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A closer look at the Titans offensive numbers against the Bucs

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How can we measure the success of the Titans offense on Sunday?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Last week, I wrote about the “spark” Ryan Tannehill provided the Titans offense as they were extremely efficient moving the ball against the Los Angeles Chargers.

While the Titans actually scored more points in their 27-23 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 8, it felt like the offense was not as good as in the previous game.

Against the Chargers in Week 7, the Titans were well above their season averages in drive success rate, yards per drive, and three-and-outs per drive. I wanted to evaluate the team’s performance against the Bucs with the same criteria using data from Football Outsider, and I was curious about other areas, as well, like 1st-down success rate and tight-window throw statistics.

I’ll be repeating some numbers I included in last week’s article about the Titans’ offense through the first 6 games compared to Week 7 and adding Week 8’s results to the mix along with some new findings...

*Note: all of these numbers exclude “kneel-down” end-of-half drives.

Drive Success Rate

Drive success rate measures the percentage of 4-down series resulting in either a first down or a touchdown. Here are the Titans success rates broken out:

  • First 6 Weeks: 65.1% (would currently rank 29th overall)
  • Week 7: 76.9% (would currently rank 4th amongst season-long averages)
  • Week 8: 60.8% (would currently rank 31st amongst season-long averages)

In Week 8, the team was successful on just 14 of 23 down series, good for a 60.8% success rate. That number was boosted by a 6/6 success rate on the go-ahead 90-yard touchdown drive, up until which the Titans had converted only 8/15 down series into first downs or touchdowns on the day.

A huge reason for this problem was the lack of success on 1st and 2nd downs, leading to impossible 3rd and longs, similar to the problems of the first six weeks of the season.

Here are the 3rd down distances the Titans faced, in order, throughout this game. I’ve bolded the successful conversions (penalties that were ruled “no play” are excluded):

3rd and 15, 3rd and 11, 3rd and goal (from the 6), 3rd and 14, 3rd and 7, 3rd and 11, 3rd and 3, 3rd and 2, 3rd and 7, 3rd and 4, 3rd and goal (from the 8), 3rd and 14, and finally, 3rd and 8.

That’s 9 of 13 third downs (69.2%) facing 7+ yards to gain (converting on just 2 of those 9 tries), and 5 of 13 (38.4%) with 11+ yards to gain. Not exactly a recipe for offensive success.

Facing 3rd-and-manageable (6 or less yards to gain), the Titans were successful on 3 if 4 tries. These consistent 3rd-and-long situations are a fairly obvious cause for the lack of success.

Yards Per Drive

Here are the Titans average yards gained on each drive broken out:

  • First 6 Weeks: 24.88 yards per drive (29th overall)
  • Week 7: 50.4 yards per drive (would currently rank 1st amongst season-long averages)
  • Week 8: 20.67 yards per drive (would currently rank 31st amongst season-long averages)

Even when we remove the two very short touchdown drives from Week 8’s calculations, where the team could only gain a maximum of 16 yards combined, the results sadly aren’t much better. On their ten other drives, the Titans managed a miserable 23.2 yards per drive, which would still rank 31st in the NFL amongst season-long averages.

Three and Outs

Three and outs had been a problem for the offense in the first six games, but not so much against the Chargers. Here’s the three-and-outs per drive broken out:

  • First 6 games: Titans averaged a three-and-out once every 3.45 drives (20 three-and-outs on 69 drives), or 0.29 three-and-outs per drive (would currently rank 30th amongst season-long averages)
  • Week 7: Titans had 0 three-and-outs on 8 drives (would currently rank 1st amongst season-long averages).
  • Week 8: Titans had 4 three-and-outs on 12 drives, an average of one three and out every 3 drives, or .33 three-and-outs per drive (would currently rank 32nd amongst season-long averages).

In stark contrast to Week 7’s output, the Titans fell short of their season averages in all of the above categories. Measuring by drive success rate, yards per drive, and three-and-out frequency, the Titans offense was horrendous in this game.

These statistics matter because it indicates a level of unsustainability with the offense. Yes, they managed to score 27 points, but the process that got them there can’t be counted on as a viable strategy, relying on turnovers to create short fields. It’s happened for the Titans twice in eight games.

Credit to the offense for converting those abundant short fields into touchdowns in both the Cleveland and Tampa Bay games, but the team will need to be able to move the ball at a higher rate than their season averages suggest they can if they want to make a playoff push.

1st Down Success

As I mentioned above, I believe a large reason for the struggles in this game was the team’s lack of success on first and second down, setting up too many third-and-unmanageables.

The Titans ran 24 first down plays in Week 8. They were “successful” (a 1st-down play is considered successful when it gains at least 40% of the yards-to-gain) on...

  • 11 of 24 (45.8%) first down plays overall
  • 4 of 11 (36.4%) first down rush attempts
  • 7 of 13 (53.8%) first down pass attempts

The first down rushes included four runs of -1 yards each, but also runs of 34, 18, and 15 yards. There was additionally a 42-yard run negated by a holding penalty.

So while the Titans were only successful on 4 of 11 first-down runs, those four plays averaged 18 yards each and produced 3 first downs. Overall, they averaged 7.27 yards per play on 1st-down rush attempts, so while they didn’t consistently keep the offense ahead of the sticks, they did produce successful runs often enough to almost make them appear worthwhile.

If they simply start turning the negative plays into short gains, the offense will quickly find its footing.

Red Zone Performance

Tampa Bay’s turnovers and the Titans’ red zone success—both on offense and on defense—played a huge factor in the Titans’ ability to win this game. Tennessee is now 6/6 converting red zone trips into touchdowns since Ryan Tannehill took over as the starter, including 3/3 in Week 8. 2 of those 3 red zone trips started in the red zone thanks to Jameis Winston turnovers.

Prior to Week 7, the Titans had scored 8 touchdowns on 15 red zone trips, which would currently be tied for 20th in the NFL with New Orleans at 53.3%. Their 100% touchdown rate over the past two weeks would obviously rank 1st in the NFL, and the team’s performance over the last two games has brought them up to 3rd in the league in red zone touchdown percentage.

Meanwhile, the Buccaneers converted just 2 of their 4 red zone trips into touchdowns, with the Titans defense able to make two critical goal line stands after the game-winning goal line stand in Week 7. The red zone proved to be the difference maker.

Unfortunately, red zone success has proven to be a fluky, unsustainable statistic over the course of NFL history. Sample sizes are just too small to indicate any kind of predictive results, and the many variables at play are often ignored and/or generalized. So we can only hope the Titans continue whatever magic they have working right now. The touchdown to Jonnu Smith was a well designed play against pretty terrible coverage. The Tajae Sharpe touchdown was a very nice throw and catch.

Tight Window Passes

One of the most impressive feats displayed by the Titans’ new starting quarterback in Week 7 was the tight window completions. Tannehill had four incredible throws against the Chargers where he managed to squeeze the ball into extremely tight windows.

According to Next Gen Stats, Tannehill’s aggressiveness percentage (the percentage of attempts where a defender is within 1 yard of the receiver at the time of the completion or incompletion) was 24.1%, 2nd-highest of Week 7. His actual completion percentage was 22.1% better than his expected completion percentage (measured using Next Gen Stats’ passer Completion Probability on every play to determine what a passer’s completion percentage is expected to be), the highest mark of the week by quite a bit (Aaron Rodgers was next with 13.9%).

For reference, Kirk Cousins has the highest completion percentage above expectation amongst full season starters at +8.2%, so Tannehill’s +22.1% differential from Week 7 was never going to be sustainable.

Those same types of tight-window throws appeared in Week 8 (at a more frequent rate), but the unsustainable nature of those passes was apparent in this game.

Against the Buccaneers, Tannehill’s aggressiveness percentage increased to 33.3%, again 2nd-highest in the NFL for the week. However, his completion percentage over expectation was just +1.7%, around the middle of the pack league-wide. He was still completing throws at a slightly better rate than you’d expect, but the offense often stalled because he wasn’t completing them at the ridiculous 22.1%-above-expected clip from the previous week.

Among all quarterbacks in the league, Tannehill actually has the highest overall completion percentage above expectation at +11.9%. This number will likely continue decreasing towards the “mean” as his sample size grows.

Taking chances on contested throws can lead to more big plays for the offense, but when you need to rely on those difficult plays for offensive success, you end up with games like this one where the Titans’ drive success rate and yards-per-drive stats were pitiful.

Ultimately, throwing to open receivers is preferable to throwing to covered ones. The Titans are never going to sustain any kind of offensive success attempting “aggressive” throws on 25.6% of passes, which is Tannehill’s current season average, good for 3rd-most aggressive in the NFL, unless they can complete them at a well above average rate.

For reference, Drew Brees leads the league with the lowest aggressiveness percentage at just 6.6%. Patrick Mahomes sits 3rd at 10.8%, and Aaron Rodgers is 7th at 12.7%. Being “aggressive” with downfield throws isn’t necessarily the same as being “aggressive” by the Next Gen Stats definition, which is more along the lines of throwing to covered receivers.

The Titans offense would be better served to find a way to create open receivers down the field rather than relying on Tannehill to convert on a high number of tight-window throws for the offense to sustain drives.

There’s obviously a balance to strike, and the offensive scheme will play a factor, as does average depth of target. (And if you’re curious, Marcus Mariota ranks as the 19th-least aggressive passer at 15.1%, completing passes at a -2.2% rate below expectation).

Conclusions

Despite scoring 27 points, the Titans offense was objectively bad in this game. They hardly moved the ball and could not sustain possessions outside of the most crucial drive in the game.

They deserve credit for converting in the red zone, and I suppose it’s a positive that they stepped up in the clutch, but on that go-ahead drive, the Titans attempted just 11 passes to 1 rush attempt. This stark difference from how they usually conduct their offense was likely motivated by the scoreboard.

Funnily enough, this break from their usual tendencies resulted in by far their most successful drive.

On their other ten drives, the Titans attempted 22 passes to 17 rushes (2 by Tannehill). No doubt the high number of third-and-longs influenced the number of pass attempts. In my opinion, this is entirely too run-heavy of an approach given the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Bucs entered this game with the 25th-ranked pass defense DVOA and the number 1 run defense DVOA. They were allowing more yards to wide receivers than any team in the league. Yet the Titans best receiver, Corey Davis, played his lowest percentage of snaps of any game yet this season at 62%, his first game of the season under 74%.

I’m just not understanding the logic behind these offensive game plans and personnel usage, and this actually has nothing to do with the 4th-down fake FG decision.

Looking Ahead

As we look ahead, we have to hope that the Titans offense can manage to sustain drives better than they did in this game. On the bright side, as we saw with last week’s performance against the Chargers, a one game sample sizes can be deceiving. On the not-so-bright side, this performance was much closer to the season averages than last week’s game.

It’s worth pointing out that the Los Angeles Chargers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers rank 27th and 15th in defensive DVOA respectively. Of the Titans remaining opponents, only two teams have defensive DVOA ranks higher than 14: the Panthers (5th) and the Saints (6th). That means the Titans should have plenty of chances to beat up on weaker defenses.

And that 5th-ranked Panthers defense just surrendered 51 points to the Niners, all scored by the offense (with a couple of very short fields set up by turnovers... sound familiar?). The Carolina Panthers defense is pretty much the exact opposite of the Buccaneers, touting the 32nd-best rush defense DVOA and the 3rd-best pass defense DVOA.

That happens to line up with what the Titans want to do on offense. Hopefully the Titans can take advantage of this defense’s weaknesses with Derrick Henry and extend the win streak and the streak of scoring 20+ points to three games.