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How the Tennessee Titans gave up big plays in 2010

I wanted to title this post “An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Tennessee Titans Defense Allowing Big Plays in 2010”, but figured that was a little much, even for me.

To try to figure out what went wrong with the Titans’ defense last year, I thought I’d take another look at every play where they allowed 20+ yards, and assign responsibility for what happened to no more than two causes.  Generally, this was the player primarily in coverage or whose zone of responsibility the play went through (e.g., gap responsibility on run plays).  Occasionally, I wasn’t sure which player it was or it was a structural flaw in the offense v. defense set; for those circumstances, I had Busted Coverage and Scheme Issue, though I tried not to use them.

Methodology: if I identified one player or cause, he got 1 point for primary responsibility.  If I named two, each got .5 point for secondary responsibility, no matter how much I may have wanted to give them more.  There were 60 such plays, and 60 total points awarded.

Normal film caveats apply: NFL.com’s Game Rewind feature had all-22 film available for some of these plays-maybe a third, and where that was available I used it, but that’s still the majority of the plays where it wasn’t available and there could be crucial off-screen work that would change my evaluation.  I don’t know what any of the defenses actually called was, so I could be completely wrong in assigning responsibility.

Caveats out of the way, whose fault was it?

Cortland Finnegan, 11.5 points (9 primary, 5 secondary). You could beat Cortland Finnegan in man coverage, and he did get beat in man coverage.  Most of the time it was by somebody who’s pretty good.  Dwayne Bowe, Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, Brandon Lloyd, those guys are all pretty good.  And plenty of teams have a pretty good top receiver.  Finnegan is decidedly not a real shutdown cornerback.  The good news, if you want to look at it that way, is no real marginal guys beat him.  The Titans can win with him as their top corner, but he needs more help around him than he got in 2010.

Alterraun Verner, 8.5 points (6 primary, 5 secondary).  Finnegan got beat by good players.  Verner got beat by good players and by not-so-good players.  That’s harder to live with, even as a #2 corner.  I didn’t really see why Verner as much playing time as he did, and wouldn’t be surprised to see Jason McCourty get more work in 2011.

Scheme Issue, 8 points (3 primary, 10 secondary).  A lot of Cover-2 voids here, but also some rock-paper-scissors offensive edges.  The Titans had a problem with screens from their defensive ends playing very aggressively.  The benefits of ends playing aggressively don’t show up in an analysis like this one.

Michael Griffin, 8 points (3 primary, 10 secondary).  Remember a little while ago, when I wrote a post about how Michael Griffin’s interceptions were all the result of good fortune and not because he made plays?  Michael Griffin tried to get interceptions by making plays on the ball.  Way too often, it resulted in big plays for the other team.  I didn’t think he was as bad as he was in 2009, but he still didn’t have a very good year and was responsible at least in part for way too many plays against the Titans defense.  Note also that he was rarely a single-high safety.  The plays where he was lined up as deep safety and got dinged he was mostly playing deep half only.

Chris Hope, 4.5 points (9 secondary).  Hope was lined up as a single-high safety, and he sometimes screwed up.  I don’t think the Titans would have preferred to play him as the single-high safety, but they watched Michael Griffin play and knew that what they wished couldn’t always happen.  Hope did not have a great year, but he was far from the weakest link either.

Busted Coverage, 4 points (3 primary, 2 secondary).  An alternative to Scheme Issue, only I was less comfortable assigning blame to any particular player.  When I write about the Football Outsiders charting stats, which will probably be after Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 comes out, I’ll say more about how often the Titans had Blown Coverage listed compared to other teams.

Stephen Tulloch, 4 points (8 secondary).  Fewer points than I expected, to be honest, but he was rarely in coverage against the most dangerous receivers and when it was, it was often in zone with other people around to share the blame.

Will Witherspoon, 3.5 points (2 primary, 3 secondary).  Witherspoon was more often the primary guy in coverage.  Like Hope, you can beat him, and he did get beat.  It seemed like he and Tulloch had some communication problems early in the year.  I think the Titans should be happy to keep him around for another year, because he knows football better than all their other linebackers put together, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see him cut.

Vinny Fuller, 2 points (2 primary). We’re getting into the realm of the smaller sample size here.  I always thought Fuller was more reliable and a better run defender than a particularly good nickelback.

Jamie Winborn, 1.5 points (1 primary, 1 secondary).  Isn’t going to be on the Titans anymore, so I don’t have to say anything about him.

Gerald McRath, 1.5 points (1 primary, 1 secondary).  These numbers surprised me even more than the Tulloch numbers.  He played like a first- or second-year player, way to over-aggressive and without savvy, but I didn’t see him as responsible for many big plays.

Jason McCourty, 1.5 points (1 primary, 1 secondary).  The flip-side of Verner playing was less time on the field for McCourty.  Maybe there’s something I’m really missing, but I don’t get it.  Yes, Verner played a lot more and got thrown at more than McCourty, but it seemed like he got beat more frequently.

Dave Ball, 1 point (2 secondary).  Teams taking advantage of his over-aggressiveness, in part, but he also got completely lost in no man’s land a couple times.

Ryan Mouton, .5 points (1 secondary).  See Miles Austin.  See Miles Austin run by Mouton.  See Mouton return to bench.

General Disclaimers
These are the dogs that barked in the night, not the dogs that didn’t bark.  These points are how often I dinged players for plays based on my semi-arbitrary threshold.  If players were involved in a number of other unsuccessful plays that didn’t gain 20 yards, that responsibility doesn’t show up in this post.

The defensive line doesn’t show up nearly enough.  Most of these big plays were pass plays, and the only individual defensive lineman mentioned in this post is Dave Ball, and that for his work on run downs.  I’m intentionally sort of ignoring pass rush because that’s a much subtler sort of responsibility and one I’m not comfortable assigning grades for.

Keep in mind that the offense is trying, too.  This is a completely defense-oriented, Titans-oriented analysis, more a look at who on the defense was exploited than how the offense did against the defense or what teams did and didn’t do against the Titans in 2010.

For those who’d like to see the full data dump, have at it.