How the Titans fared in the red zone in 2012: Pass defense

After covering the run offense, the pass offense, and the run defense in previous posts, it is now time for me to conclude my look at how the Titans performed in the red zone in 2012 with a look at their defense against the pass.

I noted in yesterday's post, the Titans struggled in the red zone in 2012. The run defense declined compared to 2011, particularly close to the goalline, but the pass defense was where we saw most of the decline. In 2011, the Titans finished 18th in red zone pass defense by Football Outsiders' DVOA as opponents completed 50% of their passes. In 2012, the Titans finished 29th in pass defense DVOA as opponents completed 63% of their red zone passing attempts.

Looking at how opponents fared in the red zone in 2012, one thing that stands out is the Titans only had 2 sacks on 84 dropbacks. That's an unadjusted sack rate of 2.4%, worse than the previous season's 4.1%, and less than half the league's unadjusted average of 5.1% (including scrambles among sack chances). I didn't pay any attention to field position when I wrote about how the Titans got their sacks, though that series covered just how the Titans got their sacks, not how they didn't get sacks. If you wish, though, you may blame Chad Henne only getting 4 red zone passing attempts in two games combined for the Titans' lack of red zone sacks.

If I have time, I'll write about them in more detail as part of a series, but the Titans ended up with two interceptions in the red zone, sort of. One of them was Zach Brown's moment of greatness and ignominy, when he buzzed and picked off a Ryan Tannehill pass against the Dolphins, then let the quarterback tackle him. The other was the sort of, the play that should have ended the Lions game, where Alterraun Verner picked off an errant Shaun Hill throw in the end zone, only to have his pick negated by Akeem Ayers stupidly roughing the passer.

How to handle penalties, especially ones not strictly related to why what happened on the play like this one, is an interesting part of this exercise. My general attitude is to ignore them-the action on the field that happened still happened, and I can recognize the good or bad parts of the play rather than just throwing out valuable information. In some cases, though, a penalty like holding or pass interference can completely change what otherwise would have happened on the play. There were three penalty-affected pass plays in the red zone, all of which had a penalty called on the defense. The Chargers accepted a neutral zone call on Mike Martin rather than a 7-yard gain on first-and-10, the Ayers roughing the passer call on Hill, and Ryan Mouton was flagged for pass interference against the Steelers. Opposing offenses were only flagged once in the red zone; the Titans declined a holding call on a third down incompletion.

Titans opponents were especially proficient in the deep red zone, completing 32 of 45 passes on plays between the 11 and the 20. Of those completions, though, 10 of them were of the "failed" variety, so the success rate was a more modest 51%. That's worse than the league average of about 37%, but both the completion percentage and success rate were both pretty much in line with 2011's numbers. What was not in line with 2011's numbers was 12 touchdown passes. That was double 2011's total from the deep red zone and more than double the league's average of about 5. The Titans faced an above-average number of deep red zone passing attempts, but not nearly enough to account for that figure. Short version: they allowed too many touchdown passes of 11-20 yards.

I noted in 2011 the Titans were particularly good at letting teams throw completions inside the 10, then tackling those players short of the goalline. The same was absolutely not true in 2012. Opponents completed 17 passes from the 10 and in last year, and 12 of them resulted in touchdowns. That's not so different from 2012's average for the entire league of 69%, but it's about 3 touchdowns worse than the 2011 Titans.

Adding those two parts together, than the 2012 Titans allowed about a combined 9 more touchdown passes than a reasonable red zone team like the 2011 Titans would have. Assuming those possessions result in field goals and some of those longer completions would have resulted in touchdowns anyway, that's as much as 36, but probably more like 20-25, extra points the 2012 Titans allowed. That's a far cry from the 141 points by which the Titans were outscored last year. In terms of single specific areas that can make a big difference in a team's fortune, though, that's about as big a difference as you can imagine. Jerry Gray, Gregg Williams, this is your challenge: Find a way for the Titans to have an average (or better) red zone pass defense in 2013. If you can, you'll be sitting pretty. If you cannot, well, you will probably involuntarily find yourself plying your trade elsewhere in 2013.