With Jake Locker returning from his shoulder injury before the bye, I thought it would be interesting to break down his game in some detail. Unless he got hurt, I knew going in I would be writing about him this week. Responding to a hypothetical Q&A before this week's game, and I went into this briefly on Twitter, I didn't expect Locker's return to really make that much of a difference in the Titans' offensive fate. He and Matt Hasselbeck are different quarterbacks, with very different strengths, but by Football Outsiders numbers had performed at virtually the same level (they're now 22nd and 24th by DVOA, at -8.9% and -9.7%).
Notwithstanding the stil-existing similarity in his overall efficiency to Hasselbeck's, Locker validated my pre-decision to write about him by having a relatively interesting day, throwing for two touchdown passes and receiving some praise from fans happy to see the win but completing only 43% of his passes. By conventional numbers, I thought that optimism was a bit over the top; FO's Quick Reads was more measured, ranking him 22nd among 33 quarterbacks this week in passing value but 12th in overall value thanks to good rushing performance. Of course, DYAR is a results-based meaure, while for this post I'm interested in going into the process that led to those results.
That said, on to my take of how Locker performed on Sunday.
First, the standard disclaimer. I'm doing this off the broadcast. Yes, NFL.com's Game Rewind service with coaching tape is indispensible for this analysis, and I've stopped even rewatching games until that becomes available. However, I still don't know for sure what play the Titans ran, what defense was called, what Locker was supposed to do on any given play, and particularly important given the nature of the Titans' option routes, what the receivers were supposed to have done on any given play.
What I'm giving you is my best interpretation of what happened on each play. Some of what I write here is very likely wrong. I know this, and I'll live with it. (As an aside, anybody trying to do this sort of thing from the outside who doesn't carry with them a sufficient dose of epistemic humility needs a whack upside the head.) Questions, comments, quibbles, &c. are welcome.
I. The Deep Comebacks
1Q-2:05 1-10-MIA 32: J.Locker pass short right to D.Williams ran ob at MIA 17 for 15 yards.
3Q-1:40 1-10-TEN 44: J.Locker pass short left to D.Williams ran ob at MIA 40 for 16 yards.
The formation was the same, the Titans' new favorite full house look. The receiver was the same, Damian Williams. The route was the same, a deep comeback thrown 15 yards downfield. The defense looked like Cover-3 both times. The side of the field was reversed the second time around, though. Locker's throw was also better the second time around.
I'd rate Locker's first throw as only fair, as Williams had to reach and make the toe-tap to complete the catch. One thing on that, though, is that linebacker Koa Misi did the same thing I criticized Zach Brown for last week, failing to establish sufficient width and depth in his zone drop, opening up the throwing lane for Locker. The second throw didn't require the same acrobatics to be completed and gave Williams the chance to pick up some yards after the catch. He'd only manage 1 YAC, though, as the defense converged on him quickly.
II. The Seam Routes
1Q-10:24 1-10-TEN 20: (Shotgun) J.Locker pass incomplete deep right to D.Reynaud (K.Misi).
3Q-7:00 3-15-MIA 26: (Shotgun) J.Locker pass deep right to J.Cook for 26 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
You may remember both of these plays. The first came early in the game, and it was bad. The Titans lined up in an empty formation, with Reynaud in the right slot. He beat covering linebacker Koa Misi, whom the Titans spent some time attacking, up the seam and as soon as he did Locker threw the ball. 21 yards downfield. It needed to be 25 or more yards downfield, as a badly beaten Misi was able to recover and break up the pass.
The second time Locker had a chance to hit a player who lined up in the right slot and beat his covering defender on a seam route, well, he threw it 26 yards instead of 21, and it produced six points that basically sealed the game for the Titans. Cook was not as open as Reynaud was, but the throw was significantly better. A throw like the one to Reynaud may well be intercepted.
2Q-7:18 1-10-TEN 33: (Shotgun) J.Locker pass incomplete short left to K.Wright.
2Q-4:01 1-10-TEN 33: J.Locker pass incomplete short left to J.Cook (K.Dansby).
3Q-12:55 1-10-TEN 27: J.Locker pass incomplete deep right to N.Washington (P.Soliai).
4Q-14:19 3-3-MIA 20: (Shotgun) J.Locker pass incomplete deep right to K.Britt.
While these are all grouped under the same heading, these aren't the same throw or the same play. Let's hit them one by one:
A. Wright lined up to the left as part of a stack release. Both players ran outs, Wright's at about a 5 yard depth. Locker put the ball too far ahead for him.
B. Cook lines up to the right and runs a drag route 9 yards downfield. Dansby is in coverage, but Cook is faster than him and has a step. Locker's throw is theoretically catchable, except that it's much too close to Dansby. He undercuts the route and nearly has an interception-it's not as bad or as virtually certain a pick-6 as Colin McCarthy's drop a couple weeks ago, but it's still bad. Dansby may have been able to disrupt many non-perfect throws, but Locker missed one place he couldn't miss and is fortunate to get away with one.
C. Ah, the nature of option routes. Twenty yards downfield, Washington runs the in while Locker seems to be expecting him to run a curl. Judging by the evil eye Washington seems to give Locker after this play, I'm guessing Nate thinks the second-year player made a mistake. I have no idea who's right. This is another mistake the Titans were fortunate to get away with.
D. A number of these categories could have been different. One of those I considered and didn't use was Throw Aways. Another was The Backside of Trips. It's a look I see Matt Hasselbeck attack a lot. The setup is simple. The Titans have three receivers (Cook and two wideouts, normally) to one side and another receiver to the other side, normally Kenny Britt. If the defense doesn't have two guys to the single receiver's side, he's the target, often on a deep route. Here, the Dolphins don't have a single deep safety, and Locker targets Britt on an end zone route. As it happens, the Dolphins end up in a disguise and doubling Britt, from whom Locker's throw to the end zone is just a bit too far.
IV. The Drops
1Q-2:52 3-2-MIA 37: (Shotgun) J.Locker pass incomplete short right to K.Britt.
2Q-3:15 3-7-TEN 36: (Shotgun) J.Locker pass incomplete short right to J.Cook.
If there were a Backside of Trips category, the first play here would fall under that. Facing very likely single coverage, Britt on third down runs a shorter route and is open on the back shoulder fade/short comeback 7 yards downfield. He fights the ball, has the cornerback (Sean Smith) disrupt his second chance, and then an oncoming Kendall Wright (who is in the area after running a shall cross from the far side of the field) has a shot at a diving grab he should make. Two drops on the same play, or perhaps three. Receivers who can't catch can be cruel to quarterbacks who make perfectly fine throws.
The second play, Cook runs a whip route-I'd call it a jerk route instead, but Cook doesn't quite have the agility to make most NFL defenders look like a jerk on that play. Unlike the route Dansby defensed, Locker's throw is to the sidelines and ahead of the defender. While Cook is still three yards short of the sticks, if he catches the pass, he should be able to turn upfield and get the conversion. Of course, that conditional "if" doesn't come true; a bad drop by the tight end.
V. The Misadventures of Deuce Lutui
1Q-10:17 2-10-TEN 20: J.Locker pass incomplete short left to Q.Johnson.
2Q-8:30 2-9-TEN 21: J.Locker pass short middle to C.Johnson to TEN 29 for 8 yards (O.Vernon).
What, you may be wondering, am I doing talking about the right guard in a post on the quarterback? Well, he amused me. I am perhaps at time too easily amused, and amusement is not necessarily a good thing. It wasn't really in either of these plays. The first appears to stem from Lutui's inexperience with the Titans. He gives his defensive lineman a brief nudge, then moves up to block to the second level as though it's a screen. Unfortunately for him, he seems to be the only player on the Titans who thinks it's a screen. Locker, seeing an unblocked defensive lineman bearing down on him, has no choice but to throw the ball away.
The second play, well, it actually is a middle screen, albeit one without any offensive linemen in front of CJ to block for him. The reason there were no linemen out to block for him. Well, Lutui dove to the ground to block his defender and in so doing took out Velasco (who would suffer an injury and miss the next play) and also disrupted Hutchinson's release (he'd have had to step over and around a couple players). With better blocking, CJ may not have to make a move and get run down from behind by Vernon.
VI. Sprint Option
1Q-10:56 3-4-TEN 15: (Shotgun) J.Locker pass short right to N.Washington to TEN 20 for 5 yards (S.Smith).
1Q-7:44 1-G-MIA 7: (Shotgun) J.Locker pass incomplete short right to K.Wright.
2Q-0:38 3-6-MAI 19: (Shotgun) J.Locker pass incomplete deep left to C.Stevens.
One of the most famous plays in football, perhaps the most famous instance of which was The Catch. Like The Catch, the first two plays were sprint right option, while the third was sprint left option. The only time it worked was the first time. Washington was the wide receiver to the sprint side and Locker hit him on the 5-yard curl for the first down.
The second time, playside slot receiver Washington's flat route was covered. Wide receiver Wright tried to run a comeback about 12 yards downfield, but cornerback Sean Smith knocked him to the ground (not illegal contact, as Locker was out of the pocket). Locker had no choice but to throw the ball away.
The third time, the Titans ran it to the other side. It was a three receiver route, but the out route, flag route, and Stevens on the deep drag were all covered, and Locker again had no chance but to throw the ball away.
VII. The Running
1Q-5:02 1-10-TEN 35: J.Locker scrambles up the middle to MIA 45 for 20 yards (S.Smith).
1Q-2:46 4-2-MIA 37: (Shotgun) J.Locker scrambles right guard to MIA 32 for 5 yards (K.Burnett).
2Q-7:59 3-1-TEN 29: J.Locker scrambles right tackle to TEN 33 for 4 yards (K.Misi).
2Q-6:30 3-8-TEN 35: (Shotgun) J.Locker scrambles right end to TEN 43 for 8 yards (R.Jones). PENALTY on TEN-D.Stewart, Offensive Holding, 10 yards, enforced at TEN 35 – No Play.
3Q-10:05 3-1-MIA 49: J.Locker pass deep middle to K.Britt to MIA 21 for 28 yards (S.Smith).
4Q-15:00 2-10-MIA 27: (Shotgun) J.Locker scrambles right tackle to MIA 20 for 7 yards (K.Burnett).
There's a lot here, and not really that much in common among these plays aside from that Locker took off and ran on them. As with The Misses, I'll discuss them in series:
A. Locker trips on the playfake with Chris Johnson, so he takes off. The difference between him and Ben Roethlisberger is apparent on this play-Nate Washington is open by 5 yards 15 yards downfield in the middle of the field on this play, and if Locker has not already committed to running by the time he gets close to the line of scrimmage, he has an easy pitch and catch for a good gain. As is, he seems to be committed to taking off, and gets 15 plus a dive forward for 5 more. Next time, though, please throw the ball to the wide open receiver.
B. There's something wrong with this play. The left defensive end, Kaddu, is completely unblocked, as Stewart joins Lutui in blocking the left defensive tackle in the four-man line. Perhaps the Titans saw something that made them think Kaddu, a nominal linebacker, would be dropping, but why ignore him completely like this? With nobody open quickly, Locker has to bail and is able to scramble for the first. A very good result, but the process bothers me greatly.
C. The Titans are in a heavy formation, with two backs and two tight ends on the field. It's a playfake, but the Dolphins have absolutely no respect for the threat of the run and are overloaded to the right side where Locker tries to bootleg. With everything covered, Locker has to, and does, elude both DE Cam Wake and DT Randy Starks, for a first-down conversion.
D. Locker appears to be reading the middle fo the field with Washington and Cook, only Cook falls down. Britt comes open to the left side on an in past the sticks, but Locker has vacated the pocket to the right side. He scrambles for the first, but David Stewart is flagged for holding. The flag may be on Stewart, but Locker caused the hold. Wake was contained until Locker escaped to the right-then Wake had leverage on Stewart, who had no choice but to go for the grab or see Wake probably end up with a big sack.
E. Another instance of the Titans' new favorite full house look. The Dolphins appear to be running something like cover-0 blitz, possibly with a robber underneath. Seeing nothing open, Locker looks to vacate the pocket, activating the scramble drill. Britt converts to a downfield route, while the defender covering him does not. He ends up way the heck open downfield, and Locker finds him-a deeper throw is results in a touchdown, while the throw Locker does make could virtually have been fair caught if not for all the oncoming defenders.
F. This play could easily have fallen under the next category as well. Locker appears to be expecting man-free, except when the route over the middle should come open it becomes apparent that no, the Dolphins were actually playing Cover-3 and the zone defender has taken away the receiver. Having lost the design of the play, Locker takes off and gets what he can, albeit taking an unnecessary hit in the process. Up 31-3 in the fourth quarter, that's not a wise decision to make and perhaps why Matt Hasselbeck came in the next series.
VIII. The Defense Is Trying, Too
1Q-10:12 3-10-TEN 20: (Shotgun) J.Locker sacked at TEN 14 for -6 yards (J.Wilson).
2Q-5:55 3-18-TEN 25: (Shotgun) J.Locker pass incomplete short right to C.Johnson.
Two plays, two different things going on. The latter is pretty straightforward. The Titans call a screen on third-and-forever, hoping to get what they can. Linebacker Dansby reads the screen and Locker rightly kills the play by throwing the ball into the ground. +1 to the defense here in the never-ending battle.
On the former play, the Titans have 6-man protection and the Dolphins only bring 5 rushers. Theoretically, this should be picked up. The theoretical doesn't happen here, though, as the rush includes two defensive backs coming off the left edge. Combined with the defensive line movement, it creates a free rusher. Locker perhaps has a chance to throw the out to the left side, but waits for a more defined read and is brought down before he pulls the trigger.
IX. The Others
1Q-11:04 2-4-TEN 15: J.Locker pass incomplete short right to K.Britt.
1Q-6:57 3-G-MIA 9: (Shotgun) J.Locker pass short middle to K.Wright for 9 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
3Q-12:49 2-10-TEN 27: J.Locker pass short left to C.Stevens to TEN 34 for 7 yards (K.Burnett).
3Q-12:12 3-3-TEN 34: (Shotgun) J.Locker pass short middle to K.Britt to TEN 42 for 8 yards (J.Wilson).
I've tried to be lumpy in this post, but there wasn't a category I really liked for any of these, so it's back to another serial discussion.
A. Another play out of full house, this one as well a bootleg. The Dolphins defend the play well, nobody is open, and Locker throws the ball away, albeit closer to Britt instead of Washington.
B. Jimmy Wilson, Pigeon. With the two receivers to the left side, the Titans run a seam and an in with Wright coming off the outside. Wilson is your interior zone defender. He gets caught ouf of position and flat-footed, a bad position to be in that gives him no leverage against Wright running to the inside of the field. Locker's throw is perhaps a bit high, but catchable, and Wright is able to elude Wilson and dive into the end zone.
C. I get to write a short throw to the outside Locker completes. Stevens runs a shallow drag. The defender has good coverage, and Stevens doesn't separte, but Locker has good placement, possibly putting the ball the only place it could have been, and Stevens hauls it in with a diving catch.
D. Jimmy Wilson, Pigeon. the Titans go with a spread look on third-and-short the play after Stevens' catch. Britt, lined up in the left slot, has Wilson lined up over him in man coverage. An easy inside release for a quick slant and Locker has an easy pitch-and-catch for the first down.
Notwithstanding the decent efficiency numbers, I expected to see very mixed, at best, things from Locker's play this day. The contrarian in me (I'm not going to deny it exists) would have been delighted to be a downer from the general enthusiasm for Locker's performance. What I saw, though, was a more thoroughgoingly average performance in line with Locker's overall numbers. He had some throws that weren't too bad, like the deep comebacks and the seam throw to Cook. He had some throws I didn't like that much, like the seam throw to Reynaud and The Misses. He used his legs to very good effect at times, albeit relying on them a little more than I'd like. In short, he looked like a quarterback in his second season who's neither that good nor that bad. That, in itself, is perhaps a bit of a victory.
More on Locker as the season goes on, of course.