The Titans opened the season better than most expected, starting the year off with a 3-1 record before a 3-game losing streak brought that down to 3-4.
Through 12 weeks, the Titans owned a lackluster 5-6 record.
Since then, the Titans are winners in three consecutive games, the team’s second three-game winning streak of the season. Now sitting with an 8-6 record, the Titans are very much in the thick of the playoff hunt.
Over the first 11 games (12 weeks) of the season, the Titans’ offense averaged just 17.7 points per game.
Over the last 3 games, that number is up to 24.3 points per game.
So what’s changed? Are the Titans getting better?
The Titans defense has really clamped down over the past three weeks, giving the Titans’ offense more chances to move the ball. After giving up 9/21 third down attempts in the two games against the Colts and Texans, the Titans defense has been incredibly stingy on third down.
During the current 3-game Titans' winning streak, they have allowed just 8 third-down conversions on 42 attempts.— The Athletic (@TheAthleticNSH) December 18, 2018
That's 19 percent. And very, very, very stout.
More on why the Titans are excelling from @glennonsports:https://t.co/XioDrDyqZt
Not only has the defense been able to get off the field on third downs, they’ve also kept teams out of the end zone.
In the two games prior to the win streak, the Colts and Texans scored a combined seven touchdowns in eight red zone trips.
But over the last three games, the Titans have allowed just one touchdown from anywhere on the field, and that was Dede Westbrook’s iffy catch in the back of the end zone after the Titans had already built a 30-2 lead.
During the Titans 3-game win streak, the defense has forced 4 turnovers, and the team has won the turnover battle by a 2:1 margin.
In the first 11 games of the year, the Titans forced just 9 total turnovers while the offense gave it away 13 times. This stark turnaround in turnover margin has been crucial to the Titans’ ability to commit to what’s been a very strong running game.
Last week, the Titans pitched their first shut-out since 2000. This defense is playing it’s best football of the season right now, as they completely dominated the Giants and bottled up rookie sensation Saquon Barkley in their own stadium.
Unfortunately, Logan Ryan was placed on Injured Reserve with a fractured fibula and will be out for the remainder of the season, which is devastating both for Ryan himself and also for this defense. Ryan was instrumental in the secondary’s communication and is an excellent run defender. They will miss him.
There is some good news on the injury front in that it doesn’t sound like Sharif Finch’s shoulder will keep him out for too long,
I caught up with Titans OLB Sharif Finch in the locker room. He says there's a chance he plays this week. Suffered a shoulder injury vs. Giants on Sunday.— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_NFL) December 18, 2018
Hopefully he will be ready in time for Week 17.
The Running Game
Turning over the reigns to Derrick Henry has had probably the most profound effect on the offensive output.
During the Titans 3-1 start to the season, Henry averaged 13.5 carries per game.
In the ensuing 2-5 stretch, Henry averaged just 9.1 carries per game.
Over the recent three-game winning streak, Henry has averaged 20 carries per game while averaging 7.5 yards per carry.
Derrick Henry averaged 3.6 ypc over the first 12 games of the #Titans season. He's averaged 8.1 ypc in the two games since.— Jamal (@Jamalisms) December 19, 2018
Henry of course set a new franchise record for the most rushing yards in back-to-back games with his 408 yards and 6 touchdowns in the last two weeks, breaking Earl Campbell’s record. He also became the first Titan to rush for 150+ yards in back-to-back games since Chris Johnson did so in 2011.
The age-old debate of “rushing attempts leading to wins” versus “wins leading to rushing attempts” notwithstanding, it’s clear that Henry’s resurgence over the last three weeks has keyed something for this Titans’ offense. In the last two games, Marcus Mariota has just 250 TOTAL passing yards, mostly because the Titans were fully in control of both games and never needed Mariota to throw.
Over those two games, the Titans have converted 12 of 24 third down tries with Mariota going 9/12 for 87 of his 250 passing yards on that crucial down, including 7 conversions through the air (and 2 more on the ground). Mariota has been efficient (for the most part) and executed well, including at the line of scrimmage assessing the defense before the snap.
Despite going just 12/20 for 88 yards against the Giants, Pro Football Focus had Mariota rated as one of the Titans’ top-5 graded players... so take that for whatever you want it to mean. As the run game continues to demand respect, the passing game should open up with play action, but there’s no need to force anything as long as the run game is working as well as it has been.
A huge part of that recent rushing success is the improvements shown by the offensive line. Over the past two games, the line has started to execute the zone blocking scheme much better than they were earlier in the season. The interior players aren’t getting stuck on combo blocks nearly as often; they’re now getting to the second level defenders more frequently. The tackles are executing their assignments, especially 2018 Pro Bowl Tackle Taylor Lewan, who has excelled at moving bodies in space lately, and Dennis Kelly, who was Pro Football Focus’s highest graded tackle of Week 15 playing in the Giants game after losing his father earlier in the week. Maximizing the offensive line’s efforts, Derrick Henry has been seeing things clearly and making decisive cuts to get upfield for positive yards.
The entire Titans run game has really developed over the past few weeks. Front side of this outside zone run is excellent. Stocker rides the LB momentum to the sideline. Lewan reaches his defender. Spain to the 2nd level. Jones erases 1 tech. Henry makes the whole thing go. pic.twitter.com/kEFtf2gGf8— Superhorn (@Super_Horn) December 18, 2018
The running output has powered the entire offense for the past two games. That success has been a big factor in the Titans offense averaging nearly a touchdown more per game during this win streak compared to their first 11 games.
Derrick Henry’s 408 rushing yards the last 2 games accounts for 19% of his career rushing yards (2,116).— Austin Stanley (@AustinStanley81) December 17, 2018
In his 45 career games Henry averages: 10.3 carries, 47 yards, .46 TD… #Titans
As long as Henry continues churning out yards at a career-high yards per tote, the Titans should keep feeding him the rock.
While the Titans have certainly played better over the last few weeks (starting with the second half of the Jets game), the competition they’ve faced has also severely declined.
Which raises the question, are the Titans getting better, or has the competition been worse?
The truth is that it’s probably a bit of both.
After dropping the franchise’s tenth straight loss to Andrew Luck, the Titans were literally run off the field at NRG Stadium by the now 10-4 Texans, losing those two road division games by a combined score of 72-27. Then came the three-game win streak.
Teams that faced toughest schedules so far— Jason_OTC (@Jason_OTC) December 3, 2018
1. Broncos- 0.587
2. Titans- 0.549
3. Bengals- 0.545
4. Browns- 0.542
5. Raiders- 0.534
6. Falcons- 0.531
7. Rams- 0.530
7. Bills- 0.530
7. Lions- 0.530
10. Jaguars- 0.523
The Titans’ schedule over the first 12 weeks - note the date on the above tweet - was one of the toughest in the NFL, but things have eased up more recently.
Titans Opponents’ Records
Weeks 1-12: 77-63 (54.9%)
Weeks 13-15: 13-29 (31%)
Weeks 16-17: 15-13 (53.6%)
Titans Opponents’ Average DVOA Rank
Average DVOA rank, Weeks 1-12: 15.1 (including four teams in the top ten DVOA)
Average DVOA rank, Weeks 13-15: 20 (ranks 16 (NYG), 18 (JAX), 26 (NYJ))
Average DVOA rank, Weeks 16-17: 18.5 (ranks 10 (IND) and 27 (WAS)).
The three teams they’ve since played were...
- The now 4-10 Jets, starting their backup journeyman quarterback Josh McCown, whose QB Rating for the season would be the lowest of all quarterbacks if he qualified;
- The dumpster fire version of Jacksonville, who clearly had no interest in tackling Derrick Henry, also starting their backup quarterback, Cody Kessler, whose QB Rating for the season would rank 31st among quarterbacks if he qualified, and;
- The Giants, who were coming off of 4 wins in 5 games, but against a few of the league’s bottom-feeders, including Washington (with a fourth-string quarterback), the Bears (with a backup quarterback), the Eagles (to whom they lost), the Bucs (with a backup quarterback), and the 49ers (with a third-string QB). While the Giants were playing good football, it wasn’t exactly against the best teams in the league.
None of this is meant to take away from what the Titans have accomplished over the last three weeks. Any win in the NFL is a good win, and the Titans completely dominated the Giants on the road, even if the final score didn’t reflect the physical beatdown they administered.
The upcoming matchup with Washington falls right in line with this lightened schedule, as Washington ranks just 27th in total DVOA and will again be starting that 4th-string quarterback, Josh Johnson. Washington is still fighting to win the NFC East, but given their injury situation (they literally lead the league in players on Injured Reserve) they’re quite the underdog.
Washington was able to beat the Jaguars last week, but as I mentioned above, the reigning AFC South champions have devolved into an every-man-for-themselves wasteland of failed hopes and dead dreams.
Jalen Ramsey was asked if he’s worried about HC Doug Marrone’s job security. His response: “I ain’t worried about nobody but myself.” (via @phillip_heilman)— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) December 16, 2018
This game was much more about Jacksonville losing than it was Washington winning. Cody Kessler turned in a horrendous performance, and Jacksonville’s defense looked like they were hardly even trying when they let Washington overcome a 13-6 deficit in the 4th quarter to win 16-13, especially on Washington’s final game-winning field goal drive.
According to Mike Vrabel, it was Washington’s first victory when trailing at halftime since the 2016 season.
I saw Cody Kessler's @NextGenStats passing chart floating around and it is BAD so I wanted to watch the film and give some context to it. This was arguably the worst performance of an entire offense I've ever seen. OL, WRs and play design was horrid but somehow Kessler was worse pic.twitter.com/MFKCPDESFY— Seth Galina (@SethGalina) December 18, 2018
In his six quarters since taking over for Mark Sanchez in the third quarter of Washington’s game against New York, Josh Johnson has 27 completions on 41 attempts for 246 yards, with 2 passing touchdowns and 1 interception. He’s also run for 94 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.
Washington allowed Saquon Barkley and the Giants to run all over them two weeks ago, with Barkley racking up 170 yards on just 14 carries (including a 78-yard touchdown) while the Giants rushed for 227 yards total.
I did a quick breakdown of Barkley’s long touchdown to illustrate how the Titans can take advantage of similar deficiencies in Washington’s defense. It came on a designed wind back run for the Giants.
The defense over-pursued on the zone run look, and Barkley made them pay. In case you hadn’t heard, the Titans also employ a zone running scheme, and Henry happens to be very effective at the wind back.
Given that and the recent success the Titans have had running the ball, it feels like this could be another big Derrick Henry game, but Washington has a strong defensive line and has been fairly stout against the run for the majority of the season outside of their match-up with the Giants.
On the other side of the ball, Washington’s offensive line is banged up beyond recognition, with six offensive linemen on Inured Reserve. That includes 2x Pro Bowler Brandon Scherff, middling starter Shawn Lauvao, who was re-signed last offseason, back-up-tackle-turned-starter Geron Christian, back-up guard Arie Kouandjio, former top-ten pick Jonathan Cooper, who was signed a few weeks ago to fill in for all these injuries, reserve lineman Tyler Catalina, who was injured before the start of the season, and even their long-snapper Nick Sundberg.
In addition to those IR’d linemen, starting guard Tony Bergstrom has missed the past two games due to a right ankle injury and he’s looking questionable for Saturday. Meanwhile, Ty Nsekhe, a very good backup tackle who was filling in at guard, was injured during last week’s game against the Jags. His status for this weekend is unknown.
The Titans’ defensive line should have a chance to get pressure against this patchwork line. Starting tackles Trent Williams and Morgan Moses are also banged up but have mostly been playing through it. Moses is a bit of a slower right tackle, and if Harold Landry gets to match up with him one-on-one, Landry could get around him with his speed.
Speaking of Harold Landry, the rookie got after the quarterback last weekend playing in a larger role, even if he didn’t notch a sack. Landry racked up 5 quarterback pressures and 4 QB hits according to Pro Football Focus. This performance coincided with a career high snap count for Landry, as he played 56 snaps and was in for 86.2% of the defensive plays.
While this seems like a matchup the Titans might win easily on paper, we all know what happens when this team doesn’t take an opponent seriously. No game is an easy win - just ask Nick Williams. If the team gets ahead of themselves, they may struggle to contain Washington’s defensive line and read-option rushing attack.
That said, the Titans opened as 10.5-point favorites in this game and should continue to ride Derrick Henry’s hot hand until he cools off.
It’s the looming Week 17 contest with Indianapolis that will truly test this Titans team. An easier schedule may have cracked the door to playoff aspirations, but it will take a win this weekend followed by another against a quality Colts squad to truly earn a spot in the postseason. Will Derrick Henry be able to continue his run of dominance and carry the Titans all the way to the playoffs against a tougher defense?
Hopefully this recent string of match-ups with lesser opponents doesn’t have an adverse effect on the team’s mentality. They’ve been pretty good with their backs against the wall. Let’s see how they close out the season with two games at home and a chance at another playoff run, starting with Saturday’s game against Washington.