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Field position and the Titans defense in 2013

After covering the offense earlier this week, I now turn my attention to how field position affected what the Titans did on defense this past season.

Methodology is the same as last year and for the offense. 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.

As was true of the offense, the defense was better in 2013 than it was in 2012 and you'll see this reflected in the numbers. After the jump, a look at 2013 compared to 2012.

Chart? Chart.


2013   2012
# Drives Pct Pts Per Drive Zone # Drives Pct Pts Per Drive
44 25.0% 1.25 1-19 53 21.3% 1.16
38 21.6% 1.66 20 44 24.7% 2.00
75 42.6% 2.27 21-49 69 38.8% 2.26
19 10.8% 3.26 50+ 27 15.2% 4.89

1. Well, they were mostly better. As you can see from the chart, they were about as good on drives starting inside the 20 and from the 21-49 as they were last year and somewhat better on drives starting from the 20. Where you really see the big difference is what they did when opponents started in plus territory.

2. One thing that stands out about opposing drives in plus territory this year is only the Colts after Devon Wylie's fumbled kickoff and the Cardinals after Patrick Bailey's muff started inside the 30 this year after opponents started 11 drives inside the 30 last year. It's tempting to ascribe the difference in points allowed to that, but that would be wrong. On drives starting between the 31 and 50, the Titans allowed 4.88 adjusted points per drive in 2012, almost exactly the same as the overall plus territory figure. That improved to 3.06 this year.

3. Another thing that stands out is Titans opponents had worse field position this year. Part of that came from turnovers-most of those drives that started inside the 30 came off turnovers. The Titans were only credited with three fewer turnovers in 2013 than they had in 2012. The bigger difference is where those turnovers came. The 17 drives I count after turnovers in 2013 started on average 5 yards farther away than the 20 drives I counted in 2012.

How much did kickoffs affect better field position? Was that part of the improvement? Chart? Chart.


2013   2012
# Drives Pct Zone # Drives Pct
8 11.0% 1-19 8 11.9%
32 43.8% 20 37 55.2%
33 45.2% 21-49 20 29.9%
1 1.3% 50+ 2 3.0%

In a word, no. Titans opponents started fewer drives at or inside the 20 after kickoffs and more drives beyond it. Overall field position after kickoffs for Titans opponents was indistinguishably better in 2013 than it was in 2012 (23.2 v 23.1).

By Football Outsiders numbers, there was a slight improvement in Titans kickoff coverage. They improved to -4.5 points of kickoff value this year, after -9.1 points in  2012. That is a more comprehensive measure of value, taking into account things like touchdowns, muffed kickoffs, and fumbles, which my analysis includes either indirectly or not at all. Neither Rob Bironas nor the kick coverage teams performed particularly well, with each ranking in the bottom eight by Football Outsiders numbers. How then did they finish only sixth-worst? Magnitude. Despite their low ranking, they were only kind of bad at both. The Packers, Eagles, and Vikings, to name the three worst teams, were really, really bad at giving up long returns.

The next stop in my analysis, field position after punts. Chart? Chart!


2012   2012
# Drives Pct Zone # Drives Pct
33 42.9% 1-19 28 36.4%
6 7.8% 20 6 7.8%
33 42.9% 21-49 34 44.2%
5 6.5% 50+ 9 11.7%

Ah, here we go. The numbers don't look dramatically different, but the aggregate difference is perhaps deceptively larger. Titans opponents in 2012 compared to 2013 started four more possessions in plus territory and four fewer inside the 20. In terms of average field position, Titans opponents in 2013 started at the 24.6 as opposed to the 28.6 in 2012. That four yard difference is a good sized one.

All hail Brett Kern, then, especially since by Football Outsiders numbers the Titans went from -13.1 points of punt value to 0.6 points? Well, maybe not. As I indicated last year, most of that negative number came from plays that weren't actually kicked. Looking only at punts actually kicked and not blocked or aborted, the Titans/Kern came out 26th in punt length in 2013. The coverage teams came out well-regarded, sixth-best, so the Titans finished eighth if you ignore punts that weren't actually safely kicked. That's pretty better, and an improvement over last year. Point in favor of Nate Kaczor.

The other element of punts is, of course, where the Titans punted from. Since the offense was better overall, you'd expect the Titans to have punted from closer to the opposing end zone, making it easier for the Titans to pin opponents deep. And that's exactly what you find. The average Titans punt in 2012 came from the 30.2. In 2013, it came from the 34.9. That difference is … actually larger than the ensuing difference in field position after punts. So, point not in favor of Kaczor after well? Well, not really. The closer you get to the opposing end zone, the shorter your net is likely to be. Backed up from your own 19, you probably want to boom it. From midfield, you definitely don't. I'm going with what I think is the simplest and best explanation-Titans opponents had worse field position after punts in 2013 because both (a) the Titans offense had better field position when they punted and (b) the Titans did a better job in punt coverage in 2013 than they did in 2012.