Upon further review: the Titans’ third down struggles

It’s been sort of overlooked in all the hullabaloo related to the quarterback position, but the Washington Redskins entered this past Sunday’s game with the worst third down conversion percentage of any team since the NFL started keeping track of the stat in 1991 or so, then converted 8 of their 16 third-down plays, including more in a single drive than they had in any single one of their previous couple games combined.  So, I thought I’d take a look at all of those third down plays to see if there were any trends that could be gleaned.

As with every time I write about play breakdowns, the customary disclaimers: I’m doing this off television footage, not coaching tape.  This means I won’t see things that may be necessary to understand what happened.  I don’t know the actual playcall for either the Titans or Redskins-I can guess, and sometimes I can be fairly sure those guesses are pretty good, but I know I’m missing wrinkles.  Much of the play in third downs and other key situations is based on a team’s specific tendencies, which I do not know.  I’ll ascribe blame to players; when I do so, I’m reasonably confident I’m right, but that doesn’t mean I am right.  What you see in this are the dogs that barked, not the dogs that didn’t bark.

Disclaimers made, on with the show.

1Q 14:18 3-17-WAS 9 C.Portis left end to WAS 12 for 3 yards (D.Ball).
Redskins in ace personnel (single-back, 2TE), Titans counter with nickel, rushing the four defensive linemen.  The playcall is a handoff to Portis off tackle left side, and the defense flows to that side and makes the tackle.  A conservative playcall in bad field position.

1Q 6:16 3-3-TEN 13 (Shotgun) D.McNabb pass short right to A.Armstrong to TEN 9 for 4 yards (J.McCourty).
Redskins in 11 personnel with the three receivers in a bunch formation to the right side. The Titans are in nickel, with Verner on the line in front of Galloway, front man in the trips, and McCourty inside slot and Finnegan outside to the offensive right.  Both LBs show an A-gap blitz, but Tulloch drops back. Galloway takes an inside release, pursued by Verner, Moss runs vertically from his outside position, and Armstrong runs a flat route from his inside position in the bunch. Finnegan as outside man takes Moss, so McCourty is on Armstrong.  McNabb does a good job of leading Armstrong, who catches the quick pass and turns upfield for two extra yards and the first down.  A good job of play design and execution by the Redskins.

1Q :05 3-16-WAS 40 (Shotgun) D.McNabb pass deep middle to J.Galloway to TEN 40 for 20 yards (M.Griffin).
Redskins in 11 personnel, with TE Cooley lined up next to McNabb in the gun on the opposite side of the RB.  Titans in nickel, with Verner playing the right slot.  The Titans rush only the four defensive linemen, and play what looks like Cover-2 behind it. Galloway from his left outside position runs a deep in.  This should be Griffin’s man, and he goes for a diving interception, but misses the ball.  McCourty does his job here, forcing Galloway to take an inside release.  Witherspoon is about 10 yards deep-reasonable given the circumstances and the man in front of him.  You’d like to see four get pressure on five, but really, it looks like this one is on Griffin.

2Q 14:14 3-4-TEN 34 (Shotgun) D.McNabb pass short right to S.Moss pushed ob at TEN 16 for 18 yards (C.Finnegan).
Redskins in 11, Titans in nickel.  Moss motions from split right to join a stack with Armstrong (front) and Cooley(back).  It looks like man, with Cooley on Hope, Verner on Armstrong, and Finny on Moss.  Armstrong takes an inside release, Cooley runs a vertical route, and Moss runs a <a href=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T46KH7r-dRw”>whip route</a>.  Finnegan overcommits badly to Moss’s inside move, and Santana gets the first down and a dozen extra yards.  Good use of the bunch by the Redskins again, and not Finny’s finest moment.

2Q 13:11 3-6-TEN 12 (Shotgun) D.McNabb pass short middle to S.Moss to TEN 5 for 7 yards (T.Brown).
Redskins have two tight ends and three wideouts in, with TE Fred Davis wide left, ex-Titan Roydell Williams slot left, Santana Moss wing left, Cooley right side, and Armstrong behind Cooley.  The Titans counter with dime, lining up Griffin on Davis, McCourty on Roydell, Verner on Moss, Mouton on Cooley, and Finnegan on Armstrong.  Ford is standing up at LDE, and the other three linemen have their hands down.  Hope is the single high safety.  Tulloch drops down to the offensive left right before the snap and rushes, creating a 5-man rush that looks like it comes from a 3-4.  The play is an inside shovel to Moss on the right side-Ford and Tulloch have run themselves out of the play, as has RDE Babin, so the Redskins have 3 to block 2.  Verner tries to follow Moss, but gets caught up in traffic.  Mouton actually sheds Cooley’s (lousy) block and has a chance to make the play, but Moss avoids his cut. Again, nice play design plus failure of execution yields a third down conversion.

2Q 11:31 3-2-TEN 2 M.Sellers up the middle to TEN 2 for no gain (J.Haye, D.Ball).
Goalline package for the Redskins, with three tight ends and two backs in an I-formation.  Titans have 8 guys on the line.  Tony Brown is lined up at 0-technique on the center and destroys him, and Jovan Haye does a good job of penetrating from his RDT spot to destroy the FB give to Sellers.  Excellent job by the interior defensive linemen this play.

3Q 5:31 3-6-TEN 37 (Shotgun) D.McNabb pass short middle to A.Armstrong to TEN 19 for 18 yards (J.McCourty).
Trips left, with Galloway, Cooley, and Armstrong, Roydell(?) wide right, and Williams in the backfield. Titans have Finny wide right, Verner in front of Galloway in front of the trips, and Griffin and McCourty initially about 6 yards downfield covering Cooley and Armstrong, it seems.  Nickel personnel.  Griffin drops down right before the snap and blitzes along with Verner, as Hayes drops off from his LDE spot.  The Redskins call slide protection left and do a good job of picking up the zone blitz and giving McNabb time to throw.  Armstrong runs what looks like an intermediate dig and finds a huge hole in the Titans zone coverage behind the short defenders covering the shallow receivers and in front of deep safeties Finnegan and Hope.  Not clear from the TV broadcast who if anybody should’ve been on Armstrong, but again a nice job by the Redskins.

3Q 4:05 3-13-TEN 22 (Shotgun) D.McNabb FUMBLES (Aborted) at TEN 26, and recovers at TEN 26. D.McNabb pass incomplete short right to C.Cooley (A.Verner).
Cooley split wide left, three wide receivers in a bunch near right.  McCourty on Cooley indicates zone, as does there not being idenifiable cover guys for the wideouts in the bunch.  McNabb drops, then picks up the shotgun snap.  After picking up the ball, he gets rid of it for Cooley, running a shallow drag across the middle.  It’s kind of a dumb place to throw the ball, as Cooley is near both Tulloch and Verner and would have to break both their tackles to get close to a first down, but he fails to haul it in after being hit by Verner.  I’m not sure if anything was open downfield, or if McNabb elected to get what he could because he dropped the snap and it was 3&13 in field goal range already.

4Q 15:00 3-5-WAS 36 (Shotgun) D.McNabb pass short right to C.Cooley pushed ob at TEN 49 for 15 yards (M.Griffin)[S.Tulloch].
The Redskins start with Cooley in the backfield, then move him out to left slot between two other wideouts, with Galloway split wide right and Williams in the backfield.  The Titans counter with Finnegan on Galloway, Verner covering Moss in the slot and McCourty playing off Armstrong(?) wide left.  The Titans rush 6, including Verner off the slot and Tulloch to the outside while Ball loops inside for a stunt.  I’m not sure who has Cooley-it’s either McRath or Witherspoon.  I /think/ McRath has Cooley in man coverage and Witherspoon is playing a shallow zone to take away Moss’s quick routes.  Cooley runs the same sort of drag he did the previous third down, McNabb moves within the pocket and throws a pass beyond Witherspoon’s underneath coverage Cooley can run onto in stride and get 8 more yards.  Either Witherspoon or McRath is at fault here, and I can’t tell you who for sure.

4Q 13:56 3-11-50 (Shotgun) D.McNabb pass short right to C.Cooley to TEN 33 for 17 yards (C.Finnegan).
Cooley is part of a bunch right with Moss and Galloway.  Thanks, Fox, for your awesome closeup shot of Stephen Tulloch when the ball is snapped, so I don’t really know what kind of coverage the Titans had or what kind of routes the receivers ran.  I /think/ Cooley runs a hook or stop route at the first down marker and Moss and Galloway ran deep routes against what looks like zone coverage.  Similar to the first pass, I think this is right in Verner’s zone, but he can’t quite make the play and then misses the tackle.  Titans rushed 4 against Washington’s 5 OL plus a chip from Williams, and McNabb enough time to set his feet and throw to Cooley.

4Q 12:27 3-12-TEN 35 (Shotgun) D.McNabb pass incomplete short middle to A.Armstrong.
Moss and Galloway stack right, Armstrong wide left, Cooley in-line TE left, Williams in the backfield, countered with Finnegan and Mccourty playing well off the outside receivers, Verner in the slot, Tulloch and McRath showing potential A-gap pressure, and Griffin at normal LB depth.  It’s another zone blitz, as both linebackers and Griffin blitz and Babin and Ball drop into coverage.  Armstrong runs a deep in-McCourty was shading outside because of the underneath and Armstrong was able to get inside.  McNabb threaded the ball over Ball to Armstrong, but he couldn’t hang on.  The pressure, 6 on 6, didn’t get there immediately, and McNabb was able to retreat and then fire to Armstrong.  This should’ve been another conversion, and the Titans are fortunate it wasn’t.  But, hey, any time you drop two defensive linemen in coverage and it doesn’t burn you, it’s not a disaster!

4Q 6:26 3-7-TEN 31 D.McNabb pass short right to C.Cooley to TEN 24 for 7 yards (C.Hope).
11 personnel and a 4-wide look with Cooley in the right slot.  Witherspoon is over him, with Verner over Moss in the other slot, and the outside CBs playing off.  Hope is 6 yards off over Cooley, and Griffin is playing deeper to the other side.  Witherspoon is playing outside technique on Cooley, designed to force him to the inside, after Hope comes up to talk to him.  Cooley and McNabb exchange looks, clearly a switch to the slant Cooley runs, Hope comes up in pursuit and cuts Cooley down, but he’s able to lunge forward for the first down.  Witherspoon giving up the inside route is an adjustment to what teams have been doing getting outside on Titans linebackers, and Hope was right make the switch, but he needs to make that tackle.  I give Hope credit for forcing the Redskins to change their play, but a demerit for failure to make the tackle short of the sticks.

4Q 5:35 3-10-TEN 24 D.McNabb pass incomplete short middle to J.Galloway.
Galloway and Armstrong to the right, Moss to the left on Cooley’s wing.  McCourty follows Moss in his motion from right to left, a clear indicator of man coverage.  Verner and Finnegan are slot and outside right, clearly taking Galloway and Armstrong in fashion, and Witherspoon is lined up over Cooley.  Verner ignores Armstrong’s vertical route and follows Galloway on his shallow drag route.  Galloway’s stop then start beats him, though, and he’s open, but McNabb’s pass is too far.  Another third down stop by no credit to the Titans thanks to a player simply getting beat.

4Q 4:10 3-4-TEN 35 D.McNabb sacked at TEN 39 for -4 yards (J.Ford).
I-formation, Galloway and Armstrong in a stack to the right.  The Titans are showing the four defensive linemen, then six other players in about an 8-yard span 4-5 yards off the line.  McNabb gets stepped on by C Casey Rabach and fals down, and Jacob Ford gets maybe the easiest sack of his career after he splits Cooley and LT Trent Williams.  Thanks for the gift, Redskins.

OT 8:27 3-15-TEN 30 D.McNabb pass incomplete deep right to A.Armstrong.
Armstrong wide right, Galloway and Moss near each other left side, Cooley wing right, with a single setback.  Finnegan is playing off Armstrong, McCourty and Verner off Galloway and Moss, as the Titans are in nickel and have dropped Griffin down in the box with the linebackers.  It’s 0-coverage, as both linebackers come slightly delayed and Hope comes as well on what’s either “check the back” or a ridiculously obviously, horribly delayed, and completely worthless safety blitz.  McNabb throws deep from Armstrong, but Finnegan has good man coverage and it falls harmlessly incomplete.  Was there another place McNabb could have thrown the ball?  Galloway seemed to think something better could have happened, judging by his reaction to the incompletion, but I can’t be sure.

Overview Thoughts:
I commented on it a couple times during the individual play-by-play breakdowns, but I thought Redskins OC Kyle Schottenheimer did a very good job of game-planning, especially with the bunch sets.   His experience playing against the Titans when he was with the Texans probably helped him out a lot in this game in knowing the Titans’ personnel and team tendencies, which is an advantage you don’t normally face in inter-conference games.

One of the dogs that didn’t bark was the defensive line and their ability to bring pressure.  You see it a couple times in the PBP breakdowns when the defensive line gets pressure, but unless you knew the Redskins’ offensive line had been beat up, you wouldn’t really have noticed it.  One thing I wonder about is how much Jason Jones’ injury-by far the best aspect of the Titans’ defense has been the play of the defensive tackles, but you really see the dropoff when both Jones and Tony Brown are in the game as opposed to only one of them.  When they only have one of them, good opposing quarterbacks can move around, reset their feet, and make throws.

And, when opposing quarterbacks do that, then can find space against the Titans’ back seven.  I have a longer post on this in the works, but what you see in this post is it’s not just one player, but several.  One tidbit from that post: the Titans a couple years ago talked about how they were playing a right safety and a left safety, and either guy could be in the box with the other guy playing high safety.  This year, that hasn’t been the case, as the Titans have gone back to the traditional strong safety and free safety roles, only with a twist: the SS is Michael Griffin and the FS is Chris Hope.

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