Breaking it down in Nashville: Eagles at Titans…

Eagles vs Titans
Eagles vs. Titans
Sun., Oct. 24,  1:00 PM ET
Radio: Sirius 125, 94 WYSP


Hello, old friends… former Eagles Jason Babin (top, DE) and Will Witherspoon (bottom, OLB) are having very nice results in the Titans defensive scheme this season. Babin already has 6 sacks, while Witherspoon has 3 from his outside linebacker position.  (Top photo credit: Andrew Strickert of Total Titans)

 This promises to be one armor-clanging helluva battle in Nashville… Here’s On The Inside’s gallery fave JeromeBrown99’s prognosis:  “We gots to keep containment big time vs CJ and VY. We gots to win up front or we’ll lose. We’ll see tons of Cover2. Titans DL is young and fantastic… led by Jason Jones, SenDerrick Marks, Dave Ball and Tony Brown. We’ll also see our old pals Spoon and Babin.”

“CJ” of course is the electrifying running back Chris Johnson (5-11, 200, 3rd year, E. Carolina), and “VY” is  quarterback Vince Young, 6-5, 233, now in his 5th year out of Texas.  Young is supposed to start for the Titans, but suffers from a banged-up knee…if Vince can’t go, veteran Kerry Collins will be ready to take over.

We go to Total Titans for the latest rumblings from Nashville….
   (TotalTitans.com has been the best independent football blog to originate out of Nashville, now in its 5th year and featuring the original work of Andrew Strickert, Drexel Perry and Tom Gower…these guys know their stuff! They were kind enough to let me sit in on a scouting session as they prepared for the Eagles game on Sunday…)

How Tom Gower of Total Titans realistically views the strengths and weaknesses of the Titans:
An Average Offense
The numbers match what my eyes are telling me: the Titans are a pretty average team when it comes to passing the ball.  The rushing game remains above average, but hasn’t been nearly as explosive or consistent as it was last year.  I’m not quite so down on the Titans offense as this, but by FO’s DVOA, they currently rank 15th in passing offense and 18th in rushing offense, for 18th overall.
An Excellent Defensive Line
The Titans’ strengths defensively this year can be summed up simply: the defensive line has been OUTSTANDING this year.  Not blessed with the kind of superlative individual talents they’ve had in the past with early career Jevon Kearse and Albert Haynesworth in his final years, there are still some darned good players (Tony Brown and Jason Jones, to name two), and some guys who I don’t think are really that great who are still having phenomenal years (Dave Ball and Jason Babin, to name two).  A couple numbers to demonstrate the success:
—-Over a quarter of all opponent runs go for 0 yards or a loss, third in the NFL;
—-They lead the league in Sacks with  22 , and 17 of those are by the defensive linemen.
An Exploitable Rush Defense
The problem, though, is about runs that get beyond the line of scrimmage.  They rank 26th in the league on what FO terms 2nd level yards, which is yards between 5 and 10 yards downfield, and a decidedly average 15th in terms of allowing rushes that pick up 10 or more yards.
Spottily Effective Pass Defense
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure exactly how good the Titans’ pass offense is yet.  As noted above, they’ve shown an excellent pass rush thus farBy FO stats, the Titans’ pass D has been excellent, rated third in the league.  Conventional rate stats are less kind, ranking them 15th in YPA, 13th in AYPA, and 10th in both NetYPA and ANYPA.  They also rank 4th-worst in pass yards allowed, but frankly I only pay attention to that for fantasy purposes and don’t think you should pay attention much attention to it either in evaluating how good a team is.
There are some interesting player notes there.  The TE ranking is a complete reversal from last season, where the Titans were horrid.  Will Witherspoon has been a great acquisition, and Stephen Tulloch is, in my opinion, much better in coverage than he has been in the past.  The Titans have done a good job of gameplanning not to let the opposing tight end beat them, and then going out and executing that gameplan.  I also should credit the tight ends here; part of the weakness against tight ends last year came from Michael Griffin getting beat like a drum, and that hasn’t happened with nearly the same consistency this year.
Where they’re weaker, though, has been on running backs and adapting to them, especially shiftier guys, leaking out of the backfield.  While Witherspoon has been good against tight ends, he struggles times to break down and wrap up players in space, missing tackles against Bradshaw and failing to adjust to Buckhalter in coverage, while Tulloch has just been beat.  McRath’s return should help when they’re in base personnel, but I’d expect.  
Two other personnel notes: the depth at DB seems to be much better than it was last year, as Verner has played reasonably well filling in for McCourty and Fuller seems to be getting beat less consistently than he was last year.  Part of what’s driving the production by opposing top receivers, though, has been Cortland Finnegan not having a good year.  I’ve generally expressed what feels like a slightly contrarian opinion of Finnegan, namely that while he’s good, he’s not great and a far cry from a true shutdown corner. This year, though, I’m not even convinced he’s been the sort of “good but not elite” starter he’s been in the past.
Some Causes for Concern?
The reason I’ve been concentrating on the coverage issues is that gaudy 10% sack rate almost certainly isn’t sustainable.  No team in the previous six seasons (as far back as I bothered to check) has sustained that sort of sack rate over the course of a year; the 5th-best Adjusted Sack Rate has averaged more like 8% of the time.  Teams will, like
Denver and Dallas both did in the second half, switch to more of a 3-step quick passing game.  Even though the Titans had a lot of sacks, both Orton and Romo threw the ball for a bunch of yards, and a timely coverage stop or bust is a big part of the reason the Titans lost to the Broncos and then beat the Cowboys.  They’re going to need more of those coverage stops if they want to sustain having the kind of pass defense that can carry a more average offense.Another reason for concern: one of the things FO likes to harp on for a reason as to why teams “surprisingly” get better or worse is what’s termed the third down rebound effect.  Because of the smaller number and larger number of third downs, third down performance tends to be more variable than performance on first and second downs.  If a team is great on first and second downs, but mediocre on third downs, we’d expect to see them play better on third downs, not play worse on first and second downs.  This year, the Titans have been great on first downs, below-average on second downs, and absolutely fantastic, best in the league, on third downs.  That sort of performance will almost certainly come down back to earth as the year goes on.
So, How Good Are They?
The Titans have clearly had a very good start.  Chris Johnson has been much less effective than last year, but not nearly as bad, in performance terms, as you probably think.  Vince Young has, I’d say, been roughly average or slightly above; maybe about the same level as where he was the last 10 games of last season, all things considered, but does not seem to have made the tremendous strides I was hoping for and some people may have been expecting. 
As I tried to stress above, the key to the Titans’ strong performance this year has been the defense, and in particular the defensive line.  In some key areas, though, that defensive line and overall defensive performance appears to be unsustainable.  It’s better than the liability I feared it was, but isn’t as elite as it looks like it might be right now.  Opposing teams, when they have their starter in, will likely continue to have success throwing the ball against the Titans defense, and those teams will likely be better than Titans’ opponents have been thus far at turning those yards into points.  When that happens, the Titans will start to lose games they’ve been winning

Thanks for that, Tom.  Next, in our afternoon session, I got to sit down with Drexel Perry of Total Titans for a Q&A Session based on what Titans fans and Eagles fans had asked us to discuss…plus, that dreaded weekend prediction for the game on Sunday: all that in the next blurb…


Thomas Jackson

About Thomas Jackson

Jax Sports Media has been reporting on NFL teams in the mid-Atlantic region since 2006. Thomas Jackson is its senior writer. Tom started covering the Philadelphia Eagles for the MVN Network in 2007. In 2009 he joined the Bloguin Network. He now also covers the Baltimore Ravens.