Do the Titans play better against the AFC South?

Last Monday, Nate Dunlevy, regular Q&A partner and Colts blogger extraordinaire for 18 to 88, took a look at the question of whether or not the AFC South teams played the Colts tough.  He found that on the whole the Jaguars, Titans, and Texans didn’t beat the Colts or play close games particularly often.  I suggested that the perception divisional games are tougher might come from the second matchup in a season being a closer game, but he took a look at that as well, and found, no, the results for the second matchup in a season look like the results for the first matchup.  I thought I’d take a look at the same question, but from the Titans perspective.

The hardest part of an analysis like this is setting the proper baseline.  Nate took a look at points for and against and the final result, which is a good way of looking at the problem, but I think it’s tough to set a baseline.  I’d prefer to use a somewhat different measure, one that enables to us to tell how well the Titans played, given the fact that they were playing that opponent, and that the Titans were that good this year.  Fortunately, we have a metric I like that suits our purpose: Football Outsiders‘ DVOA.

I suppose here I should insert a customary disclaimer that I’m a staff writer for FO and obviously pre-disposed to look upon their metrics favorably.  Still, I think DVOA is a good tool for this exercise.  For an example of why, I’ll use the second Titans-Colts game from 2003. The Colts had 340 yards, scored 29 points, and didn’t tun the ball over once.  That seems like a pretty good offensive performance.  The Titans, though, turned the ball over four freakin’ times on special teams fumbles that game, so the Colts had a lot of chances and were held to five field goals.  What seemed like a pretty bad defensive performance actually comes out to above-average, given that it was the Colts, and the Titans had a Defensive DVOA of -7.5% (negative = good for defense).

For this little exercise, I’ll be taking the individual game DVOA, for both offense and defense as well as total (incorporating both O and D, plus special teams), and comparing it to the Titans’ season average.  Using that 2003 game, the Titans for the year had a Defensive DVOA of -7.1%, so that single game Defensvie DVOA of -7.5% was actually a pretty average performance for them.  Offensively they had a good day, 29.7% compared to a season average of 15.4%, and total DVOA was 26.5%, while season-long was 23%.  That game grades out as a good offensive performance, an average defensive performance, and on par a very slightly above-average performance.

Doing that sort of exercise for all 9 years of the AFC South, we see the Titans overall had a DVOA profile that looks like this:

Total DVOA 2.27%
Offensive DVOA 1.99%
Defensive DVOA 0.38%

And here’s how they did against the AFC South

Total DVOA 2.10%
Offensive DVOA -1.59%
Defensive DVOA -2.09%

That’s a little bit better on defense, a little bit worse on offense, and on par pretty much exactly the same as their average performance.  Let’s take a look at how they performance against each of the other teams to see if any interesting detail emerges, starting with the Texans:

Texans Total DVOA Offensive DVOA Defensive DVOA
All Games 2.71% -2.08% -0.74%
1st Matchup 5.37% -8.80% -7.26%
2nd Matchup 0.06% 4.63% 5.77%

A brief note: because there are only 54 games total, 18 against each team, and 9 each of the first and second matchup category, I didn’t throw anything out-over the course of nine seasons, with 54 games, the effect of individual outliers is reduced.  As we go into more granular detail, though, the skew of individual outliers increases.  Take, for instance, this year’s Rusty Smith Game.  It was, in a word, horrific.  The Titans’ offensive DVOA that game was -119.5%.  Simply excluding that game raises the Titans’ Offensive DVOA average in the first matchup from the -8.8% you see in the table above to 2.49%.

Putting the Rusty Smith Experience aside, what stands out is that the Titans’ defense got worse from the first matchup to the second one, and that effect has actually been fairly consisent over time.  2010 was actually the first year the Titans’ defense performed appreciably better than it did in the second game, and several times (2002, 2004, 2008) it’s been much worse.

Now the Colts:

Colts Total DVOA Offensive DVOA Defensive DVOA
All Games 0.57% 4.24% 4.87%
1st Matchup 3.18% 6.91% 3.59%
2nd Matchup -2.04% 1.57% 6.16%

The magnitudes are not very large, but the Titans and the Colts both seem to have the other’s number: the Titans have done better offensively than you’d expect, but the defense has done worse than you’d expect, though again the magnitude is not enough to say anything particularly definitive.  Note again, though, the tendency of the Titans to do worse in the rematch.

Finally the Jaguars:

Jaguars Total DVOA Offensive DVOA Defensive DVOA
All Games 3.03% -6.92% -10.39%
1st Matchup 2.23% -4.67% -7.63%
2nd Matchup 3.83% -9.17% -13.14%

Well that is interesting.  We finally get a result with some magnitude for both teams: the Titans and Jaguars are both less effective offensively than we’d expect them to be, and by what over 18 games seems like a significant margin.  Even moreso, the effect seems to be even more exaggerated in the second matchup between the teams.  And it’s not just one or two fluke performances driving the averages down-the Titans have been below-average offensively in 6 out of 9 rematches, and above-average defensively in 7 games.  Only in this year’s lack of tackling demonstration and the dismal 2005 season-ender in Jacksonville did the Titans defense have below-average performances.

I thought what might be going on is you ended up with two coaches with similar preferred styles in Fisher and Del Rio trying effectively to “out-smashmouth” the other and consistently going with more effective running plays instead of throwing the ball.  I didn’t pull rushing and passing splits for offense or defense consistently, but spot-checked a couple games and that doesn’t seem to be what’s driving it.  For instance, see 2009-the Jaguars threw the ball consistently in both the first and second matchups and were great the first game and horrendous the second game.

Conclusions
Overall, the Titans have played against the AFC South pretty much the same as they’ve played against the rest of the league.  There’s a minor trend that the Titans play slightly worse in the rematch, but this is a very minor trend.  Any shifts below 10% of DVOA are not very significant, in my eyes, and we see only a couple of those-the Texans offense getting better, and the Jaguars and Titans both struggling on offense against each other.  Still, that’s not enough to change my mind to that there’s something significant going on.

Now, do the Titans play better against the NFC?  That seems like an interesting question, and may be the subject of a future post.

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