How the Titans intercepted the ball in 2012, part one

Self-Publicity Note: The PDF version of Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, went on sale Monday evening in the Football Outsiders store. This is Football Outsiders' annual volume covering the NFL, with in-depth chapters on every NFL team, team and player projections, comments on as many key fantasy football players as we can fit in, some college content, and other good stuff. I was back on the Titans beat for this year's book. The essay covers some familiar themes from here, plus some other things, and unlike basically all of my work here was not only edited by someone else but was the subject of multiple revisions. In addition to the Titans content, I also wrote about the Texans and did the main Cardinals essay.

After covering how Jake Locker was intercepted, I turn my attention to how the Titans intercepted the passer in 2012.

When I did this series in two parts last year, I noted the Titans intercepted fairly few passes, but I wasn't sure I was care. It's hard to judge just how many interceptions a team should have, and it's a particularly inconsistent stat from year to year on the defensive side of the ball. That's one of the reasons I found it so curious Gregg Williams-led defenses kept ranking at the bottom of the league when it came to intercepting passes. I speculated an improved pass rush would lead to a better interception rate in 2012, but I wasn't sure I should care.

As it happens, the Titans did have a better pass rush in 2012 and did intercept opposing passers at a higher rate. They finished with 19 interceptions on the season for an interception rate of 3.4%, fifth-best in the league. Again on the defensive side of the ball, though, how the Titans got their interceptions matters as much or more than how many interceptions they got. Thus, this two-part series. I'll cover the games before the bye week in this post, then conclude the series with a look at the other interceptions and some tentative conclusions.

Standard disclaimers apply in spades to this analysis. I do not know the offensive or defensive call on any particular play. For these breakdowns, I'm concentrating on the things I saw that I perceived as important to why the interception happened. There may be other interesting things happening on the play that I don't write about, as well as things relating to the interception I don't see and therefore am not including in my analysis. I don't know what a player was thinking on any given play, and I haven't tried asking them either. These are my takes, as informed as I can make them, but not definitive explanations of What Actually Happened.

INTERCEPTION #1: Week 2, at San Diego
3-10-SD 31 (2Q 4:23) (Shotgun) P.Rivers pass deep left intended for M.Floyd INTERCEPTED by A.Verner at TEN 28. A.Verner to TEN 39 for 11 yards (D.Rosario).
Armpunt by Philip Rivers. The Titans bring a blitz and are in man-1 behind it, more or less. The Chargers try to get a coverage edge by lining up Floyd and Royal in a stack, but outside man Verner takes inside man's Floyd deep corner while inside man Mouton takes outside man Royal's inside release. Floyd is open, but Rivers' throw is a bit short as he's off-balance and under pressure from Will Witherspoon's unblocked blitz. Deep safety Robert Johnson displays Michael Griffin-like ballskills and whiffs jumping for the pick, but Verner is able to wrest the ball away for the pick. Verner winning the ball away is what makes the pick, but a number of good defensive plays here, starting with the initial coverage adjustment.
 
INTERCEPTION #1A: Week 3, vs. Detroit
2-7-TEN 7 (4Q :28) (Shotgun) Sh.Hill pass short left intended for N.Burleson INTERCEPTED by A.Verner at TEN -5. Touchback.
PENALTY on TEN-A.Ayers, Roughing the Passer, 4 yards, enforced at TEN 7 – No Play.
This play doesn't count, but it still happens so I'm writing about it anyway. With the Lions needing two scores late, the Titans are running picket fence-2, with five defenders (the fence) standing on the goalline and two more (-2) standing in the end zone. Something goes wrong for the Lions on this play-either Hill misses his throw badly or Burleson or Young runs the wrong route. Either way, the ball ends up going right to Verner, who's not particularly near either Lions receiver. A gift, albeit one soon taken away.
 
INTERCEPTION #2: Week 5, at Minnesota
3-11-TEN 24 (2Q :24) (Shotgun) C.Ponder pass deep left intended for K.Rudolph INTERCEPTED by R.Johnson at TEN 2. R.Johnson ran ob at TEN 4 for 2 yards.
Christian Ponder's first interception of the season. The Titans are showing a 2-deep look at the snap but rotate into something much more Cover-3-like. Ayers, rushing from a wide standing up position, gets inside of RT Loadholt, while RDE Wimbley is able to get inside of LT Kalil and add to the pressure. Ponder rolls to his left and throws for an open Rudolph. The throw is an errant one Rudolph only manages to tip. Verner gets the next tip on it, then RoJo grabs it just because he goes out of bounds to cost the Vikings 3 points just before the half. While the Titans did some decent things on this play, this is mostly the result of bad offense and a little bit of luck.
 
INTERCEPTION #3: Week 5, at Minnesota
3-12-TEN 48 (3Q 13:12) (Shotgun) C.Ponder pass deep right intended for J.Simpson INTERCEPTED by J.Babineaux at TEN 30. J.Babineaux to TEN 40 for 10 yards (T.Gerhart).
Ponder's second interception, also against a 2-deep look that ends up as Cover-3. I think Ponder expects Harvin's underneath crosser to yank short zone defender Babineaux, but it does not. A mix of good defensive play by JBabs and a bad offensive one, I'd say, though if a Titans quarterback did this I'd probably be yelling at him here.
 
INTERCEPTION #4: Week 6, vs. Pittsburgh
1-10-TEN 32 (2Q 1:38) (No Huddle, Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass deep right intended for A.Brown INTERCEPTED by J.McCourty at TEN 12. J.McCourty to TEN 12 for no gain (A.Brown).
A 2-deep shell that ends up being a 2-deep coverage, for the most part. Roethlisberger looks left, identifies Cover-2, and throws backside for what he thinks is an open Brown in the deep outside void. Only, McCourty instead of staying shallow sinks with Brown and is able to leap up for the interception. I can't know how much of what he did was designed and how much was good opportunism. Either way, good play by him and perhaps some credit to Jerry Gray as well.
 
INTERCEPTION #5: Week 7, at Buffalo
3-7-BUF 39 (4Q 3:03) (Shotgun) R.Fitzpatrick pass short right intended for D.Jones INTERCEPTED by J.McCourty (D.Morgan) at TEN 48. J.McCourty to TEN 48 for no gain (D.Jones). D.Jones underthrown along sideline.
Underthrown is the Buffalo official scorer's description of this play, but what actually happens is more interesting. One of two things happens, and I can't be sure which. First, it looks pretty similar to the previous interception. McCourty, instead of staying in a zone coverage location, sticks with the receiver and intercepts what might have been a comeback route. Second, Fitz was actually trying to throw the out, but Morgan's pressure forced him to sail the throw to McCourty. Either way, it's a good defensive play that creates the key turnover, but I'm not sure which of Morgan or McCourty deserves most of the credit.
 
INTERCEPTION #6: Week 8, vs. Indianapolis
1-10-TEN 32 (3Q 7:29) (No Huddle) A.Luck pass deep right intended for R.Wayne INTERCEPTED by M.Griffin at TEN -3. Touchback (R.Wayne).
From an offensive perspective, I'm not sure what happens here as Reggie Wayne heads to the corner on the double move while Andrew Luck throws to the middle of the field. Whatever happened, Michael Griffin is playing deep centerfield and manages to haul in the pop fly. Nice diving grab by Griffin, but this one is a bit of a gift.
 
INTERCEPTION #7: Week 10, at Miami
3-1-MIA 47 (2Q 14:17) R.Tannehill pass short right intended for C.Clay INTERCEPTED by C.McCarthy (A.Ayers) at MIA 49. C.McCarthy for 49 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Tipped passes at the line taketh away, and tipped passes at the line giveth. Ayers isn't rushing, just kind of lurking as his man TE Fasano stays in to block. Back Clay is split outside and runs a short comeback route, something teams ran so successfully and so often against the Titans last year I started thinking of it as "free money." From his lurking position, Ayers has an easy tip and McCarthy is the beneficiary of a fortunate deflection.
 
INTERCEPTION #8: Week 10, at Miami
3-1-MIA 16 (2Q 2:00) R.Tannehill pass short right intended for A.Fasano INTERCEPTED by A.Ayers at MIA 25. A.Ayers to MIA 23 for 2 yards (A.Fasano).
Fasano runs a short curl from his inline spot. Ayers jams him at the line and in his hip pocket the whole way before finally beating the tight end to the ball. Excellent defensive play by Akeem.
 
INTERCEPTION #9: Week 10, at Miami
3-10-TEN 19 (4Q 11:24) (Shotgun) R.Tannehill pass short left intended for J.Gaffney INTERCEPTED by Z.Brown at TEN 16. Z.Brown to MIA 37 for 47 yards (R.Tannehill).
Jerry Gray and Zach Brown beat a rookie quarterback. Brown and McCarthy are sugaring the A-gaps right before the snap. Immediately after the snap, Tannehill turns to his left and completely loses track of Brown. He thinks he has the short crosser from the outside man with a seam clearout, but Brown followed his eyes and has an easy interception. Bad play by the rookie, good one by the defense.
 
Tomorrow, I'll cover the Titans' last 10 interceptions of the season and try to draw some broader conclusions about interceptions.
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