Two myths about the Tennessee Titans’ run game

The Titans’ running game has been much less efficient than it was in 2009.  Chris Johnson has had fewer yards on more carries than he had through seven games last year, and his success rate has fallen 45% to 37%, which currently puts him 36th among the 39th backs with the most carries.  The big question is why, and one of the explanations that’s been proposed is Eugene Amano’s shift from left guard over to center, replacing Kevin Mawae, and Leroy Harris’s insertion into the lineup at left guard.

The lineup change has produced two related complaints:
1. The Titans’ run game is worse because they’re less effective running up the middle behind Harris and Amano than they were last year behind Amano and Mawae; and
2.  The Titans are trying to run up the middle too much.

The problem is, neither of those statements is quite true.  I’ll tackle them in reverse order:

MYTH: The Titans are trying to run up the middle too much.
FACT: The Titans don’t run up the middle that much, and in fact are attacking the edges in the run game a lot more than they used to.

The NFL in its official playbook lists a direction for each run: left end, left tackle, left guard, up middle, right guard, right tackle, and right end.  There’s a handy breakdown of how often each team runs each direction (which lops together left guard, up middle, and right guard, since teams tend not to be interestingly more or less productive when running those directions) on Football Outsiders’ Offensive Line stats page.  If we go there, we see how often the Titans run each direction.  Through the Eagles game, they’ve run up the middle 44% of the time, which ranks 25th-most in the league.  Meanwhile, they’ve run at either left or right tackle 31% of the time and run to the ends 25% of the time.

For more perspective, let’s compare that to other Titans’ seasons.  Chart? Chart.

Year Left End Left Tackle Mid/Guard Right Tackle Right End
2010 12% 15% 44% 16% 13%
2009 15% 13% 42% 16% 14%
2008 11% 13% 48% 17% 12%
2007 6% 12% 61% 15% 5%
2003 7% 18% 46% 19% 10%

I added 2003 to the chart so we can get an idea as to the flavor of the final year of the Mike Heimerdinger Era v. 1.0.  The trend is clear: with Chris Johnson getting more carries, the Titans run more to the outside, particularly to both ends.  That’s true compared to the final year of Eddie George, when he was splitting carries with Chris Brown, and the contrast is especially true compared to when LenDale White was the primary back.  In fact, in 2007, there were only two teams that ran the ball up the middle more than 61% of the time.

MYTH: The Titans’ run game is worse because they’re less effective running up the middle behind Harris and Amano than they were last year behind Amano and Mawae.
FACT: The Titans aren’t very effective running up the middle in 2010, but they also weren’t very effective running up the middle in 2009.

For more perspective, let’s compare that to other Titans’ seasons.  Chart? Chart.

Year Left End Left Tackle Mid/Guard Right Tackle Right End
2010 4.64 3.54 3.32 3.39 3.61
2009 4.11 3.55 3.71 4.35 4.82
2008 3.86 4.35 4.13 4.04 4.01
2007 3.71 4.87 4.34 3.60 3.77
2003 3.55 3.86 3.67 3.79 3.19

Well, now we have a better idea as to why the Titans ran up the middle so much in 2007: they were very good at it.  They were less good at it in 2008, worse in 2009, and are even worse this year.  Comparatively, though, the NFL as a whole is slightly worse running middle/guard than it was last year, and the Titans’ rank that direction fell from only 27th to 29th.  Either way, not good.

For the real problems plaguing the Titans’ run game in 2010, look to the right side.  Last year, the Titans’ effectiveness running right finally matched David Stewart’s reputation as a mauler in the run game.  This year, not so much.

Of course, Stewart can’t bear all the blame for that sort of decline.  Right guard Jake Scott hasn’t been great, either, but the biggest decline has come running right end.  That leads us to the personnel change this offseason that, more than any other, helps explain the Titans’ running game struggles this season.

That change: the loss of tight end Alge Crumpler in free agency.  Crumpler certainly was not the receiving weapon some Titans fans were expecting, but especially in 2009 he excelled as a blocker and was a big reason Chris Johnson got to the edge so successfully.  This year, it’s been Bo Scaife or Craig Stevens.  Stevens was drafted to be the blocking tight end, and he hasn’t been too bad, if not quite as successful as Crumpler was last year.  The big difference has been Bo Scaife simply is not a good blocker.  I can’t find the video breakdown online, but NFL Network’s Playbook show did a breakdown of the Titans’ run game from the Broncos game which could easily have been subtitled “Bo Scaife Gets Abused Again and Again.”  If you want a personnel change-based explanation for the Titans’ 2010 run game struggles, that’s where you should be looking.

The bigger difference from last year, though, is

A

 

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