On Thursday, our man Bernd Buchmasser took a deep dive into how the Tennessee Titans shocked the one-time Super Bowl favorite Kansas City Chiefs and earned themselves a date with the New England Patriots this weekend. Here at the Pulpit this week, we’ve analyzed Dick LeBeau’s defense that’s older than a solid percentage of our readers (love you guys!), we’ve looked at how New England’s history with mobile quarterbacks may play a role in containing Heisman-winner and occasional fullback Marcus Mariota, and we’ve learned that DeMarco Murray is out and that another Heisman winner, Derrick Henry, will be Tennessee’s lead back.
The point here is to hopefully give you something a bit different; the lowdown on the Titans from the perspective of a Patriots writer that lives about 5 miles from Nissan Stadium and usually goes to 5 or 6 Titans games a year.
(My toes are almost all the way thawed out from the New Year’s Eve game against the Jags, by the way. Thanks for asking.)
We know Marcus Mariota has wheels. We know Derrick Henry is a big F’ing back. We know Tennessee’s offensive line has taken some steps backwards after going toe-to-toe with the Dallas Cowboys for best in the biz last year. We know that trading the #1 overall pick with the Rams looked like an Ocean’s Eleven heist last year and now it’s like “We all got what we wanted, so, good job, guys, I guess?” We know all that. Here’s what I’ve learned from watching the Titans all year from the 100 level (and occasionally 300 level).
Key Stat: That whole “Negative Point Differential” Thing
Here’s the one and perhaps only nerd analysis that consistently explains the 2017 Tennessee Titans: they’ve given up more points than they’ve scored this year.
Not a typo: Tennessee’s point differential for the year, meaning the number of points they’ve scored versus the number of points they’ve given up, is a negative number.
The Titans ended their regular season - in the AFC South, mind you (which, side note, is obviously not the dumpster fire everyone expected it to be with the advent of Deshaun Watson and Sacksonville) - with a point differential of -22 on the season. No other playoff team except the Bills was even close.
We’ll get to why that actually matters here in a second, cause there’s more ripple effects to that than in Pulp Fiction, but in the meantime, anyone want to guess what New England’s point differential this season was?
+162, tops in the NFL.
Here’s how that works out in real life: the 2017 Titans barely beat guys they’re supposed to beat, every game is a close game, and occasionally, they just get boat-raced. Check this out:
Week 3: Seahawks 27, Titans 33
Week 4: Titans 14, Texans 57
Week 7: Titans 12, Browns 9
Week 11: Titans 17, Steelers 40
Week 15: Titans 23, 49ers 25
Week 17: Jaguars 10, Titans 15
Confused? You should be. Admittedly, that’s cherry-picking, but looking at the whole Titans season, including a close loss to the LA Rams, two close wins against the Jacoby Brissett-led Colts, and a five-point loss to the Cardinals, doesn’t make it make any more sense.
And therein lies...
The problem with Exotic Smashmouth: playing catchup isn’t an option
Look, if this Titans team gets behind, you are, by definition, making them play left-handed, since their plan to grind clock, control the ball, and wear teams down over 60 minutes just isn’t going to cut it anymore.
Tennessee’s basically a coin flip to run the ball on first and second down; I’m going to crib extremely liberally from The Ringer here for most of these stats. The Titans will run on first and second down 52% of the time. Only six teams in the NFL run the ball more on early downs than the Titans do. If it works, heck yeah! Pound the rock. If not, you’re typically in a pickle known as third and long.
Extrapolate that over a full game’s worth of a Titans defense that’s broken down more than a few times, and, well, that’s how you end up in tight games to teams you should smoke and teams that should smoke you.
But why would a team run the ball so much with a Heisman quarterback that thrived in no-huddle and spread formations in college? Excellent question!
Marcus Mariota’s been predictable as a result of play-calling
File this one under “Don’t buy a BMW if you’re only using it to get groceries”.
With all that running, if I were an offensive coordinator, or a high school kid playing Madden, what would the best way to make the defense pay for being too aggressive be?
Play-action fakes? Don’t mind if I do!
Dig a little bit deeper and it’s clear where Mariota’s thrived and where he’s really struggled. He’s actually been one of the league’s best passers off of play-action fakes, when he can use the threat of a run to manipulate defenders and find openings for his receivers downfield. On those plays, he’s thrown for 841 yards (sixth), seven touchdowns (tied for third), and just one interception for a league-high 132.8 rating, per Pro Football Focus. The only problem is that the Titans still aren’t leaning heavily enough on play-action within their passing game, utilizing it on just 24.4 percent of their pass plays, which ranks 11th league-wide.
We all have a friend that makes a certain face depending on what their cards are in poker, right? With the Titans and whether Marcus is under center or in shotgun, that’s what this year’s play-calling has done to him.
The Titans offense has another big tell: whether or not they’re in shotgun looks pre-snap. When Mariota lines up under center (51 percent of the team’s offensive snaps this year), the team maintains a modicum of unpredictability, passing the ball 30 percent of the time (16th league-wide). On those dropbacks, Mariota’s completed 71 percent of his passes for 886 yards (11.7 yards per attempt), with six touchdowns and one interception for an NFL-best 130.7 rating. When the team goes to its shotgun looks (49 percent of their offensive snaps), though, the Titans throw the ball 85 percent of the time, the fifth-highest rate league-wide. Defenses can all but bank on a pass coming downfield from those formations, and that’s thrown Mariota off. In shotgun formation, he’s completed just 60 percent of his passes with three touchdowns, 11 interceptions, and a 62.0 passer rating (42nd of 46) on the year.
On the other hand, as our good buddies at Music City Miracles noted, when Mariota went full Die Hard and took control of the offense himself, using a lot of no-huddle and spread formations, the Titans shredded Kansas City’s defense to the tune of a 19-point second half. Go figure.
You didn’t think we’d let Dick LeBeau off the hook, did you?
Going to be honest: this has been grinding my gears all season long.
Feel like I'm irritated for my little brother here, why does Saint Dick LeBeau get a pass every time this Titans defense gets freaking barbecued?— Matt/Goose (@SomeCallMeGoose) January 6, 2018
With all due respect, and I mean with ALL due respect (that means I can say whatever I want) to Dick LeBeau, who’s a legend in every sense of the word, this Titans defense is the dictionary definition of infuriating.
What’s the first thing you think of with LeBeau, he of the illustrious zone bli...well, that’s it, the zone blitz. You’d be forgiven for thinking the Titans are just running the old Pittsburgh Steelers defense. You’d also be wrong.
Through the first six weeks of the NFL season, the Titans were actually playing the fifth-most snaps in man coverage in the ENTIRE NFL, per Pro Football Focus. For you play-calling nerds out there, PFF defines “man coverage” as Cover 0, Cover 1, and Cover 2-Man, and that’s all. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, if you’re the Titans (again, through six weeks), teams were gaining a first down against Tennessee’s man coverage on 48.2% of their targets.
Six weeks, though? GTFO, man. We’ve all had relationships that lasted longer than that, right? How about through the playoff...oh boy.
NFL teams that play man coverage the most frequently:— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) January 4, 2017
Put simply, the Titans defense is quite beastly against the run - they ended the year as the NFL’s second-ranked run defense by yards allowed.
Pass defense, thought? 25th overall by yards allowed.
Give LeBeau and the Titans credit for figuring out that the good old zone blitz will get sliced up by a smart quarterback - Tennessee’s swirly against the Pittsburgh Steelers, of all teams, stands as a 101-level class - but if Tennessee can’t execute man-to-man consistently, then Tom Brady’s record of 10-1 versus a Dick LeBeau defense suddenly is like “Huh, well, OK then”.
If you can come away from that thinking that the Titans’ overall game plan will end up with Tennessee in the AFC Championship game next weekend, instead of New England, next time any of you are in Music City, USA, I’ll be happy to treat you to a plate of the finest hot chicken money can buy.