On the Titans’ offense after Week 15

I made one of my trips to Indianapolis for this Sunday’s game. I’ve skipped the Week 17 games that don’t matter for the Titans (2008, 2010), but otherwise have made it an annual trek since I started traveling to games in 2006. I wasn’t sure how to turn the trip into a post, whether a modified (“enhanced,” I like to think of it) recap, as a series of points about what I saw (didn’t really take that many notes this time), or write about some other issue.

Right now, though, the big topic in Titans land seems to be the offense, specifically the quarterback situation. Well, that’s a good thing to write about, since I see the offense as where Sunday’s game was lost. Sure, the scoreboard says the Colts scored 27 points, more than they scored in any previous game, but I really see the defense as giving up 13. The other two scores came on the pick-6, obviously not the defense’s fault, and Donald Brown’s long run that was a touchdown instead of, say, a 15 or 20 yard gain as the product of a defense playing in response to the game situation. Both field goals came from outside the red zone, and the touchdown drive covered all of 43 yards.

Were there some things the defense can do to improve? Absolutely, and they had some issues with Donald Brown and Delone Carter (two 3&1 conversions == bad MANBALL), but none with Joe Addai, and Dan Orlovsky had one decent throw the entire game. What I saw Sunday, though, was first and foremost a terrible offensive performance against a bad but not awful defense.

I circle my way back round to the quarterback situation, since the question at quarterback is much more akin to hamburger or Hamburger Helper than it is to filet mignon or rejected horse meat.

Chris Johnson? Well, let’s just say there was a reason I wrote that post saying I was done with Chris Johnson. After that, he had those two good games, and I think we all thought he might be a good player again. He didn’t have a great game against the Saints, but I thought they did a good job against him defensively. Except for two plays, Sunday was like the Texans game. The blocking wasn’t as consistently strong as it was that game, but except for a couple plays, Johnson ran like he did that game: without vision, decisiveness, or lateral agility.

I ended up watching the game with Nate Dunlevy, who noted CJ seemed disinterested in running through holes. My “favorite” was a 3-yard run early in the second quarter, when from my perch behind that end zone it seemed like the parting of the Red Sea gave Johnson a gigantic hole to run through, with no unblocked Colts defender within 10 yards. Naturally, he hesitated in the hole and picked up only those three yards. I also enjoyed the play where he thought he got the corner, then saw a defender, and dove head-first into the ground rather than get hit. Those are probably eminently sensible business decisions based on his earnings and future health, but it’s time for the Titans to make a business decision of their own and ditch CJ. If I’m the Titans, I think very seriously about seriously limiting Johnson’s work the last two games so the injury guarantees don’t kick in. (Note: I approximate this at roughly zero percent chance of happening.)

My mental heuristic for how the Colts would win game went more or less (a) the Colts’ offense doesn’t shoot themselves in the foot, stringing together a couple drives (check), (b) Chris Johnson is awful (check), and (c) the Titans’ wideouts can’t get open (yet another check). Until the Colts decided to start playing soft coverage on the drive beginning with 9:54 to play in the fourth quarter, Titans receivers struggled to gain separation from bad cornerbacks. Successful throws had to be forced into small holes. Jacob Lacey, who had the pick and 12 tackles, was benched earlier in the year for poor play. Wasn’t a big issue this game. The other corner was rookie Chris Rucker, making his second NFL start. Except for maybe the injury-riddled Jaguars and Rams, these are the worst starting corners in the league, and the Titans’ couldn’t beat them.

Honestly, though, I’m not surprised. The Titans have two players who deserve to be thrown the ball, and one of them is on IR. Nate Washington is the Titans’ best and most productive wideout, and it’s not even close. Lavelle Hawkins led Titans’ wideouts with 88 yards receiving. 50 of those 88 yards came with the Colts’ up two scores in the fourth quarter, and fully in prevent mode. It’s one thing to catch passes when it matters, and another thing to catch 5-yard passes when the defense doesn’t have anybody less than 8 yards downfield. Pardon me if I discount his numbers. By the way, before this game, Hawkins was the 77th-best (of 82) wideout in football in both efficiency rate and value. Damian Williams was 69th, and I don’t see his value increasing much after two catches on six targets against a dismal defense. Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins seem miscast as receivers who actually get thrown the ball more than occasionally.

For various reasons, I end up not being able to write all the posts I think about writing. One of those posts is, wasn’t Ben Troupe a more productive player his first three seasons than Jared Cook? Cook was showcased at the end of last season and was much better at catching the ball downfield, but Troupe his first two seasons had 88 catches, more than Cook has had in his first almost-three, and, especially in 2005, the Titans’ wide receiving corps was really no better than it is now, plus McNair rarely threw downfield. It was Collins’ benching and Vince Young’s insertion into the starting lineup that really saw Troupe phased out of the lineup and Bo Scaife playing a much bigger role that really made Troupe what he was. Right now, I think there’s a good argument Jared Cook is a bigger bust than Ben Troupe. True, Cook is a more efficient player than either Hawkins or Williams, but he’s not nearly as efficient as Washington, and his presence in the game frequently signals the Titans plan to pass, because they don’t trust his blocking. The Troupe question does not, in my mind, have an obvious answer.

And now we get to the quarterbacks. From what I’ve seen, Matt Hasselbeck is neither the problem nor the solution. He does a couple things consistently well, namely throw accurate short and intermediate passes, particularly off the 3- and 5-step drop game. He does not have the arm to threaten defenses downfield, and the Titans lack a big receiver who can provide a good vertical threat or even a jump ball target. Kenny Britt was their only receiver over 6’1″ or who weighed 200 pounds. They’re basically running a bunch of waterbugs out there who have to rely on quickness. That makes it hard to win consistently. The problem is compounded by Chris Johnson’s struggles, as defenses don’t have to respect the running game. Hasselbeck must construct an offense on his own, and, frankly, he’s not good enough to do so. Few quarterbacks are, and the Titans’ haven’t had a quarterback good enough to be a good offense on his own since Steve McNair was in his prime.

I’m not going to write a detailed evaluation of Jake Locker’s play on Sunday, like I planned to when I thought he was likely to start. As I noted earlier, the Colts had shifted to prevent mode, and I find little interesting to say about completing 5-yard passes against corners playing 8 yards off. What is clear is something I saw before the game: Locker presents two threats Hasselbeck does not. First, mobility. He’s legitimately fast in a way. I’m not sure he’s hugely elusive, but he gets from Point A to Point B with greater rapidity than I think Vince Young did later in his career (I suspect Young’s hip injury from 2007 affected his mobility more than it’s been let on). Second, arm strength. He can attack the defense vertically, and even shorter passes seem much crisper than Hasselbeck’s.

Frankly, inserting Locker in the game when the Titans did, at 6:13 of the fourth quarter, did not make sense for me. I thought Locker should have been playing at the start of the prior drive, at 9:54, would have considered making a change at halftime. Notwithstanding the drive at the end of the second quarter, it was clear to me that the Titans’ offense would not have consistent success with Hasselbeck in the game. The whole of the parts on the Titans’ offense was less than the whole of the parts of the Colts’ defense.

As I noted during the game on twitter, though, that doesn’t mean I would have played Locker on Sunday, and it doesn’t mean I would start him the last two games, except that I might start him Week 17 if I know the Texans are locked into a particular spot and will not be trying. At this point of the season, and particularly with this loss, we know the Titans are not serious Super Bowl threats. It would be a good accomplishment to get to the playoffs, and they might be able to win a game if they got there, but the ultimate prize is beyond their capability this year.

That means the most important thing is the long-term future, and every decision should be made with the long-term future in mind. The best way to secure your long-term future in the NFL is to get an above-average or better starter at quarterback. Those players all have the ability to make plays within structure. I don’t want Jake Locker to learn he has to depart from structure to make plays, and unfortunately, departing from structure was the only way the Titans could have won Sunday’s game, and the offense as a whole simply isn’t good enough to reliably make plays inside of structure. I’m probably particularly sensitive to this because of the events of five years ago (really a fun bunch of games to watch, and I did really enjoy those wins), but I firmly believe that if Vince Young could have played in 2008 the way he did the second half of 2009, the Titans can beat the Ravens and go on and win the Super Bowl, and 2006 taught Young that (a) he was good enough to win, and (b) he could win by departing from structure.

Mind you, without actually knowing either player, I’m a lot more comfortable with Locker’s mental makeup and how he’d react to adversity (read I don’t expect him to end up in any off-field mind-related headlines), but I want him to learn the right lessons, and right now there’s not enough around him on offense that could leave him with the right lessons.  It’s my concern for Jake Locker’s future, and only my concern for Jake Locker’s future, that leads me to wanting the Titans to start Matt Hasselbeck the last two games, even if Locker gives them the better chance to win.

PS: Jake Locker has targeted Nate Washington 19 times on 65 passes, or 29% of the time. Damian Williams has also been targeted 16 times. Washington was Locker’s target on five of his first seven attempts Saturday, but was not targeted on any of his final nine throws. I believe the highest target rate of recent vintage is Roddy White’s 148 targets on 434 Matt Ryan passes in 2008, or 34.1%, but that’s off the top of my head.

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