Are the Titans really lying in the weeds?

Last week, blogfriend Chase Stuart of the invaluable Pro-Football-Reference wrote a post pointing out the Titans ranked surprisingly high in P-F-R’s Simple Rating System and wondered if the Titans could be lurking in the weeds as one of the NFL’s elite teams.  I’m not a huge fan of Simple Rating System, which is a margin of victory-based ranking, but since Chase posed the question and it’s occasionally useful to take a macro-level view of where a team stands, I’ll say what I have to say.

Just as a fair warning, this is relatively long and more stat-heavy, especially advanced stat-heavy, than most of my posts here.

First, points scored overrates how good the Titans’ offense has been.  Before this weekend, they were 5th in the NFL in points per game.  By virtually any other measure you care to name, though, the Titans have been much less efficient than that.  They ranked 16th in Yards Per Play.  They were only 7th in Yards Per Rush-still good, but not elite.  Worse, the passing numbers aren’t quite so good.

Problems Keeping the Quarterback Upright
One key stat putting a damper on the offensive production: sacks.  One of the things I tried to get across this summer is that VY took a lot of QB sacks in 2007, because of his lack of comfort in the pocket and reading defenses.  When he came off the bench in 2009, he was sacked at a low rate similar to Collins.  This year, though, the Titans are allowing an Adjusted Sack Rate of 9.6%, good for 27th-best in the league.  Chase points out Vince is averaging a very good 7.4 Adjusted Yards Per Attempt, which adds TDs and interceptions to normal yards per attempt.  Unfortunately, he neglects to point out Vince is averaging only 5.9 Net Yards Per Attempt, which adds sacks to base YPA, and 6.2 Adjusted Net Yards, which incorporates TDs, INTs, and sacks.  That 5.9 NYPA figure puts him about 18th in the league, and 6.2 ANYPA is about 14th.

I have to put off my planned posts on the offensive line.  As I wrote about the Broncos game, though, a very large part of that increased sack total this year is completely on VY for eating the ball.  QBs are much more of a factor in sacks than you think they are, which Peyton Manning’s annual ridiculously low sack rate behind an offensive line normally far inferior to the Titans’ should be proof of.  VY simply has to stop taking sacks like he has.

An Average Offense
Those numbers match what my eyes are telling me: the Titans are a pretty average team when it comes to passing the ball.  The rushing game remains above average, but hasn’t been nearly as explosive or consistent as it was last year.  I’m not quite so down on the Titans offense as this, but by FO’s DVOA, they currently rank 15th in passing offense and 18th in rushing offense, for 18th overall.

Beyond the micro-specific stats, one way to look at offensive productivity is drive stats, which FO calculates (straight from conventional statistics) and puts on a separate page. The Titans rank highly (in the NFL’s top 10) in three categories: points per drive (9th), TDs per drive (7th), and starting field position (3rd).  They’ve done a very good job of converting good field position into touchdowns.  Unfortunately, what they’re not good at is consistently getting yards.  You see that clearly in the DSR, or Drive Success Rate, category, which measures how many drives earn neither a touchdown nor a first down.  There, they rank 25th.  That’s way too many 3-and-outs to sustain the kind of scoring pace they’ve had.

An Excellent Defensive Line
The Titans’ strengths defensively this year can be summed up simply: the defensive line has been OUTSTANDING this year.  Not blessed with the kind of superlative individual talents they’ve had in the past with early career Jevon Kearse and Albert Haynesworth in his final years, there are still some darned good players (Tony Brown and Jason Jones, to name two), and some guys who I don’t think are really that great who are still having phenomenal years (Dave Ball and Jason Babin, to name two).  A couple numbers to demonstrate the success:

 

  • Over a quarter of all opponent runs go for 0 yards or a loss, third in the NFL.
  • They lead the NFL in sacks and have an Adjusted Sack Rate of over 10%, again good for third in the NFL.

 

While Cecil has been more consistent with bringing extra guys regularly than Schwartz was or than he was last year, the defensive line still deserves the lion’s share of the credit for both of those numbers.  The defensive linemen have 17 of the 22 sacks, which would be 4th in the NFL even without the non-DL sacks.

An Exploitable Rush Defense
The problem, though, is about runs that get beyond the line of scrimmage.  They rank 26th in the league on what FO terms 2nd level yards, which is yards between 5 and 10 yards downfield, and a decidedly average 15th in terms of allowing rushes that pick up 10 or more yards.

We can get a better idea of where these successful runs are going by looking at them broken down by direction: runs at left tackle, left guard, up the middle, right guard, and right tackle (each as marked by the official scorer), the Titans are excellent at stopping, ranking 5th or 6th in those categories.  Where they have trouble are running not at the defensive line, those that go left end or right end, where the Titans rank 20th and 32nd in the NFL, respectively.  That tells me, if you can block the defensive line, particularly the defensive ends, you can get to the edge and be successful.

Spottily Effective Pass Defense
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure exactly how good the Titans’ pass offense is yet.  As noted above, they’ve shown an excellent pass rush thus far.  What happens when the ball comes out of the quarterback’s hand has been a more interesting story.

By FO stats, the Titans’ pass D has been excellent, rated third in the league.  Conventional rate stats are less kind, ranking them 15th in YPA, 13th in AYPA, and 10th in both NetYPA and ANYPA.  They also rank 4th-worst in pass yards allowed, but frankly I only pay attention to that for fantasy purposes and don’t think you should pay attention much attention to it either in evaluating how good a team is.

Going into more detail, you see something interesting.  Using FO’s Premium database splits, you see something interesting: against the pass, the Titans have had two great games and three above-average games (defined as negative, but not better than -10% DVOA).  Unsurprisingly, those two great games were in Week 1, against Jason Campbell and the Raiders, and Week 2, against the Steelers and Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch.  Since then, the Titans have played three guys who are actually starting for those team, and the pass defense has gotten much worse.  Note also that those numbers do include sacks.  If the Titans stop getting to the quarterback as much, the pass defense as a whole will stop being as productive.

Another interesting number comes from looking at FO’s stats against wide receivers by type, which helps give you an idea of where the Titans are better and worse.  They’ve been positively porous against opposing teams’ top wide receiver, ranking only 26th in the league, but have been much better against the #2 and other wideouts, ranking 6th and 12th.  As you might guess from when they stopped Jason Witten to beat the Cowboys last week, they’ve been great against opposing tight ends.  I though Zach Miller, Heath Miller, and Witten in particular might be great, given how often tight ends hurt the Titans last year, but that certainly hasn’t been the case.  The weakness they have had, though, has been against opposing running backs, where they rank only 24th.

There are some interesting player notes there.  The TE ranking is a complete reversal from last season, where the Titans were horrid.  Will Witherspoon has been a great acquisition, and Stephen Tulloch is, in my opinion, much better in coverage than he has been in the past.  The Titans have done a good job of gameplanning not to let the opposing tight end beat them, and then going out and executing that gameplan.  I also should credit the tight ends here; part of the weakness against tight ends last year came from Michael Griffin getting beat like a drum, and that hasn’t happened with nearly the same consistency this year.

Where they’re weaker, though, has been on running backs and adapting to them, especially shiftier guys, leaking out of the backfield.  While Witherspoon has been good against tight ends, he struggles times to break down and wrap up players in space, missing tackles against Bradshaw and failing to adjust to Buckhalter in coverage, while Tulloch has just been beat.  McRath’s return should help when they’re in base personnel, but I’d expect Witherspoon and Tulloch to stay on the field in nickel and the Titans to continue to have problems against elusive running backs.  This will be a great thing to watch this week, as David Garrard likes to find Maurice Jones-Drew, especially on third down, and that’s normally been a very productive option.

Two other personnel notes: the depth at DB seems to be much better than it was last year, as Verner has played reasonably well filling in for McCourty and Fuller seems to be getting beat less consistently than he was last year.  Part of what’s driving the production by opposing top receivers, though, has been Cortland Finnegan not having a good year.  I’ve generally expressed what feels like a slightly contrarian opinion of Finnegan, namely that while he’s good, he’s not great and a far cry from a true shutdown corner.  This year, though, I’m not even convinced he’s been the sort of “good but not elite” starter he’s been in the past.

Some Causes for Concern?
The reason I’ve been concentrating on the coverage issues is that gaudy 10% sack rate almost certainly isn’t sustainable.  No team in the previous six seasons (as far back as I bothered to check) has sustained that sort of sack rate over the course of a year; the 5th-best Adjusted Sack Rate has averaged more like 8% of the time.  Teams will, like Denver and Dallas both did in the second half, switch to more of a 3-step quick passing game.  Even though the Titans had a lot of sacks, both Orton and Romo threw the ball for a bunch of yards, and a timely coverage stop or bust is a big part of the reason the Titans lost to the Broncos and then beat the Cowboys.  They’re going to need more of those coverage stops if they want to sustain having the kind of pass defense that can carry a more average offense.

Another reason for concern: one of the things FO likes to harp on for a reason as to why teams “surprisingly” get better or worse is what’s termed the third down rebound effect.  Because of the smaller number and larger number of third downs, third down performance tends to be more variable than performance on first and second downs.  If a team is great on first and second downs, but mediocre on third downs, we’d expect to see them play better on third downs, not play worse on first and second downs.  This year, the Titans have been great on first downs, below-average on second downs, and absolutely fantastic, best in the league, on third downs.  That sort of performance will almost certainly come down back to earth as the year goes on.

So, How Good Are They?
The Titans have clearly had a very good start.  Chris Johnson has been much less effective than last year, but not nearly as bad, in performance terms, as you probably think.  Vince Young has, I’d say, been roughly average or slightly above; maybe about the same level as where he was the last 10 games of last season, all things considered, but does not seem to have made the tremendous strides I was hoping for and some people may have been expecting.

As I tried to stress above, the key to the Titans’ strong performance this year has been the defense, and in particular the defensive line.  In some key areas, though, that defensive line and overall defensive performance appears to be unsustainable.  It’s better than the liability I feared it was, but isn’t as elite as it looks like it might be right now.  Opposing teams, when they have their starter in, will likely continue to have success throwing the ball against the Titans defense, and those teams will likely be better than Titans’ opponents have been thus far at turning those yards into points.  When that happens, the Titans will start to lose games they’ve been winning.

Don’t get me wrong here, as I’m hugely glad the Titans are 3-2 and have won two games, at the Giants and at Dallas, I didn’t think they had much shot at winning, but in my mind and to my eye, they’re still a roughly 8-8/9-7-type team.

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