It’s time for the third and final part of Total Titans’ mid-season review of the Tennessee Titans 2007 season. In case you haven’t yet read them, I comment to you both Drexel’s post and Andrew’s position group grades. I’ll try not to repeat too much of what my co-bloggers have said, but the themes you’ll hear probably won’t be unfamiliar ones.
After eight games, the Titans are 6-2. That win total matches my pre-season expectation for the entire season. Unsurprisingly, I’m ecstatic about the results. Remember, though, that the Giants started 6-2 last year before going 2-6 the second half of the year and barely limping into the playoffs. With the strength of the AFC, 8-8 almost certainly won’t be enough to make the playoffs. What, then, have the Titans done to get to 6-2, and what do they have to do to finish with the 10-6 or better record that may be required for a playoff berth?
The biggest reason the Titans are 6-2 has been the play of the defense. This is obvious, but it was also my single biggest reason for doubting the Titans this year. The Titans last year gave up 400 points, second-most in the NFL. They only gave up fewer than 20 points 5 times, and gave up 37+ points 4 times. Then, they lost Pacman, who was their best player, to suspension. They signed Nick Harper, but he’s not nearly as good as Pacman. They picked up Ryan Fowler to play MLB, but that wasn’t reason to expect any great improvement. And what’s happened? 6 games of allowing 14 or fewer points-the only teams to break 20 are the Colts, who have only scored fewer than 29 points once, against perhaps the greatest team in recent NFL history, and the Texans, who were entirely shut down for almost three quarters before having one of the more surprising explosions in recent years.
And that defense may be even better than you think it is. While the official rankings have the Titans second in the league, Football Outsiders’ play-by-play-based rankings have the Titans defense fifth best through 9 weeks of all teams in the past dozen years. Better than the great 2000 defense that nearly equaled the Ravens in utter dominance-better than even that Ravens defense through 9 weeks. Better than last year’s Bears. Plus, the Titans made a position change, inserting Michael Griffin for Calvin Lowry, a change that early returns suggest will only improve the defense.
It will be difficult to keep this sort of defensive performance up the for entire season-only the 2000 Ravens and 2002 Buccaneers had defenses that were as good for an entire year as the Titans have been so far this year, and both those teams had been very good the previous year. Barring injury, though, the Titans should continue to have a very good defense.
That’s a very good thing, because the offense has been largely putrid. Jeff Fisher’s attitude with the 1999 Super Bowl team and 2000 #1 seed seemed to be that there’s no need to try to pass the ball if you don’t have to. With LenDale White setting a career high in carries three times in the past four weeks, that’s a plan that appears to be in full force and effect this year. It’s been a good thing, too, because the passing game has been pretty lousy. It’s a good bet, though, that the Titans will need the passing game to win a game or two before the season is through. Is this a realistic expectation?
What I’ve been trying to do with Upon Further Review is capture data to give us some idea as to that question. Here’s the passing chart for Vince Young this year:
For a refresher on what the symbols mean, see the explanation. What I get from that chart is the Titans are asking Vince Young to do very little. DO can only be awarded for throws that I consider of above-average difficulty. The low number of DO’s is because there aren’t very many chances. VY is not being asked to win games, and is responding by not winning games. As Andrew noted, the Titans receivers are working very hard to aid and abet VY in his efforts not to win games. The easiest way for the Titans to become a significantly better team would be the addition of a first-rate NFL wide receiver, one who regularly draws double teams and is capable of getting reliably getting open against single coverage. The problem is is that there aren’t very many of those guys, and it’s past the trade deadline, so right now that’s a quixotic quest. Without some sort of magic elixir, I have a difficult time seeing the Titans’ passing game getting much better this year. The sole reason I have any optimism is that VY seems to have played comparatively well at the beginning of games. This suggests that he’s capable of learning and executing plays, but is still learning to play properly in a structured gameplan.
If the formula of early execution in the passing game, an emphasis on the running game, and strong defense sounds familiar, it’s because that’s what the Steelers rode to a 15-1 record in 2004. The problem, aside from VY having to do the same or more with less than Roethlisberger did that year, is the Steelers had two pretty good running backs that complemented each other well in Willie Parker and Duce Staley, while the Titans have LenDale White. If you’ve read what I’ve written, you know I don’t think LenDale White is very good. If you don’t normally read me, let me repeat that: LenDale White isn’t very good. He looks like a competent or good NFL running back approximately 3 to 5 plays a game. Almost all of the yardage he gets is thanks to the excellent blocking of the offensive line and the rest of the team, not his own skill. Too many times, he tries to avoid the hole, where there looks like there’s contact, and tries to create his own whole by outrunning NFL linebackers, which he’s simply not fast enough to do. The only reason to give him carries is because neither Chris Brown nor Chris Henry can carry the ball 20 times a game, and the passing game needs all the attention paid to the running game it can get. Still, as long as LenDale White gets the bulk of the carries, I do not believe the Titans will have an above average, or even average, NFL offense.
What will the next 8 games look like? I believe the offense will continue to struggle to score points. Further, it is unlikely that the defense will be able to play quite as well as it has been. Looking at the rest of the schedule, there are no games that stand out as ones there’s no reason to expect the Titans could win, and they could easily be favored in most of them. Still, the Titans have been skating close to the edge for quite some time, and luck is rarely good forever. While barring injury a Giants-style collapse appears unlikely, a record of 4-4 or 5-3 over the last 8 games appears to me the most likely situation. That would put the Titans at 10-6 or 11-5, almost certainly enough to secure a playoff berth, but almost certainly not enough to dethrone the Colts from the division lead. The top teams of the AFC are clearly better overall than the Titans, and a prolonged playoff run is unlikely. The Titans are a lot better this year than I thought they’d be, but they still have steps, significant ones, before they can properly be referred to as one of the best, most complete NFL teams. My most fervent hope for the second half is that I see signs the Titans are becoming one of those complete teams. If that does happen, the playoffs are a lead-pipe lock, and a deep run looks more and more likely. If not, a wild card loss and regression the next year is more likely in the cards. Here’s hoping, here’s hoping.
UPDATE (11/8, 9:03 AM CT): Unfortunately, technical difficulties have reared their ugly head, and the passing table got chomped. I will get that fixed asap, which unfortunately is this evening.