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The Tennessee Titans and third down running in 2011

I mentioned this in my post last week where I overviewed the offensive line, but the Tennessee Titans finished third in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ Power rushing statistic on offense. Power runs are, well, here’s the definition:  “Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer. This is the only statistic on this page that includes quarterbacks.” As one of my enduring fascinations this season has been the Titans’ devotion to passing the ball on third down this year, I thought it was worth taking a little bit more in-depth look at just how they managed this.

The first big surprise is that Chris Johnson was actually effective in Power situations. He had two carries on first-and-goal from the opposing one, and both times it results in a touchdown, against the Steelers and then against the Panthers.  He had four carries on third-and-one, and started off the season on a wrong note failing against the Jaguars, but then converted on his next three opportunities, against the Browns, the Steelers, and the Texans (his one good run the first matchup). He also had one fourth-and-one carry against the Saints, and converted it.

Ahmard Hall’s killer fumble against the Texans notwithstanding, he was successful on his two Power carries, converting third-and-one against the Buccaneers and a fourth-and-one against the Saints.

Jamie Harper converted his lone first-and-goal from the one carry, against the Jaguars, and converted his third-and-one, against the Browns, but failed on third-and-two against the Colts. Harper, did, though, managed the only Titans’ running conversion on third down and two or more on a called run play, when he picked up 12 yards on third-and-five agaisnt the Texans at the end of the game. Yes, the final third down of the season produced the only running back handoff first down on third-and-two or more.

The surprising culprit on third down was Javon Ringer, who had three carries on third-and-one and only converted one of them, against the Steelers. He was stuffed against the Broncos and also against the Panthers, though he redeemed those somewhat by picking up a first down on fourth-and-one against the Ravens.

With the kind of success, you might be wondering why the Titans would be so pass-heavy on third-and-short, calling thirteen pass plays to nine runs on third-and-one. The answer is, actually, as successful as the Titans were in converting six of nine runs, they converted an even better ten of thirteen called passes. Even on third-and-two, pass plays resulted in a first down six of nine times. When it came to fourth-and-short, no matter what they did the Titans were pretty successful, with their only failure on eights attempts on fourth-and-three or closer Jake Locker’s failed sneak against the Saints. Whatever problems plagued the Titans’ offense in 2011, they seem to be associated with not getting to third-and-short in the first place, but that’s a subject for another post.