On the Titans’ offense at the bye week

NFL analysts tend not to make bold predictions. Things don’t normally chage that much. It’s a lot easier to say things will continue to be like they have been than to say anything interestingly different will happen.  I spend some time in that zone, but try particularly hard when it comes to the Titans to give the best prediction I can, even if I’m wrong.  Sometimes this works out rather badly, such as in 2008 when I didn’t think the Titans would win more than 8 games, and I ended up writing an “oops” post when they were 5-0.

Through the first 5 games of the 2011 season, the Tennesee Titans have had, contrary to most predictions, a pretty effective offense. Most observers who thought the Titans offense would be better than it was the second half of 2010 expected any improvement to come from a resurgent Chris Johnson and the ground game. That the Titans would rely heavily on the running game, notwithstanding its great struggles in 2010 and lack of any likely cause for improvement, was a big part of my deeply pessimistic outlook heading into the 2010 season.

And, well, I was half right.  The Titans’ ground attack has, in fact, been pretty much about as bad as it was in 2010. The offensive line hasn’t been opening up holes. Chris Johnson hasn’t been hitting what holes there are effectively. Even against a mediocre opponent, which the Steelers had been, the running game was not good enough to be the focus of a sustaining offense. If the Titans were relying on the running game as the foundation of their offense, they would very likely rank near the bottom of the NFL standings in terms of offensive effectiveness.

Of course, the Titans don’t rank near the bottom of the NFL in terms of offensive effectiveness.  As I’ve tried to chronicle here, the Titans are not acting like most years of the Jeff Fisher era and relying on the running game a lot. Instead, they’ve spent an awful lot of energy throwing the ball around.  There’s a reason I started keeping track of their playcalling, especially on third down, and I was right to do so: the Titans have virtually abandoned running the ball on third down, calling 2 runs to 58 pass plays on third down and more than 1 yard to go.

You’d think that sort of extreme playcalling would lead to the Titans being too predictable, which would lead to problems. Funnily enough, that hasn’t been the case.  The Titans are only a slightly above average team on first down, ranking 13th per Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings.  They’re a slightly below average team on second down, coming in 22nd in the league.  Come third down, though, they’re 4th best in the league, with particularly good results on 3rd and medium (3rd in the league) and 3rd and long (4th in the league).

It’s awesome to be really good on 3rd down. Coaches rightly talk all the time about staying on the field or getting off the field on third down. That’s where drives goes to live or die.  Unfortunately, third downs are also prone to providing a skewed perspective of how good a team is, and first and second downs tend to be more representative because they comprise a bigger share of a team’s plays. Unless there’s something unusual going on, as the Titans get more third down plays, unless the offense improves, their third down performance is likely to look more like their performance on first and second downs, and that has bad news.

There are two caveats to this sort of analysis, though. First, some quarterbacks tend to be particularly good at converting third downs, including third and long. Peyton Manning and the Colts were consistently like this for a long period of time, and other teams with strong quarterbacking regularly rank among the league’s best teams in third-and-long. As good as he’s been for the Titans so far in 2011, Matt Hasselbeck’s career indicates he is not one of those quarterbacks, though. In 2010, the Seahawks were slightly better on third down than they were on first and second downs, though they were still bad overall. In 2009, they ranked worse on third downs than they did on first and second downs.  Even in 2005, when the Seahawks were at their best, they ranked worse on third down than they did on first and second downs, and that ranking was buoyed by particularly good performances running on 3rd and short. There’s no evidence Hasselbeck is particularly good on third downs.

The second caveat is that this sort of analysis assumes that the offense doesn’t get better. That’s why I wrote about Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins last week. Thus far, they simply haven’t been good enough. That’s been true on first downs, on second downs, and particularly on third downs. Even when Hasselbeck has found them on third down, too often it hasn’t resulted in a completion-that was particularly true against the Steelers, when Hawkins caught several passes and the Titans still didn’t get a first down. Williams and Hawkins, and you could throw Jared Cook’s name in there if you want (who deserves a post of his own), need to be more effective players. If they do, then it’s possible the Titans offense should be able to stay good. If not, then regression is the offense’s likely fate, and that means fewer wins for the Titans as a team.

Now, how good can the defense be? That’s a subject for another post.