On the Tennessee Titans’ 2011 season

Consider this a sort of season preview post.  I’m already on record picking the Titans to win fewer than their Vegas Over/Under line of 6.5 this year.  If you put a gun to my head, I’d go with a record of 5-11.  That’s not really the sort of season preview this post will be, though.  Rather, this is a sort of riff on some things I wrote that ended up in Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 that I don’t think I’ve really addressed here.

Last October, I wrote about some of the problems the Titans were having in the run game.  The point of that post was that the Titans were having problems running up the middle, but those problems weren’t new from the Titans’ more effective rushing attack in 2009.  Rather, the problems the Titans had in 2010 came from being less effective running outside, particularly to the right side.  Much changed for the Titans the second half of the season, but those problems running outside to the right continued, and the Titans were still ineffective running up the middle.

The most interesting question, which I addressed in part but not wholly in that post, is why that happened, and why the Titans couldn’t fix the problem.  The departure of Alge Crumpler, and Bo Scaife’s difficulty blocking certainly played a role.  There were a couple other causes that I didn’t address in that post that also played a role.

As I wrote in the post, teams concentrated on setting the edge with their defensive personnel and not letting CJ get the corner.  The normal response to teams overplaying the outside is to run between the tackles.  This didn’t work for a couple reasons.  First, the interior offensive line did indeed struggle.  Watching the Texans for FOA2011, I was struck by just how good they were, and how bad the Titans were, at interior offensive linemen getting to the second level.  When the Titans ran up the middle, too often the opposing defensive tackles occupied Harris, Amano, and Scott, and the linebackers were unblocked and free to make the tackle.

Chris Johnson actually in some way exacerbated the Titans’ problems, particularly running up the middle, last year.  The Titans’ scheme demanded decisiveness from a runner, while CJ frequently provided patience.  Too often, the struggles of the offensive line and the scheme meant that the Titans got 0 yards instead of 2 or -3 yards instead of 0.  Running between the tackles, it was crucial that CJ attack what holes there were immediately, before the linebackers had time to react.  He didn’t, and teams were able to continue playing their linebackers off the line of scrimmage.

Running up the middle wouldn’t have been the only way to threaten those linebackers.  Throwing the ball might have worked.  It’s funny, the way most people think of threatening defenses is with the deep pass forcing them to put an extra player in the box, and the Titans were actually good at that.  Vince Young ranked fifth in the NFL in passing DVOA, FO’s per-play measure of productivity, and the Titans ranked first in the league in the percentage and in success rate of pass thrown 21-30 yards downfield.  That didn’t really affect the play of the linebackers, though.

Rather, what was needed to manipulate the linebackers was quicker short and intermediate passes.  The Titans’ problem, though, was neither Vince Young nor Kerry Collins was effective throwing short and intermediate timing routes.  The Titans used Young’s and Collins’ strengths as effectively as they could with the limited weapons they had, but that wasn’t nearly effective enough.  Thus, the Matt Hasselbeck signing.  Hasselbeck’s strengths are particularly throwing those short and intermediate routes.

There were no personnel changes on the offensive line, and we saw mixed signs from the preseason of how effective they’ll be at getting to the second level.  Now the CJ is actually around, I’ll be very interested in watching if the Titans are able to do a better job of calling rushing plays where CJ’s patience is more of an asset than a liability.

Note that to this point I have only discussed the offense.  That’s the problem the Titans faced offensively, and a key way I think they’ll try to solve it this season.  (There are a couple things that’ll play a role I didn’t talk about, like a likely focus on players who have more to offer after the catch.  That’s one of the reasons I think Cook will play a bigger role, and I think it helped the Hawk’s cause as well.)  The Titans also struggled defensively at least the second half of last year.

Now, it didn’t really surprise me to see the Titans’ defense struggle the second half of last year, as their strong defensive performance was dependent on what I thought was an unsustainably strong pass rush.  With Tony Brown missing more time and being less effective when he was in the lineup and Jason Jones only being intermittently effective, the Titans’ lacked a consistent pass rush between the tackles.  The result was opposing passers had too much time to find holes in the Titans’ defense.

Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray brings with him a new scheme, using larger defensive linemen both at tackle and on the end to set the edge, and more size in general, while the front seven plays less aggressively.  If that sounds familiar at all, it should: what Gray wants to do defensively against the run is precisely what Titans’ opponents did last year to stop the Titans’ offense. Kind of ironic, if you ask me.

Here’s the thing that gets me, though: the Titans defensively last year were actually pretty good against the run.  Sure, opponents ran the ball a lot against the Titans (only 6 teams faced more rushing attempts) for a lot of yards (they ranked 20th-best in rushing yards allowed), but the Titans faced more plays last year than any other team in the NFL.  The Titans actually ranked 4th in the NFL in rushing TDs allowed and 7th in yards per carry.  By Football Outsiders numbers, they ranked 3rd-best in the NFL in rush defense DVOA.  In my view, the Titans actually had a very good rushing defense last year.

But Tom, you say, don’t you remember the Jaguars game?  The Titans were abused defensively by a bigger, more physical team and had the ball pounded down their throats on the ground.

My rejoinder: That’s true, insofar as it goes.  The Titans had a very good rushing defensive, but it certainly wasn’t perfect. They struggled in the Jaguars game, but it really wasn’t that bad.  The Jaguars ran the ball a lot, and with pretty good success, but it wasn’t great success.  Even when they did score, they faced third and fourth-down conversions that if they’d failed on, they wouldn’t have scored TDs or even points on.  With only relatively slight improvement in the quality of the Titans’ rush defense that game, the Jaguars struggle.  As it was, they only scored 17 points. The Titans’ actual problem that game was they had an atrocious game on offense, their worst of the season after The Rusty Smith Experience, and only scored 6 points.

The Titans’ defense real problem was year was the pass defense was horrible when the interior pass rush dropped off.  Jerry Gray’s biggest problem is how to fix that.  We don’t know quite how he plans to fix that.

One way he seems to be interested in doing that is by bringing extra players to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.  If you’re a newspaper columnist, you can write about things like the Titans are playing more aggressively.  If you’re like me, though, you have a somewhat different perspective.

Broadly speaking, there are a two ways to have an effective pass defense in the NFL: you can rush 4 and play coverage or you can blitz and play roulette with your defense.  The Titans for the past decade or so have been a disciple of the former strategy; Chuck Cecil made some moves toward blitzing more, but fundamentally the Titans were dependent on getting pressure with the front 4.  Within that broad strategy, though, there are differences in thought in how teams play, and the Titans and their attacking one-gap style were at the aggressive end of the cover 4 strategy.  Even in years like 2009 when the rush defense struggled, the Titans had a disproportionately good rank in the number of runs stopped for a loss.  To speak of playing aggressively without recognizing the Titans did play aggressively with that attacking one-gap style does not make any sense to me.

When Gray was hired, one of the things I and I think other expected was some more 3-4 looks.  The 3-4 really gives you the opportunity to run a hybrid of blitzing and rushing 4.  The zone blitz many 3-4 teams run frequently is precisely this sort of concept-bringing pressure in unexpected ways that create pressure on the offensive line while remaining sound in coverage behind the pass rush.

The key to the real schematic 3-4 like the Steelers and the Ravens run (ignore the Wade Phillips 3-4 the Texans are running; as NFL Films guru Greg Cosell likes to note, that’s schematically a 4-3 Under, not a 3-4) is what I like to think of as modularity: you don’t know on any given play if either or both of Steelers OLBs James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley are rushing or dropping into coverage, as they’re both more than capable of doing both.  That demands different qualities in defenders than the Titans have valued in recent times.  I thought Gray’s acquisition would bring more players that might fit that role, and drafting linebacker Akeem Ayers seemed to promise more of that mold, but he remains sui generis, the only player who really fits that modularity.

If you doubt this lack of modularity, take a look at the Titans’ roster defensively.  The roster of 3-4 teams typically features a relatively small number of defensive lineman and a larger number of linebackers, since they’re the players who move around and do different things.  The Packers, for instance, have 6 DL and 10 LBs.  The Jets are slightly different philosophically, relying more on DBs than LBs as modular parts: they have 6 DL and 8 LBs, plus 11 DBs.  The Titans, by contrast, are carrying 10 defensive lineman.

You simply do not carry 10 defensive linemen if you are not planning on playing at least 4 of them on a very regular basis.  There are a couple holdovers from last year’s defensive front, but not that many, and those that remain tend to be the larger players.  The 10 DL the Titans are carrying are not modular parts: they’re guys who line up on the line with their hand in the dirt.  This doesn’t discount the occasional possibility of the zone blitz, but if the Titans are going to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, that pressure is going to come from the front 4 or blitzers.

You can read about the defensive ends and the defensive tackles, but I’m skeptical that Gray’s schematic pressure for less aggressive play for the defensive line, and bigger and less quick players at defensive tackle and defensve end will translate to better pass rushers.  It seems very likelly to me that the Titans’ defensive line will be, at best, as (in)effective at rushing the passer as it was the second half of last year.  Any pressure the Titans’ defense gets seems more likely to come from bringing more than 4 players.  It’s not clear to me, though, how frequently his blitzes will hit home, and why substantially the same group of players that couldn’t cover when there were 7 of them somehow will be able to cover when there are fewer of them.

Overall, I have relatively mixed feelings about the offense, and expect it to be the same sort of average or a little below we’ve seen the last couple years.  Defensively, though, the Titans appear to have surrendered their strengths in favor of fixing a problem that didn’t exist.  To me, that’s the kind of recipe that’s likely to produce a long and tiring season.  I don’t expect them to be one of the couple worst teams in the league, I still want them to go 16-0, of course, but judged on wins and losses a 7-9 season would be about the best I’d hope for.

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