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Field position and the Titans defense in 2012

After yesterday's look at how field position affected the Titans' offensive performance in 2012, it is now time to look at how it affected the defense.

My methodology is the same I've used in the past. Touchdowns are worth 7 points. Made field goals are worth 3 points. Missed field goals are worth 2 points. All other drives are worth 0 points. End of half/game drives where scoring is not the point are excluded from my calculations, as are desperation drives that don't have a realistic chance at scoring.

I'll start with a look at the final numbers for 2012 compared to 2011.

Chart? Chart.


2012   2011
# Drives Pct Pts Per Drive Zone # Drives Pct Pts Per Drive
38 21.3% 1.16 1-19 48 27.4% 1.40
44 24.7% 2.00 20 51 29.1% 1.24
69 38.8% 2.26 21-49 59 33.7% 1.56
27 15.2% 4.89 50+ 17 9.7% 4.59

1. Field position was clearly part of why the Titans gave up more points in 2012 than they did in 2011. Opponents started over 50% more drives in opposing territory, which is particularly beneficial for the offense, and started fewer drives inside their own 20, where offenses are least likely to turn possessions into points.

2. Notwithstanding #1, the Titans were worse defensively, including giving up roughly .75 points per drive more on the most common starting areas for drives (the 20 and the 21-49).

3. With 2011's field position, the 2012 defense gives 40 fewer points. Using the same formula as yesterday's post, giving up 40 fewer points would raise the Titans' Pythagorean wins from 4.6 to 5.4. Bad field position hurt the Titans defense in 2012.

4. With 2012's field position, the 2011 defense gives up 81 fewer points. Fewer points = more wins. Giving up 81 points would have raised the Titans from 4.6 to 6.3 Pythagorean wins. Field position mattered, but the Titans gave up more points in 2012 primarily because the defense played worse.

5. Just because, the average drive between the 21 and the 49 started at the 32.4 in 2012. In 2011, it started at… the 32.4. If you want even more digits, it was the 32.36 in both seasons. Nothing special here, just a freakish similarity I didn't realize until I started writing this post.

Since the field position was part of why the defense did so poorly in 2012 and the Titans just fired special teams coach Alan Lowry, let's take a look at how much special teams was a driver of the worse field position. First up, kickoffs.



2012   2011
# Drives Pct Zone # Drives Pct
8 11.9% 1-19 14 20.3%
37 55.2% 20 40 58.0%
20 29.9% 21-49 12 17.4%
2 3.0% 50+ 3 4.3%

Well, maybe Marc Mariani's almost 60% of touchbacks is much close to the league normal than the 38% of kickoffs for touchbacks the Titans had in 2012.

1. On the whole, Titans opponents had slightly better field position after a kickoff in 2012 than they did in 2011, starting at the 23.1 instead of the 22.2. That is not really that big a deal at all.

2. Based on zone distribution, the 2012 Titans defense would be expected to give up 138 points after 2012's kickoffs. That's up 4 points from what they would be expected to give up off 2011's kickoffs. Four points over the course of a season is barely worth mentioning.

3. By Football Outsiders numbers, the Titans went from slightly above average on kickoffs (1.1 points) in 2011 to below average at -9.1 points in 2012. Considering the Titans also gave up a kickoff return score after not doing so in 2011, that's roughly in line with the slight increase in expected offensive productivity.

4. Kickoffs were not why the Titans defense had inferior field position in 2012.

Next, the other big source of possessions, punts. Chart? Chart.



And now we come to the big deal, field position after punts. Chart? Chart!


2012   2011
# Drives Pct Zone # Drives Pct
28 36.4% 1-19 33 39.3%
6 7.8% 20 9 10.7%
34 44.2% 21-49 36 42.9%
9 11.7% 50+ 6 7.1%

These are not like yesterday's numbers, where it's clear punting was a big factor in why the offense had bad field position.

This is kind of correct, but only kind of kind of.

Only kind of?

Punts mattered. With 2011's post-punt zone distribution, the 2012 defense would have been expected to allow about 12 fewer points. That's roughly 0.2 Pythagorean wins, or about three times as important as kickoffs. Still, the Titans defense gave up about 40 more points because of bad field position in 2012. The extra 12 points they would be expected to give up because of worse post-punt field position is only part of that.

And what does "kind of kind of" mean, anyway?

Well, it's complicated. (Yes, that's a good default answer, and one I try not to overuse).

The above chart may be a touch flattering to 2012's punt performance. The actual average opposing field position after a punt in 2011 was the 24.1 compared to the 28.2 in 2012. That four extra yards of field position over 77 punts kind of matters.

By Football Outsiders numbers, the Titans were way worse on punts in 2012. Brett Kern set franchise records in punting again. Fire Alan Lowry!

Yes, it's true that by Football Outsiders numbers the Titans went from +9.4 points of value in 2011 to -13.1 points in 2012. That's a huge dropoff, and only five teams in the league ranked worse than the Titans in 2012. That said, a lot of that negative value came from the punts that didn't happen. If you limit throw out punts that were blocked or otherwise not attempted, the Titans came out closer to league average.

What, are you saying Alan Lowry's not responsible for punt blocks? Also, the Titans were way better than average in 2011 and got much worse. Fire Alan Lowry!

No, I'm saying that analytically, you should separate punts into (a) punts that get blocked and (b) punts that get kicked, and think about those two categories separately. We can have a discussion about why the punts were blocked, and I'm sure the Titans know why they were blocked, including to what extent it was scheme and to what extent it was individual players not doing what they were supposed to for whatever reason. Punt blocks are really rare events with a very strong magnitude. Don't let your analysis get thrown off by them.

Still, there's no question the Titans were worse in punt coverage in 2012 than they were in 2011.

Beyond the Football Outsiders hivemind mainframe telling you so, how do you know that?

Simple. One of the things I covered in yesterday's post was one of the reasons the Titans had worse field position after an opposing punt is that opponents had better field position when they punted. The same is true here. The average Titans punt in 2012 came from their own 30 yard line, while it was 6.5 yards closer to the opposing goalline in 2011. Ceteris paribus, we would expect to see that same 6.5-yard differential in where opponents took over. The actual difference, though, is opponents averaged starting at the 24 in 2011 and averaged started 4.5 yards closer in 2012. 

This sounds like a familiar story.

It should, from both earlier in the post and yesterday. Worse coverage mattered, but Titans opponents had better field position after punts primarily because the Titans had worse field position when they punted.

You told me the defense gave up 40 extra points because of field position. Kickoffs accounted for 4 points and punts for 12. Where's the rest of that value come from?

Kickoffs and punts are the two most common ways teams get the ball back. The other big driver is what I refer to as the catch-all category. This includes things like onside kicks, missed field goals, and turnovers. These types of plays typically gave the opponent excellent field position, and the Titans did them more often in 2012. Turnovers are the biggest single category, and the Titans both fumbled the ball away and threw interceptions at higher rates than they did in 2011.

So it's the offense's fault?

Yes. The defense had worse field position in 2012 primarily because the offense put it in bad field position.

But yesterday you said the offense had bad field position because the defense gave it bad field position.

Yes, I did.

Make up your mind which it is then.

It's both. Remember those point expectancy charts? The Titans offense did a worse job at converting non-great field position into points in 2012. The Titans defense did a worse job at preventing points unless opponents were especially backed up. The offense and defense were both worse, independent of their field position, than they were in 2011. Just look at something like FO's drive stats page, and you can see the Titans gained fewer yards per drive on offense and allowed more yards per drive on defense in 2012 than they did in 2011. The offense and the defense were both worse in 2012, and helped make the other unit look worse. The Titans needed a good offense to cover up for a defense that struggled unless it was placed in favorable situations. They did not have a good offense. The Titans needed a good defense to cover up for an offense that struggled unless it was placed in favorable situation. They did not have a good defense either.

Fire Alan Lowry!

I can go either way on that decision. The two points I would make are, (1) the Titans have had much worse seasons on special teams than 2012, and (2) if you believe in assessments based on year-to-year performance swings, the case for firing Jerry Gray is probably at least five times as strong as the case for firing Alan Lowry.