The story of the 2011 Tennessee Titans defense, and how it compared to the 2010 version of the same defense, is a somewhat more complicated one than it seems at first blush, but one I’ll sort out another day. For today’s purposes, though, suffice it to say that when the Titans couldn’t rush the passer the second half of 2010, the Titans’ pass defense was horrid. In 2011, the Titans may have been even worse than they were at rushing the passer the second half of 2010, but the pass defense was better than horrid.
With largely the same personnel in the secondary, this improvement was an unexpectedly pleasant outcome. Thus my defensive MVP is the Titans’ best defensive back in 2011. Notwithstanding my affection for Jason McCourty, that was cornerback Cortland Finnegan.
I feel like I’ve been a little up and down on Finnegan in the past, though probably no more than most Titans fans. I thought he was probably somewhat over-praised early in his career, then somewhat under-praised. It seems like Finnegan isn’t drawing quite as much praise as I’d expect. I think he’s a fairly clear choice as team defensive MVP, but it seems his lack of traditional success statistics is hurting his case. How, after all, can he be an easy defensive MVP choice when he only has one interception and had only three-quarters as many tackles (exactly, 75 v. 100) as he did last year?
The reason, I think, is fairly straight-forward: teams weren’t throwing at him as much. He was the most-targeted cornerback on the team last year, and featured in the box score play-by-play 80 times on passing plays. This year, Football Outsiders charting data isn’t complete yet, but the data thus far shows McCourty with more targets. Box score play-by-play, which is complete, features him 61 times. He’s only being targeted three-quarters as much (roughly), so it’s no surprise his conventional numbers have fallen off.
Where Finnegan’s numbers haven’t fallen off, but instead have improved greatly, is what happens when teams do throw the ball in his direction. FO Head Honcho Aaron Schatz ran the numbers based on the data as of December 26, and Finnegan came out ninth in the league in Success Rate on passes thrown his direction. Since then, we have a little bit more data, and Finnegan’s numbers only improved. He really has done an excellent job on coverage this year.
The lack of interceptions also doesn’t really bother me at all. Interceptions are rare occurrences. One interception this year compared to five in 2009 is only four plays over the course of the season. Those plays are important, of course, but they’re just four plays. A better comparison is Finnegan’s 11 official passes defensed this year, after 9 last year, and on fewer targets. Passes defensed can vary more on the whim of the official scorer than other NFL stats, but I think those are a good sign that Finnegan was more active this year.
I suppose I should also mention Finnegan played the slot this year when the Titans went to their nickel package. Both McCourty and Alterraun Verner are better on the outside, and that position was a bit of a concern for me heading into the season. Finnegan wasn’t quite c. 2010 Charles Woodson there. Being not Defensive Player of the Year worthy is no shame, and not enough to prevent me from considering Finnegan the Titans’ 2011 defensive MVP.