quarterback draw, could the running lane have been any wider?

The Broncos’ offense looked better at times against the Raiders’ struggling defense, but Denver’s 22-16 overtime defeat at home moved quarterback Russell Wilson closer to joining a short list featuring JaMarcus Russell and Joey Harrington.

This was Wilson’s seventh start of the season in which his offense failed to exceed 16 points. If it happens against Carolina next week, Wilson will join a group of quarterbacks since 2000 with eight such starts in the first 12 weeks of a season. Akili Smith did it nine times with the Bengals in 2000. Five other quarterbacks endured a similar fate eight times: Russell, Harrington, Jake Plummer (2000), Marc Bulger (2008) and Sam Bradford (2011).

While injuries to offensive linemen, receivers and star running back Javonte Williams have contributed to the Broncos’ struggles, Wilson throwing incomplete on third-and-10 when the Broncos needed to keep the clock running while protecting a three-point lead late in regulation was puzzling. Coach Nathaniel Hackett said keeping the clock moving was the top priority and Wilson needed to take a sack unless there were an open receiver deep downfield. It’s probably the closest Hackett has come to criticizing his quarterback. Wilson didn’t offer a clear explanation for the error, which gave the Raiders time to move downfield for the overtime-forcing field goal after taking multiple shots at the end zone. …

With two touchdown catches Sunday, including the game-winner in overtime, the Raiders’ Davante Adams has 10 TD receptions, putting him on pace to challenge his career-best total of 18, which ranks tied for third in league history behind Randy Moss (23) and Jerry Rice (22). With Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow sidelined, Adams has set career highs through the first 10 team games of a season for targets (112) and yards per reception (14.5). His 925 yards are the second-most for him to this point in a season. His 10 touchdowns match his career high through the first 10 games of a season, set in 2020.

(Top photo illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photo: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

Read More: What your favorite NFL team can learn from Mike Vrabel’s Titans: Sando’s Pick Six

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