This is what I get, right? Football karma. I go running my mouth about this team and the leap they've taken, and then this happens.
Sunday was a bad day for the Tennessee Titans. The staff had issues with not getting away from the passing game. We couldn't manage to stop Dez Bryant down the stretch. The defense looked like the unit we're used to as they got gashed in the run game. Perhaps the biggest disappointment, and largest factor in us losing this game, was Jake Locker. So, we'll start there.
I wrote a series of posts over the Summer on Jake Locker. These were the general findings:
When Locker was selected, it was widely accepted that he was a work in progress. A physical freak with off the charts intangibles that was still learning the game. I think this reference point is important. Because he didn't have the polish of other high end draft picks, the lens through which he's evaluated is different. You're after the ceiling. It's why you take the risk on a guy like Jake Locker over an Andy Dalton. It then becomes a two pronged question:
1. Is Jake Locker progressing year over year?
2. Can you win with Jake Locker as he matures?
We'll have to see how Locker advances this year, but, thusfar, I'm comfortable saying that the answer to both these questions is yes.
The tape showed last year that he struggled with throws over the middle. In particular, he struggled with throws with a muddy read, and/or when he was cycling reads (ie. it wasn't the first read in the progression). I thought pre-injury, it looked like the game was slowing down a bit, and he getting more comfort in the mud, so to speak. As we get through this year, and certainly by the end of this year, we need to feel good about both of the above questions, and - at least to some extent - have resolution. After this game, I'm certainly less confident than I was heading into it, though it is admittedly only one game.
In watching the Kansas City game, I thought Whisenhunt did a wonderful job of clarifying things for Locker, but still putting strain on the defense. And, when Locker trusted these things, he excelled. As I see it with Locker, you've got to get him in rhythm to trust what he's doing early on. With this trust, he tends to perform better in otherwise low points (read progression, and play from the pocket, specifically). Worth noting, he's was far from perfect in this things against KC. But if that was the baseline, there's room to grow from there on the details.
Against Dallas, we never got in that rhythm early. I think Whisenhunt understands the importance of Jake needing this rhythm in order to settle down. And, I think that's why he didn't lean on the run game more, but that's obviously speculation on my part. No less, Jake ended the first two drives with incompletions. The first was a bad no call on an out throw to Wright on a well placed ball. The second was a ball that was slightly late to Nate over the middle, that might have been close to a first down.
This leaves us at the start of the 2nd quarter on 2nd down and 4.
Coming into the 2nd quarter, and sitting on 2nd and short, I thought taking a shot to Hunter would be a good idea. Whiz apparently shared those thoughts. The playcall is a single high look, and the deep 1/3 corner is late getting into his back pedal. Hunter is running a flag route, which is a rhythm throw (thrown from the top of the drop). The issue here is one that's common with Jake. If he doesn't trust what he's seeing, he won't cut the ball loose until the receiver has absolutely broken open. He waits on this. The pressure gets to him as a result, which turns into an underthrown ball and a near interception.
Next play. When plays extend in the pocket longer than usual and Jake has to stand in the pocket, Locker tends to look more and more unsettled. There's a lack of comfort in these situations. You can see the coaching here. He's on the balls of his feet. Cycling. That's the good news. The bad news is that his feet are anxious. He doesn't get square to the target,. The feet don't follow his eyes, and his nerves scream the ball over Delanie's head for an INT.
First play of the following drive. This is basically the same play we ran when we scored with Delanie Walker against the Chiefs in the Red Zone. Double in to the field with the inside receiver running a flag route. Jake doesn't see the underneath defender and throws an incompletion to Hunter. Also, he's staring down Hunter the whole way, which allows the defender an easy break on the ball.
On the next play, we run play action. Taylor Thompson runs a flag route. A flag pattern is a rhythm pattern. By this, I mean, when the QB gets to the top of his drop, this is his primary. He makes this throw off his final drop step. The play is designed without room for a hitch. And for good reason, as you hitch, you're eating up room on the sideline. Thompson is wide open here. Instead of throwing the ball in rhythm, the ball comes out after not only a hitch, but a hitch and gather. This allows pressure to unnecessarily come into the play. Incompletion.
This is the final play we'll look at from Locker. It came on the subsequent drive after the previous drive ended on a completion to Kendall Wright short of the sticks.
It's 3rd and 5. I remember watching this play as it was happening and thinking - If Locker makes this work, he might start getting things together. It seems to just work that way with Locker. He needs that confidence. No less, the nerves are still there. He correctly rolls out of the pocket with his eyes down field to evade pressure. The run is there if he wants it, but I can't fault him for throwing to Nate who's wide open. Locker just fails to settle his feet, throws across his body, and the result is an incompletion.
It wasn't all bad for Locker. Given this mess I've presented above, I feel like I at least need to sneak in this throw, which is what we're looking for out of our QB (even though the result is an incompletion).
Like most games, there were obviously peaks and valleys for Locker in this one. All in all, this may have been his worst game as a pro. The first half was his worst half as a pro, in my opinion. The second half showed some bright spots, like the throw above.
This is in no way a final conclusion on Locker. Far from it. He'll have the rest of the season to prove himself. That said, this game felt like more to me than just a bad statistical performance. Especially in the first half, I saw a regression in baseline QB play. The best way to put it would be that the game just looked too fast for Locker.
The hope is he can adapt moving forward. This team needs some consistency out of the QB position. Not only game to game, but play to play. If there are more games like this on the horizon, this team could be in for a rough stretch.
The other main issue that presented itself on Sunday was the run defense. It was something that finally appeared to be a improving after we bottled up Jamaal Charles, yet it reared it's ugly head against the Cowboys.
In rewatching the coaches tape, the issues primarily appeared to be at the inside linebacker position. Not getting downhill fast enough in run fits. But, other times, it was just an issue of numbers. We found ourselves defending seven gaps with 6 man fronts. We'll start with those looks.
Let's start with the gaps here. We've got from right to left: C, B, A, A, B, C, D. Seven gaps. Six box defenders and Pollard playing backside contain. What we'll see is just a simple outside zone play.
The play starts off bad from the beginning with Casey slanting to the C gap, which basically leaves the backside cutback lane wide open from the beginning. It also leaves Gooden to cover two gaps. Alignment allows the backside guard to immediately get to Gooden. The center double teams Hill, who does a terrible job of maintaining leverage in his gap. As a result of all of these things, there's a big cutback lane for Murray to run through.
Next play we'll look at is a similar situation, but run to strength (TE side). Again, count the gaps (and remember you add a gap for the FB). 8 Gaps. 7 defenders. The Cowboys correctly run to the side where they have numbers. The right side of the screen has 4 gaps to be covered, and 3 defenders in those gaps. Gap between the Tackle and TE is unaccounted for.
Casey shoots his gap. The offensive tackle does a great job of chipping Casey, and then getting upfield to seal Woodyard. Problem is not necessarily the play of our team. We were just at a numbers disadvantage here. In the absence of an outstanding individual effort, these things will happen more often than not.
The Cowboys got in a lot of quick snaps right after motioning the tight end. I wonder if some of this is just the defense still learning (well, I know this is at least somewhat true), and not reacting quickly enough to get lined up.
As we move up the ladder in degrees of concern, here we have an evenly matched box. 7 gaps. 7 defenders.
On this play, the problem is fairly specific. Gooden. Right at the snap, he begins getting downhill into the wrong gap. By the time he realizes what's happened, the zone blocking has crossed his face and his gap is compromised. Easy cutback for Murray for a gain.
And, last, this is a look when we have the box overloaded. 9 gaps. 10 guys in the box. Moreover, they run it into our overload to the left where we have 6 defenders for 5 gaps.
Woodyard has to get downhill here. It's not clear for sure that the frontside A gap is his initial responsibility, though it looks that way by alignment. Still, he's got to know he has numbers here outside. With an overloaded box, the inside linebacker can't afford to get lost in the wash.
I do think this defense is a work in progress. Outstanding defensive line play against the Chiefs may have skewed that learning process a little, but these linebackers don't appear to be playing fast year. I think that will come with time. Still, a Ray Horton defense isn't primarily known for it's run defense. Which isn't to say it will be bad in the way it has in the past. But, like the first play we looked at, sometimes you're going to get caught stunting, and put yourself at a disadvantage. It's a compromise for a potent pass rush. Though, of course, a compromise with the amount of imbalance that we saw against Dallas is not sustainable.
There were good things in this game. These two issues (passing game, and defending the run) just seemed to be the primary deciding factors, so that's what I dug into this week. The run game looked great, just as it did in the Chiefs game. I hope we start leaning on that a little more. And, for the second week in a row, we got solid pressure on the QB, which appears to be another bright spot for this team.
I remain optimistic about this team for the year. Things are still a work in progress. But, with these problems popping up this past game, I'll be looking for just that in the games ahead - progress.