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How the Titans fared in the red zone in 2011: running backs

It’s time for another multi-part series, in this case on how the Titans fared in the red zone in 2011. Unlike my series on how the Titans were sacked, this will not include much, if any, film work.  Rather, it’ll be a play-by-play look at how the different aspects of the Titans did inside the opposing 20 yard line. I’ll begin by writing about the running backs, cover the quarterbacks in part two, the wide receivers in part three, then the rush defense and pass defense in parts four and five.

Before I talk about the running backs, though, it’s worth taking a look at the Titans’ overall offensive performance in the red zone. They were very good, scoring on 36 of their 40 red zone possessions. That 90% conversion rate ranked them tied for fourth-best in the NFL. Valuing touchdowns and field goals at their actual worth, the Titans finished fifth in the league with 4.90 points per red zone possession.

On the running game, I’ve already noted the Titans’ surprising success in Power situations, which includes carries from the one and two yard lines on any down. Were the Titans consistently that good in the red zone? Unsurprisingly, given the Titans’ generally ineffective run game in 2011, they were not.

Overall, the Titans called 36 designed runs in the red zone last year and gained a total of 60 yards, for 1.67 yards per carry, scoring six touchdowns in the process. Without context, those numbers don’t mean very much, so let’s see if I can add some.

The league as a whole ran the ball 1989 times in the red zone and gained a total of 5169 yards, for 2.60 yards per carry, and scored 337 touchdowns. That’s an average of 62.2 carries, 161.5 yards, and 10.5 touchdowns per team. On the whole, then, the Titans had fewer red zone runs than the average team, and the average carry produced almost a whole yard less, though they scored touchdowns at basically the same per-carry rate (6.00 v. 5.90).

Let’s take a look at how the individual running backs did. Chart? Chart.

Back Carries Yards YPC Success Rate
A.Hall 2 16 8.00 100%
J.Harper 5 8 1.60 40%
C.Johnson 20 19 0.95 35%
J.Ringer 9 17 1.89 22%

In addition to the stats noted above, the chart also shows the Success Rate for each back. As I’ve written before, I generally prefer it to YPC, and it’s particularly important in the red zone where a 1-yard run in the right circumstance is much more valuable than a 5-yard run in a different circumstance.

Assuming I calculated it right, the league-wide Success Rate on called runs in the red zone was 48%. Save for Ahmard Hall’s two carries, every single Titans running back was worse than that. Johnson’s particularly lousy YPC despite a more reasonable Success Rate is a reminder that one of the things you get with CJ is the occasional big loss; he lost at least 3 yards on 3 of his 20 carries, while only one of the Titans’ other 16 carries lost more than a yard.

The Titans were particularly ineffective running the ball in what at Football Outsiders is called the deep red zone, from the 11 to 20 yard lines. Hall’s two successful carries both came in that range, but the other running backs had 20 carries in that range and only 4 of them were succesful (Ringer 2/7, Harper 0/2, CJ 2/11). Doing the math, that means that 7 of the 14 carries from the close red zone, at or inside the 10, were successful.

We can slice that even further, though. As the Power success indicates, the Titans were particularly good very close to the end zone. Five of their seven carries from the 4 or closer were successful. That’s a very good number. Of the remaining 27 carries in the red zone but from more than 4 yards out, though, only six were successful. Basically, the Titans did their opponents a favor any time they ran the ball between the 5 and the 20 yard lines last year.

While the running backs, including CJ, were effective inside the 5 last year, it’s probably worth noting that was a bit of an anomalous result given CJ’s personal history. For the past couple seasons, Football Outsiders has calculated running back effectiveness on those carries at or inside the five. In 2009, CJ2k was basically league-average. In 2010, he was below-average, scoring only 5 touchdowns in 19 carries. 2011’s numbers were above-average, but it’s probably fair the baseline expectation should be for him to perform roughly at league-average level on carries inside the 5 in 2012. It won’t matter as much, though, if the Titans have trouble getting inside the 5 like they did last year, though.

In part two, I’ll look at something the Titans did at least semi-competently in the red zone last year, throwing the football. I’ll cover the quarterbacks first before moving on to the wide receivers in part three.