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How the Titans intercepted the ball in 2011, part two

It’s time for part two (of two) of my series on how the Titans intercepted the ball in 2011.

In part one, I broke down how the Titans intercepted the ball in the first eight weeks of the season. In this part two, I’ll write about how the Titans intercepted the ball the second half of the season (hint: not very often), then say things about the Titans’ general interception rate and what that might mean for 2012.

The normal play breakdown caveats apply. There is available all-22 footage for all of the interceptions, but I still don’t know what the offensive or defensive call was. For these analyses, I’m concentrating on the things I saw that stood out to me as important relative to the interception and what the Titans were doing; there may be other interesting things in the play I don’t write about, and things relative to the interception I’m not seeing and therefore not including in my analysis. I don’t know what a player was thinking on any given play, and I haven’t tried asking them either.

That out of the way, on with the breakdowns and then the conclusion. 

Week 10-at Carolina-Cam Newton: 40 attempts, 1 INT
3-25-TEN 32 (4Q-8:48) (Shotgun) C.Newton pass deep left intended for L.Naanee INTERCEPTED by C.Hope at TEN 10. C.Hope to TEN 17 for 7 yards (B.LaFell).
Up 23-3 in the final quarter and with the Panthers looking at third-and-forever, the Titans are in a very conservative three-deep, five-under coverage. Naanee runs a deep out from a bunch alignment; Verner does a good job of staying disciplined and on Naanee, letting the deep coverage handle the clearing-out player. Newton’s pass is a little behind Naanee and goes off his hands, where deep defender Hope is the recipient of a fortunate deflection.

Week 11-at Atlanta-Matt Ryan: 32 attempts, 0 INT

Week 12-vs. Tampa Bay-Josh Freeman: 33 attempts, 1 INT
2-10-TB 33 (4Q-2:25) (No Huddle, Shotgun) J.Freeman pass short middle intended for K.Winslow INTERCEPTED by C.McCarthy at TB 47. C.McCarthy to TB 47 for no gain.
Like Babineaux’s interception of McCoy, this was another of those plays I simply didn’t understand when it happened. The Titans rush 5 and are in either some form of two-deep man coverage or something much more interesting, more likely the latter. Freeman sees Ayers rush from his position near Winslow, and either doesn’t see McCarthy in his man/underneath-middle coverage tracking Winslow or thinks McCarthy responds a lot more aggressively to the move in Winslow’s stick-nod-go than he really does. Nice job by McCarthy to get his head turned around to make a play on the ball, and it didn’t hurt that the pass was probably thrown too far to the outside, but for me this is still a “what are you doing” play.

Week 13-at Buffalo-Ryan Fitzpatrick: 46 attempts, 0 INT

Week 14-vs. New Orleans-Drew Brees: 47 attempts, 0 INT

Week 15-at Indianapolis-Dan Orlovsky: 17 attempts, 0 INT

Week 16-vs. Jacksonville-Blaine Gabbert: 42 attempts, 1 INT
4-1-TEN 9 (4Q-8:29) B.Gabbert pass short right intended for J.Dillard INTERCEPTED by M.Griffin (J.McCourty) at TEN -1. Touchback.
I’m trying not to spend too much time on these Titans defensive plays from an offensive perspective. Suffice to say for this play McCourty was covering Dillard, who runs about a 7-yard route and then tries to sit down. From his reaction (while the ball is in the air), he seems to think McCourty was a little physical with him, and he may well have been right. In the end, Gabbert’s pass (a real seeing-eye attempt, as Witherspoon in particular just barely missed tipping it) is too far inside for Dillard and gets tipped up in the air. Griffin is the beneficiary this time of a fortunate deflection.

Week 17-at Houston-T.J. Yates: 4 attempts, 0 INT; Jake Delhomme: 28 attempts, 0 INT

Conclusion-Type Things
And, yes, those three were the only interceptions the Titans had in the final eight games of the season, a span that encompassed 289 total passing attempts. (At least among the ones that counted anyway. Michael Griffin had a nice interception against the Panthers where he actually broke on the ball and made a play, not just grabbed a deflection or overthrown pass, and there may be others I’m not remembering.)

For the season, the Titans ended up with interceptions on 1.9% of opponents’ total passing attempts, seventh-worst in the league. Splitting the season into halves, they were relatively close to the season-long average of 2.9% for the first eight games, coming in at 2.6%, or 0.8 interceptions below average. Then, of course, that second-half swoon, where they had 5.4 fewer interceptions than an average team. Teams’ rates do vary, but the Titans’ second-half performance was worse than the season-long performance by any team.

Unlike with sacks, I’m not aware of, and don’t have access to, a league-wide charting program that describes how and why all interceptions league-wide happen. Casually speaking, the Titans seemed to benefit from an above-average number of deflections resulting in interceptions the first half of the season, but that returned to a more league-average number the second half of the season.

The Titans’ interception rate has steadily declined the last five seasons, from 3.9% in 2007 to 3.5% to 3.3% in 2010 to 2.7% to last year’s 1.9%. Particularly the last three years, there hasn’t been much changeover in the secondary personnel from one year to the next. That suggests the reasons for the decline are likely extrinsic to those players. The more likely culprit in my eyes is the pass rush; I have no proof for this, aside from a general and not even trend, but it makes a good deal of inherent sense and isn’t obviously wrong.

I’m not sure where that leaves me with the prospect for more interceptions in 2012. One thing I haven’t noted yet is that the Titans last year were not a particularly gambling defense, concentrating instead more on soundness and good positioning. I think that was beneficial for the secondary’s performance as a whole, particularly considering the lack of pass rush, but it’s likely a formula that leads to fewer interceptions. A rebound in the pass-rushing performance will likely lead to more interceptions this year, but I wouldn’t expect more than a league-average number and I’m not sure I should care.