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Three reasons for hope and three reasons for dread as the Titans continue to try to find answers

Is this a bad football team that is lucky to be 2-3 or is this an unlucky football team that is a few breaks away from being 4-1? As usual, it depends on what trends you want to look at.

Buffalo Bills v Tennessee Titans Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Nothing is ever as bad or as good as it seems in the moment.

That’s especially true when it comes to NFL football where parity dictates that week to week and game to game performances vary wildly. Take the Cleveland Browns for example. After a convincing “right the ship” 40-25 road win over their division rivals in Baltimore, they traveled west and got pasted by the 49ers on Monday Night Football by a score of 31-3. The Niners are a really good football team, but the Browns looked completely inept after seemingly figuring it out the week before.

That’s the nature of the NFL. The Titans have been an extreme version of that for much of the past three years. Capable of thoroughly dominating the Patriots one week and looking completely lifeless against bad or mediocre teams the very next week. The 2019 version is no different. Tennessee has been favored in three games and lost all three. They’ve been underdogs in two games and won both.

If you look at the schedule and play the “should win, should lose” game with this team you’re wasting your time. There is no rhyme or reason to how well they play any given week. It seems like they have a bad habit of getting up for big opponents and failing to carry that same energy against lesser teams. Whether you want to blame coaches for that or the players, it’s clearly a problem with this team.

There is no doubt that the Titans have put themselves in a big hole, but they started 2-3 in 2017 and wound up recovering to make the playoffs with a 7-4 finish. It’s possible for this team to rebound and make something of this season. However, it’s also possible for this thing to go off the rails and bring us an early #DraftSZN for the first time since 2015. Here are a few arguments for both points of view.

Reason for Dread: Turnover Luck

Even if I’m giving due credit to Marcus Mariota for protecting the ball in the passing game — and he certainly deserves that — the Titans have been extraordinarily lucky when it comes to turnovers so far this season. If you include muffed punts, Tennessee has put the ball on the ground 11 times this season. Of those 11, the Titans have either recovered or had the ball go out of bounds on 10 of them. Recovering fumbles is statistically a 50-50 proposition and there is no proven evidence of skill coming into play so this is simply pure luck.

The Titans have also had some luck in the passing game. Again, even if you credit Mariota for avoiding turnover worthy throws, teams are often victimized by tipped balls that happen to fall into a defender’s path. Mariota has had none of those so far.

Neither the fumble luck or the interception avoidance is likely to continue at the current rate. At some point, the breaks are going to start going the other way.

The 2019 Titans are one of just six teams since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to have just one turnover through the first five games of a season. Here are the records through five games of those other five teams:

1998 Bengals: 2-3

2008 Redskins: 4-1

2010 Jets: 4-1

2016 Vikings: 5-0

2017 Chiefs: 5-0

That’s a combined 20-5 record through five games. Turns out that not turning the ball over is a good thing. The problem comes in with how these teams performed after the low turnover starts.

1998 Bengals: 1-10

2008 Redskins: 4-7

2010 Jets: 7-4

2016 Vikings: 3-8

2017 Chiefs: 5-6

That’s a combined 20-35 record from Week 6 to Week 16 for those five teams. The 2017 Chiefs and 2010 Jets both made the playoffs. As you probably remember, the Chiefs got bounced by the Titans in the first round. The Jets made it to the AFC Championship game before losing to the Steelers.

None of these teams were able to sustain the ridiculously low turnover rates of the first five games though.

1998 Bengals: 1 turnover in first five games, 21 turnovers in final eleven

2008 Redskins: 1 turnover in first five games, 17 turnovers in final eleven

2010 Jets: 1 turnover in first five games, 20 turnovers in final eleven

2016 Vikings: 1 turnover in first five games, 15 turnovers in final eleven

2017 Chiefs: 1 turnover in first five games, 10 turnovers in final eleven

That’s a jump from a 0.2 turnover per game average over the first five games to a 1.5 turnover per game average over the final eleven.

The lesson here is that the Titans will not sustain this low turnover rate. They are going see an uptick in giveaways as the season goes on. If they can only muster a 2-3 record with nearly unprecedented luck when it comes to turnovers, how are they going to fare when the bounces start going the other way? History says not very well.

Fun Fact: If the Titans offense avoids turning the ball over in Denver, they will become the first team in NFL history to not have an offensive turnover through the first six weeks of the season.

Reason for Hope: The Defense is Really Good

The Titans defense has allowed just 15.2 points per game through the first five weeks — good for 6th in the NFL — and have yet to allow a team to score more than 20 points. They rank in the top ten of almost every efficiency stat — points per drive (4th), yards per drive (8th), plays per drive (3rd), percentage of drives ending in points (3rd) — and have 17 sacks (4th) and 7 takeaways (13th). In five games, the Titans have held opposing offenses to either their lowest or second lowest point total of the season each time out.

Harold Landry has 4 sacks (13th) and 7 tackles for loss (4th) through five games and is starting to look like the dynamic pass rusher the Titans envisioned when they traded up to take him in the second round of the 2018 draft. When combined with a healthy Cameron Wake, the Titans edge rushers actually have some teeth this year. Rashaan Evans is also progressing nicely and the Titans are getting outstanding play from the entire secondary.

Oh, and in case you hadn’t heard, first round pick Jeffery Simmons is on his way to join this group. If there was a weakness in this defense over the first five weeks, it’s creating consistent interior pressure. Jurrell Casey has been OK, but hasn’t quite returned to his normally dominant self after rehabbing a knee injury of his own this offseason. DaQuan Jones has flashed at times and is very stout in the run game, but he’s never likely to become a plus pass rusher. Simmons has a chance to be the dynamic running mate on the inside that Casey has lacked during his entire career in Tennessee.

Even if Simmons doesn’t make a huge impact, this defense is good enough to keep the Titans in most games from start to finish.

Reason for Dread: The Schedule and Standings

I know I said up top that penciling in W’s and L’s based on opponent is a fool’s errand with this team, BUT... there are some games left on the schedule that look extremely tough as things sit right now. They still have tough division road trips left against the Colts and Texans. Tennessee has won just one game in Indy since 2007 and haven’t won in Houston since the 2011 season. At least one of those streaks — possibly both — will need to end if the Titans want to compete in the AFC South.

Outside of the division, the Titans still have games left against the 4-1 Chiefs and the 4-1 Saints — who should have Drew Brees back well before that Week 16 matchup — and it’s safe to say the offense is likely going to need more than 15.2 points in those games to have a chance to hang around.

The 0-2 start in the division and the 1-3 start in the AFC are particularly damaging when you start projecting forward what a Titans playoff run might look like. Barring a clean sweep of the final four AFC South games, Tennessee is unlikely to win any tiebreakers in the divisional race. The AFC tiebreakers aren’t looking too good early on as well. The head-to-head loss to the 4-1 Bills means the Titans are already effectively three games back of the top wildcard contender. A loss to the Chargers or Raiders would be very damaging in this regard as well, but those are questions for a different day.

Realistically, the Titans might have a chance to sneak in at 9-7, but as we’ve seen a lot in recent years, that’s no guarantee. Since 1990 — when the 12-team playoff format came into use — teams with 9-7 records make the playoffs 68% of the time. Given the tough start with the tiebreakers, it will be particularly hard for this team to get in at 9-7 unless the Titans dominate their AFC opponents from here out.

Getting to 10-6 will usually get the job done as the odds jump to 88% for teams that finish with that record. To get to 10-6, the Titans would have to finish the next 11 games at 8-3. That’s not impossible necessarily, but it’s going to require the team to do something they haven’t been able to do frequently in recent years... go on a run of consistent, high quality play.

To me, this makes the next two games must-win situations if the Titans want to get into the playoffs. The Broncos and Chargers are not playing very well right now and with these being two AFC matchups, they’re absolutely critical to getting back into the game from a tiebreaker standpoint in the wildcard. We will see if the Titans can string a couple good performances together against not-so-good teams. History would suggest we are in for disappointment, but you never know.

Reason for Hope: Skill Positions

The Titans offense has been a disaster for most of the season so far. Much like they were last year and the year before. I’m almost numb to bad offense at this point.

However, it’s not all bad this year. Marcus Mariota has played OK for the most part. He’s protecting the ball and avoiding the big mistakes. His accuracy has come and gone at different points, but he’s thrown it pretty well the last couple weeks. I still have some issues with his play overall — not getting the ball out when throws are available remains the biggest problem in my opinion — but he played well enough to win the game last week.

The skill players around him have been really good with a couple exceptions. Corey Davis and A.J. Brown look like the most talented wide receiver duo the Titans have had... maybe ever? Derrick Henry has picked up where he left off late last season. The long touchdowns might not be there just yet, but it’s clear that Henry is running very effectively. He’s bound to break one or two here in the near future.

Despite his relatively reduced role — and a bad 3rd down drop against the Bills — Delanie Walker largely looks like the dynamic threat at tight end that he’s been for years. Jonnu Smith has looked like a much-improved player this year despite his somewhat limited role in the passing attack.

Could the team be getting more from Adam Humphries and Dion Lewis? Sure. Could they use a true burner or two at either running back or receiver? Absolutely. But firepower isn’t holding this offense back for the first time in about a decade.

That means that big plays are there to be made if the Titans can get things corrected up front and get Mariota more comfortable taking these shots downfield. If I’m Arthur Smith, I’m going into each and every game with a goal of getting Davis and Brown at least 7 targets each. Whether you come down on the “blame the offensive line” side or the “blame Mariota” side — or if you believe there is plenty of blame to go around for both — I think we can all agree that this group of weapons is the best we’ve seen around here in quite some time.

Reason for Dread: The Offensive Line, Marcus Mariota, and Arthur Smith

Before you get all worked up... hear me out.

The offensive line play has been really bad for much of the first five weeks. Obviously, the sack numbers are atrocious — Mariota has been brought down 22 times already, most in the NFL — and the run blocking hasn’t been a whole lot better. Derrick Henry’s 4.0 yards per carry would be a career low, and as I mentioned above, I think Henry has run quite well so far.

Rodger Saffold has been a major disappointment through the first five games of his time in Tennessee. He’s tied for third among all offensive linemen in the NFL in sacks allowed per PFF charting with 5 after allowing a total of 6 sacks in his last three years in LA. What’s going on with him is completely beyond my comprehension. I watched this guy dominate and be one of the two best offensive linemen on one of the best offensive lines in football over the past couple years and now he looks like a total mess. Is it coaching? Is it the shuffling pieces around him? I don’t know what the answer is, but it has to get better.

If you want to look for some optimism here, I think you point towards the fact that the Titans just now got their five most talented offensive linemen on the field together for the first time against the Bills. They may not have played very well in that game against a very talented Buffalo front, but you could argue that rust and lack of familiarity were at least partially to blame for some of the miscues in passing off the stunts and twists that seemed to give the Titans line problems during the game. Of course some of the missed blocks were just an offensive lineman getting whipped by a defensive lineman one on one, but I think there is reason to believe that things should get better the more this particular group plays together. We saw that happen with the Titans offensive line down the stretch last year as well.

The reason I list Mariota here is because he’s not helping the matter when it comes to his protection. There are times when there is nothing he can do and he’s swallowed up immediately. However, there are also still far too many instances of him holding onto the ball, bringing his eyes down, and taking unnecessary sacks.

There are several charting stats from PFF that back up this assertion. Among 26 qualifying NFL quarterbacks, Mariota has averaged the 4th longest time in the pocket per drop back at 2.90 seconds. He’s spent at least 2.5 seconds — roughly the NFL average time to attempt — in the pocket on 61.9% of his drop backs this season, the 3rd highest rate in the league. Out of his 22 sacks, 17 of them have come more than 2.5 seconds after the snap.

Mariota has been under pressure on 36.0% of his drop backs which ranks as the 15th highest pressure rate in the league among those same 26 passers. The problem is that no quarterback allows pressure to be converted to sacks at a higher rate than Mariota. He allows 34.4% of his pressures to turn into sacks. The next highest rate in the league is rookie Kyler Murray at 30.0%. The median rate among the 26 qualifying quarterbacks we are looking at here is 16.2%, less than half of Mariota’s rate. This isn’t limited to just 2019 either unfortunately. Mariota also led the league in this category in 2018 with 29.8% of his pressures turning into sacks.

I don’t point this out to pick on Mariota. I get that he’s dealt with a ton of adversity, including objectively poor offensive line play and that factors into everything that we see with him. I want to see him succeed and finally break through. I’ve long believed in his physical tool set. It’s just very alarming to see him leading the league in this statistic for two straight years now.

The good news is that this tendency has seemed to improve slightly the last two weeks. Mariota did a great job of getting the ball out against Atlanta and most of his sacks against Buffalo were clearly offensive line issues. If things trend more towards the decisive, quick release Mariota we saw in Atlanta moving forward, I think a lot of the sack issues will disappear.

That brings me to the last party in this group... offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. Being a first time playcaller in the NFL is tough, and it’s particularly tough when you’re having to start by constantly shuffling your offensive line due to the self-inflicted absence of your best offensive player. That being said, it’s not been a great start offensively. The Titans have found themselves in 3rd and 7 or more 38 times already this season, 2nd most in the NFL behind the Cardinals. They’ve converted just 7 of those 38 tries.

Constantly falling behind the sticks on early downs has been a major issue for this team. The Titans run the ball on 1st and 2nd down more than all but two NFL teams — the Vikings and 49ers — and when they do throw the ball, they aren’t successful nearly often enough. Tennessee’s 42% success rate with 1st and 2nd down passing per Sharp Football Stats is second lowest in the NFL behind only the Luke Falk-led Jets.

Running the ball has yielded a slightly better success rate at 46%, but their below average yards per carry mean that the Titans aren’t seeing near enough 2nd and short situations — they have only had 11 instances of 2nd and 3 or less so far this season — where the playbook is wide open and the defense is at it’s most vulnerable.

Smith has not consistently found the delicate balance in playcalling that keeps defenses off balance and opens up opportunities for both Henry and Mariota to find success. Too many of the passing concepts have had clunky route distribution and don’t even get me started on the screen game.

All three parties carry some blame for the woes of the offense. How you distribute that blame largely comes down to a matter of personal opinion. Whether they can get things worked out remains to be seen, but it needs to happen sooner rather than later if the Titans want this season to go anywhere.

Reason for Hope: Team Health

This could be more important than you might think. The Titans have been pretty lucky when it comes to injuries so far this season.

*knocks on all the wood*

Among the 22 expected starters heading into the season, only Kevin Pamphile has missed more than one game due to injury, and to be honest, he was pretty clearly the 22nd strongest starter on the team. Cameron Wake missed one game with a hamstring tweak — though it’s unclear as of now if he’ll miss this week’s game as well — and Wesley Woodyard missed one game due to a quad injury.

The most impactful injury of the season has been to kicker Ryan Succop. His missed time — and the failure of his replacement in a couple big spots — has arguably cost this team a couple chances to win football games. However, if you look at the roster as a whole, this has been an extremely healthy squad.

Does that make the 2-3 start a little more disappointing? Sure, but looking forward I think it’s very much a positive that the Titans continue to have most everyone available from week to week. NFL seasons are often referred to as “wars of attrition”. Sometimes it’s better to be the healthiest roster in the league than the best roster in the league late in the year.

Keeping everyone healthy isn’t going to fix all the problems on offense or help Cody Parkey make kicks, but we know that being forced to plug in backups or having star players go down for long periods of time would make things decidedly worse. The Titans have had a good start on the injury front. If that continues, we could see a team that gets progressively stronger as the year goes on.