Why is the same Titans team that went 7-9 now 2-6?


When I wrote my season preview, I equivocated before ultimately predicting the Tennessee Titans to finish 2014 with the same 7-9 mark they had in 2013. The biggest reason for my prediction was that, ultimately, this was largely the same collection of players that went 7-9. Eighteen of the twenty-two starters in 2013 returned, which is about as much continuity as you can expect in the current NFL. This largely the same Tennessee Titans team enters the bye week with a record of 2-6. The big question is, why?

1. Turnovers. If I had to reduce the 2013 Titans to a single note, it would be that they were 5-1 when they won the turnover battle and 0-7 when they lost it. I dubbed 2013’s Titans team a Life on the Margins squad, as they played many close games that were decided by a break or two the other way. The 2014 Titans squad is not a Life on the Margins team, but winning the turnover battle is still one of the best predictors of winning a game. The Titans’ record in 2014 when they win the turnover battle: 2-1. Their record when they lose it: 0-4.

Looking a little deeper, just like last year, the Titans have turned the ball over themselves just as much as they’ve forced opponents to turn the ball over (25-25 in 2013, 11-11 through eight games in 2014). I often noted 2013’s special luck in recovering turnovers in their wins, getting 18 of 20 loose balls (combined offensive, defensive, and special teams fumbles). 2014’s squad has been on the whole even more fortunate in having a prolate spheroid that bounces oddly bounce in ways that are fortunate to them. Of the 12 total fumbles thus far, the Titans have had possession after nine of them. The Titans are likeliest to have a fumble recovery rate close to 50% in their remaining games, not to sustain their 75% recovery rate.

When it comes to interceptions, the Titans are both throwing interceptions at an above-average rate and intercepting passes themselves at an above-average rate. Call that a bit of a wash up to this point. The most likely future direction of that stat is in a bad way, for the Titans, though. Interceptions are rare events and often subject to wild skew one way or another (just ask Jets fans), but the more incompletions a quarterback throws, the more likely he is to throw interceptions. The Titans are allowing a slightly above-average completion percentage, so we would probably expect them to have a slightly below-average interception rate. To speak of the Titans offense as having a single interception rate is also misleading-they’ve played three quarterbacks, and Zach Mettenebrger seems likely to be the guy going forward. He has posted an interception rate higher than the team’s average (in a small sample size, of course), and as an inexperienced young quarterback is probably likely to continue to throw interceptions at a higher-than-average rate.

I would expect the Titans’ turnover problems to continue, and probably get, worse in the second half. That probably means more losses.

2. The offense. Simpson’s paradox alert! By Football Outsiders numbers (I write for FO perma-disclaimer), the Titans have a higher-ranked run game in 2014 than they did in 2013 and a lower-ranked pass game. By Football Outsiders numbers, the Titans have a worse run game in 2014 than they did in 2013 and a better pass game. The latter numbers are the more meaningful. The pass offense DVOA is similar to what it was, 5.6% in 2013 to 6.1% this year. The decline has come in the run game, from 2.8% to -1.3%. I should note this is not a very significant change, coming it at about one-third of a standard deviation. On the whole, the offense has been only slightly worse than it was last year.

By FO numbers, the offensive line, an area of the team that has felt like such a struggle, has actually been roughly as good as it was last year. By Adjusted Line Yards, which tries to separate the effect of blocking and the line in a statistical formula, the line is actually slightly better than it was last year. The Titans are having more success in Power situations, third and fourth and short and goalline runs. Fewer carries are being stopped behind the line of scrimmage or for no gain (Chris Johnson’s move to New York plays a significant role here; ALY is an attempt to separate back and blocking, but very, very, very far from a completely successful one). They’re having much more success running between the tackles (4.13 ALY, 13th compared to 3.46, 29th in 2013). There are two areas where they’ve gotten worse. First, they can’t run right. They were fourth and fifth by ALY running right tackle and right end last year. They’re 23rd and 31st this year. This is not a surprise if you’ve seen some of my right side blocking disaster images. The second issue was more expected, and something you can live with-they’re not breaking off many long runs. They’re still getting the 5-10 yard carries, but they’ve fallen from 0.60 Open Field Yards per carry, 22nd to 0.39 OFY, 28th. (Again, see the absence of Chris Johnson.)

I should note the Titans are also taking sacks at a slightly higher rate than they were last year, from an ALY of 6.7%, 12th to 7.5%, 20th. Sacks are primarily a quarterback and offense statistic rather than an offensive line one, though, and whatever Ryan Fitzpatrick’s many faults he has long been an infrequently-sacked quarterback. Jake Locker was sacked at a rate about in line with his career average, Charlie Whitehurst was sacked at a similarly high rate, and in his small sample size Zach Mettenberger has been sacked at a below-average rate. I’ll get to his play against the Texans in more detail in a future post, but his familiarity with the concept of pocket movement could make that sustainable.

3. The defense. I did not have high expectations for the Titans defense in their first year under Ray Horton. I covered in the offseason why Horton’s 2013 Browns defense was not a top ten unit (death to total yardage rankings!). Though they returned most of the same team, they lost a Pro Bowl corner in Alterraun Verner, failed to replace him with a significant investment, and were relying on unproven players in their sub package sets (or at starter if Blidi Wreh-Wilson did beat out Coty Sensabaugh, as indeed happened) and had even more questionable depth if an injury occurred (as it did). Thus, it is not a surprise to see the Titans fall from 6.8%, 16th to 11.1%, 21st in passing defense DVOA, while the run defense is about as good as it was (0.5%, 29th from 1.2%, 25th).

One of the characteristics of a Horton defense is he tends to match up his top corner to the opponents’ top wideout. I expressed concern that Jason McCourty was not that kind of player. Horton’s had him do it at times anyway. The result? The Titans have gone from good against opponents’ top wideouts (6th in DVOA, 2nd-best in yards allowed per game) to something worse (14th in DVOA, 29th-best in yards allowed per game thanks to many more targets). Opposing #2 wide receivers are also doing better against them. They are doing better against running backs, but running backs are typically a checkdown option, targeted most frequently when actual receivers and tight ends are not open, so I don’t rate that too highly. Given that I believe the pass defense issues are primarily personnel-related, and have continued even with Blidi Wreh-Wilson’s improvement since the season began, I believe they are likely to continue.

4. Injuries. Outside of when a mostly older offensive line all collapsed to the ground late in 2012, the Titans have generally been one of the healthier teams in the league. I’m not going to run Adjusted Games Lost measures for the Titans and the rest of the league, but they’ve already lost four notable contributors in Michael Roos, Craig Stevens, Zach Brown, and Bernard Pollard to injured reserve, while Sensabaugh and Wreh-Wilson have missed time at a thin position and Taylor Thompson’s absence has exacerbated the tight end woes with Stevens out. (A Jake Locker injury was something you basically had to assume would happen sooner or later.) Good health is a boon to teams that do not have a large margin of error and standout players to cover for absences, and bad health particularly hurts those teams. We’ll see where the Titans come out in terms of total health when the season ends, but I expect them to be average or worse in that area. They’ll get some players back, but there are only some positions where the Titans can sustain injuries and still be reasonably successful.

5. Penalties. This may not be quite as big a factor as you think it is. Penalties are particularly a problem on offense, where the Titans rank fourth in number of penalties and second in yards penalized. Overall, though, they’re only 11th in number of penalties and tenth in penalty yards. The penalties are particularly a problem because the offense has a hard enough time moving the ball when they don’t make mistakes; just look at Sunday, where the Texans converted third-and-7 (via penalty), third-and-12, third-and-8, and third-and-13, and the Titans did not convert a single third down with more than three yards to go.

Conclusion-Type Things

Both the offense and the defense are slightly worse than they were last year. Coming off a low base, somewhat worse is enough to turn a Life on the Margins squad into one that struggles to get to the margins on a weekly basis. Turnovers seem devastating for a such a thoroughly mediocre squad, and injuries hitting them hard have made the job even tougher. Many of the things that have contributed to the current situation do not seem likely to improve, and unless there is a more general turn-around, the Titans are likelier to replicate their first-half record for a 4-12 finish than match last year’s 7-9 mark.

Arrow to top