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Titans offensive struggles run far deeper than a few poorly timed drops

Are the drops bad? Of course. Are they the primary cause of the Titans lack of offense? No.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Titans offense is bad. Like really bad. Through 7 weeks of play, only two teams have scored fewer points than Tennessee’s 106 — the Cardinals and the Bills. Ten teams who have scored more than the Titans — the Panthers, Redskins, Bears, Buccaneers, Lions, Saints, Packers, Raiders, Seahawks, and Steelers — have already had their bye week.

Over the last few days I have seen this graphic used a lot as an explanation for why this offense has been so bad during 2018.

Drops are a relatively subjective measure though so I checked out a few other sources. STATS had the Titans ranked 12th in the NFL with 10 total drops on the season. Compiling PFF’s individual player drop data also had the Titans ranked 12th, but with 12 drops instead of 10. The drop rate for Titans receivers is at 8.3% of catchable passes which is 8th highest in the NFL per PFF.

I decided to chart it myself just to be sure and I came up with these 13:

  1. Dion Lewis drops a pass on a hitch route on 2nd and 12 against Miami which would have gained about 5 yards. The Titans would fail to convert the 3rd and 12 on the next play, leading to a punt down 17-10 with about 12:00 left in the game.
  2. Jonnu Smith drops a short pass on 2nd and 3 against Miami which may have gotten the first down. The Titans would convert on 3rd and 3 the next play to extend the drive.
  3. Dion Lewis drops a check down on 4th and 7 against Miami, but there was no chance he was getting the first down even if he caught it.
  4. Rishard Matthews drops a pass on a short hitch route on 3rd and 2 against Jacksonville that would have picked up about 5 yards for the first down. The ball appeared to be knocked out by a defender, but Matthews should have had this one. Titans punt.
  5. Tajae Sharpe drops a dig route on 3rd and 6 against Jacksonville that would have picked up about 10-15 yards. He was wide open and the pass hit him right in the numbers. Titans punt.
  6. Jonnu Smith drops a pass from a scrambling Marcus Mariota on 3rd and 7 that would have picked up about 10 yards. Again, wide open and hit him right in the numbers. Titans settle for a field goal.
  7. Taywan Taylor drops a back shoulder throw on 3rd and 4 against Philadelphia that would have picked up about 15-20 yards. He was late locating the ball in the air and made the catch harder than it needed to be. This is probably not a pure drop, but it was a wide receiver error, so we’re putting it in.
  8. Darius Jennings drops a deep post on 1st and 10 in overtime against Philadelphia that would have gone for about 50 yards. This one hits him right in the numbers as well, but he can’t hang on. I have seen some saying that he would have scored on this play, but that’s not true. He almost certainly gets pulled down by one of the three Eagles defenders who were in the area. It still would have been a big play though.
  9. Corey Davis drops a quick slant on 2nd and goal in overtime against Philadelphia. This throw was a bit behind him, but should have easily been catchable. This drop actually helped the Titans though as Davis was going to be tackled immediately and they likely would not have had time to get another play off before being forced to kick the field goal.
  10. Nick Williams drops a deep pass from a scrambling Mariota on 3rd and 4 against Buffalo. You know the one. It goes for a 21 yard touchdown if he catches it and the Titans likely win the game. Titans instead settle for a field goal.
  11. Corey Davis drops a pass on a short hitch route on 2nd and 10 against Baltimore. I debated about whether or not to include this one. Davis slips on a wet field as he’s trying to stop on the route. By the time he gets up the ball is already on him and he’s barely able to get a hand on it. Titans would punt two plays later.
  12. Taywan Taylor drops a pass on a crossing route on 1st and 10 against Los Angeles. No excuse for this one. He was wide open and it hit him right in stride. However, the Titans would convert the first down a couple plays later to continue the drive.
  13. Corey Davis drops a pass on an out route on 3rd and 7 against Los Angeles. This may be the most frustrating one of the group because it looks to me like Davis has his head around in plenty of time, but just tries to one-hand the catch for no reason. Titans miss a field goal on the next play.

First, I know that some will disagree with me leaving the pass to Taywan Taylor in the endzone against Miami off this list, but if we’re looking at actual drops I just can’t include that one. If you’re looking for opportunities where the receivers could have made a big play for the offense, that is definitely on that list, but I don’t think it belongs in the “drop” category.

All of these are frustrating to watch back — as all drops for any team are — and there does seem to be an inordinate number of drops coming at critical times. Out of the 13 drops, 7 of them have come on either 3rd or 4th down. Worse, 8 of the 13 have come in the 4th quarter or overtime. If you want to make the argument that these guys are getting tight in big spots and/or pressing to come up with a clutch play, there appears to be some truth to that line of thinking.

I say all that to acknowledge, that yes, the drops are an issue. You could easily argue that the Titans are 5-2 with wins over the Bills and Chargers if Nick Williams and Corey Davis are able to catch open passes in the 4th quarters of those games.

But would that substantially change the way you felt about this offense?

It wouldn’t for me. Maybe the focus of the conversation would be around how well the defense is playing, but there would still be major concern over the offense.

For example, let’s say we have a magic wand and can use it to change the three biggest missed opportunities due to drops into complete passes. I’ll use the Williams drop against Buffalo, the Davis drop against LA, and the Jennings drop against Philadelphia. We would add 10 points — giving the Titans a field goal from the Chargers drive — and about 100 yards to the team totals for the season while lowering the drop rate to below league average. Those changes would move the Titans offense from 30th in points scored to a tie for 28th and would bump them from 29th in total yards of offense to 28th. Basically, this is still a bottom five offense even if they have a below average drop rate.

Look around the league at other teams. The Chiefs with all their offensive weapons have 13 drops on the season per PFF — one more than Tennessee according to their charting — and yet they’ve scored 154 more points than the Titans have in 2018. That’s a delta of 22 points per game.

Cleveland — with a rookie quarterback, an average at best offensive line, and one legitimate pass catcher in Jarvis Landry — is averaging almost 7 points and over 75 yards more per game than Tennessee despite having a whopping 21 drops according to PFF.

The actual issue, in my opinion, is the lack of explosive plays in the Titans offense. Sharp Football Stats defines explosive plays as runs of 10+ yards and passes of 15+ yards. Through 7 weeks, the Titans have 11 explosive rushes and 9 explosive passes. Those totals rank 29th and 30th, respectively, in the NFL. The Titans rank 31st — above only the lowly Cardinals — when it comes to combined explosive plays with 20. Even the Bills have a higher total. For some context the two LA teams have 51 combined explosive plays each through 7 weeks.

But what about the drops limiting the explosive plays? That’s a factor of course, but even giving the benefit of the doubt on a few of the plays listed above, the Titans would add — at most — 5 explosive plays if they had caught all of those passes. That would move them up to 24th in the NFL. That’s still not good enough.

Explosive plays are crucial to scoring in the modern NFL. Studies have found that drives that include an explosive play result in points over 75% of the time. An explosive play basically doubles your odds of scoring on any given drive.

Right now, the Titans are largely relying on stringing together an endless stream of 3rd downs before eventually converting in the red zone for a touchdown. They are yet to score a touchdown on offense from outside the red zone. That’s a really tough formula for success. The Titans are converting 3rd downs at a rate of 38.1% which is 21st in the league. In the red zone, Tennessee has scored a touchdown on 43.8% of their opportunities, 29th in the NFL. With an average starting line of scrimmage of the 26-yard line, that means that without the help of explosive plays, the Titans are left trying to pick up about five 1st downs on the way to the end zone during their average drive.

So how do the Titans become a more explosive offense? That’s the question that Jon Robinson, Mike Vrabel, and Matt LaFleur need to be asking themselves this week. Maybe a trade for a guy like DeSean Jackson who could add that element through his elite speed and ball-tracking ability would make sense. However, if they don’t decide to make a roster move, it’s going to fall on LaFleur to find a way to scheme some receivers open.

It’s also going to fall on Marcus Mariota to be aggressive attacking down field and the receivers to get open and catch the ball when they do get an opportunity to make a big play. Even when the offense has been good in 2018, it has largely taken them falling behind early to wake them up. Tennessee is dead last in the NFL in 1st half points, averaging just 5 per game. They nearly double that number in the second half — though that is still good for just 27th in the league. They need to come out of the gates aggressive if they want to get things on track in the second half of the year.