The curious case of the Tennessee Titans’ offense

The Tennessee Titans have had a very middle of the pack offense in each of the last 2 seasons, ranking 17th by scoring 22.3 points per game in 2010, and 21th by scoring 20.3 points per game in 2011. However, they have the potential to be a top-10 offense in 2012. The reason for this is their playmakers. Once known as a conservative team that didn’t use high picks on offensive playmakers, they’ve used a 1st round pick on an offensive playmaker in 4 of the last 5 seasons, taking running back Chris Johnson in 2008, wide receiver Kenny Britt in 2009, quarterback Jake Locker in 2011, and wide receiver Kendall Wright in 2012.

That group doesn’t even include their two leading returning receivers, tight Jared Cook, a 2009 2nd round pick who caught 49 passes for 759 yards and 3 touchdowns last year, and Nate Washington, a free agent acquisition who broke out with 74 catches for 1023 yards and 7 touchdowns last year. Heading into only his age 29 season, Washington is still in the prime of his career.

Last year, they didn’t really have all these playmakers. Kendall Wright was not there. Chris Johnson spent half the year trying to shake off an offseason holdout. Kenny Britt missed 13 games and most of a 14th with injury. Jared Cook was only average until his final 3 games, when a light seemed to click. Jake Locker, meanwhile, only played sparingly as a rookie, attempting just 66 passes.

The veteran Matt Hasselbeck started all 16 games. Hasselbeck did an admirable job considering the lack of talent around him. He completed 61.6% of his passes for an average of 6.9 YPA and 18 touchdowns to 15 interceptions. However, he led an inferior offense even as compared to 2010’s which was quarterbacked by a mix of Kerry Collins, Vince Young, and Rusty Smith.

The differences between 2010’s offense and 2011’s offense, other than the quarterback, were with Chris Johnson and Kenny Britt. And the difference at quarterback was, at the very least, not a downgrade and I think most would agree that Hasselbeck is a better quarterback than the trio they ran out in 2010. Kenny Britt missed 4 games in 2010 with injury and most of a 5th, much better than the 13 he missed in 2011, as well as part as a 14th. Chris Johnson, meanwhile, went from rushing for 1364 yards and 11 touchdowns on 316 carries to 1047 yards and 4 touchdowns on 262 carries. So how did this affect their offense?

In the 11 games Kenny Britt played entirely in 2010, along with the 2010 version of Chris Johnson, the Titans scored roughly 27.1 points per game, which would have ranked 5th in the league in 2010 and 2011. And that was with a mediocre bunch at quarterback, guys who were all backups somewhere by the end of the 2011 season. They threw for 2320 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions in those 11 games, as opposed to 958 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions in their other 5 games (all losses by the way, as they scored just 12.8 points per game).

One thing that stands out from those numbers is actually how few yards they threw for as opposed to how many points per game they scored. In fact, in the 11 games they scored 27.1 points per game in, they only passed the ball a combined 312 times, just 28.4 times per game. That’s a solid 7.4 YPA, as opposed to 5.9 YPA in the 5 other games without Britt for the full game.

And it wasn’t just that the Titans ran a lot. The Titans ranked 30th in the league overall, passing 474 times and just 23rd in the league, running 406 times. That’s not a lot of plays. In fact, the Titans ranked dead last by running just 56.7 plays per game in 2010. That might sound like the mark of a bad offense, but it’s not necessarily as they ranked 7th in the league in points per play. If anything, that makes their offense seem more impressive because that’s incredibly efficient.

Team Plays per game rank Points per game rank
Minnesota 23 29
Seattle 24 23
Carolina 25 32
Chicago 26 21
Tampa Bay 27 20
Buffalo 28 28
San Francisco 29 24
Arizona 30 T-26
Cleveland 31 31
Tennessee 32 17

See an outlier? Tennessee had a 15 spot difference in plays per game as opposed to points per game. No one else had a difference of more than 7. There is clearly a correlation between points per game and plays per game and simple logic would tell you that makes sense. The more plays your team is on the field, the more opportunities you have to score. Plus, staying on the field is also a sign of a healthy offense. Tennessee clearly defied this logic in 2010 and it’s evident in the chart found below.

Team Points per play rank Points per game rank
New England 1 1
San Diego 2 2
Philadelphia 3 3
Green Bay 4 10
Indianapolis 5 4
Oakland 6 6
Tennessee 7 17
Pittsburgh 8 12
NY Giants 9 T-7
Dallas 10 T-7

See an outlier? Of the teams ranked in the top-10 in points per play, only Tennessee didn’t rank in the top-12 in points per game and they had a 10 spot difference between points per play and points per game rank. It’s clear that their points per play rank was not an accurate measure of their offense. They didn’t have the 7th best offense in the league. And it’s also clear their points per game rank was not an accurate measure of their offense. They didn’t have the 17th best offense in the league either. If anything, it would have probably been most accurate to say they had the 12th best offense in the league. With a presumed upgrade at quarterback with Matt Hasselbeck coming in, as well as the prospect of a full 16 game season from Kenny Britt (with whom they scored 27.1 points per game, 5th most in the league), there was reason to be optimistic for the Titans’ offense in 2011.

However, they ranked 21st. So what happened? Well, Britt tore his ACL during the middle of week 3 and Chris Johnson struggled. Any upgrade at quarterback with Hasselbeck coming in went unnoticed as he didn’t have the same supporting cast that the 2010 trio had. If Chris Johnson can bounce back and Kenny Britt can stay healthy in 2012, their offensive potential should be looking as least as bright as it was last season. They haven’t suffered any major losses offensively from 2010 to 2012. The question is, will that happen?

First let’s start with Chris Johnson. Johnson rushed for just 1047 yards and 4 touchdowns on 262 carries in 2011, after rushing for 1364 yards and 11 touchdowns on 316 carries in 2010. He was particularly bad in the 1st half as the season, rushing for just 366 yards and a score on 121 carries, as opposed to 681 yards and 3 touchdowns on 141 carries in the 2nd half. Not so coincidentally, the Titans averaged just 19.5 points per game in the 1st half of the season, going 4-4, as opposed to 21.1 points per game in the 2nd half of the season, going 5-3.

Johnson’s 2nd half improvement is promising and makes sense. Johnson struggled in the 1st half because of a contract related holdout that lasted until right before the start of the season. As a result, he got out of shape and missed an entire offseason of a new playbook implementation with a new coaching staff (for those people who like to think that history repeats itself, Maurice Jones-Drew is doing the same exact thing right now…just saying). By the 2nd half of the season, he had worked himself back into shape and had gotten the offense and blocking scheme mastered.

Now a full season removed from that holdout, he should be even better. He obviously knows the playbook by now and I doubt he’s out of shape after all the work he put in this offseason. Rather than focusing on getting paid this offseason, Johnson’s time was spent attending every single one of the Titans’ team activities and practices, including the ones that weren’t mandatory. He used to skip the ones that were not mandatory and work out on his own at home in Orlando, but this offseason he was there, putting in all the work with his teammates and he was reportedly very impressive. He should be back to his old self.

Now let’s go onto Kenny Britt, he’s not such a safe bet. He’s obviously very talented, as evidenced by the 27.1 points per game they scored in the 11 games he played in 2010. That obviously wasn’t all him, but in those 11 games, Britt caught 42 passes for 775 yards and 9 touchdowns, good for 61 catches for 1127 yards and 13 touchdowns over 16 games. He looked to be on pace for that kind of season in 2011 before getting hurt, catching 14 passes for 271 yards and 3 touchdowns through 2 games.

However, now he is coming off a torn ACL and had minor knee surgery on each one of his knees this offseason. He’s expected to be activated next week and should be ready for week 1, but he’s obviously an injury risk. In 2010, even before his major injury, he missed 4 games and most of a 5th. The good news is he’s only heading into his age 24 season so he should be able to heal faster than someone 5 or 10 years older.

The other concern for him is discipline. Even if he were ready to go week 1, the commissioner probably wouldn’t let him. He had to pay Roger Goodell a visit this offseason for the 2nd time in as many offseasons, which is never a good sign. Britt was arrested for DUI, his 8th arrest since being drafted in 2009. Last offseason, he paid Goodell a visit after getting arrested 3 times during the offseason, but escaped punishment because the league decided not to punish players for things that happened during the lockout. This year, he won’t be as lucky. Everyone knows a suspension is coming. He even admits it. It’s expected to be the 1-3 game variety if ESPN’s Adam Schefter is to be believed (and as a general rule of them, I always believe everything he says), so it won’t be a major issue.

The 1-3 game suspension will also give Britt time to rest his knees and he should be able to go once he returns from suspension. He won’t play all 16 games and the threat of further injury and/or sapped explosiveness is obviously there, but he should be their leading receiver this season and other offensive upgrades should be able to offset Britt not being able to have the ideal season.

One offensive upgrade is the addition of Kendall Wright, a 1st round pick receiver out of Baylor. The other two are simply an improved Nate Washington and Jared Cook, as compared to 2010. This offense is not as dependant on Britt and Johnson as it was in 2010. Cook, a 2009 2nd round pick, saw the light flick on last season, catching 49 passes for 759 yards and 3 touchdowns. He was even better in his final 3 games, when he caught 21 passes for 335 yards and a touchdown, so maybe he’ll play even better in his 4th season in the league in 2012.

Nate Washington, meanwhile, caught 74 passes for 1023 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2011, after catching 42 passes for 687 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2010. It’s easy to say his improvement was only because of the absence of Kenny Britt, but Washington only actually saw 30 more targets from 2010 to 2011, which is 2 fewer than the increase in catches he had. Washington only caught 47.7% of his targets in 2010, but caught 62.7% of them in 2011.

If he sees the 88 targets he had in 2010 again in 2012, but maintains his 2011 rates, he would have 55 catches for 761 yards and 5 touchdowns. Those are reasonable projected numbers for him, even with Kendall Wright coming in, because Britt won’t play all 16 games and might not be 100% and because the Titans will pass more often and probably more effectively. He’s a solid #2 receiver opposite Britt.

Speaking of passing more effectively, the reason for that is another upgrade at quarterback, as Jake Locker will be taking over the starting quarterback job. Locker has accuracy issues dating back to his days at has his days at the University of Washington, where he completed just 53.9% of his passes and maxed out at 58.2% in 2009. Locker has done nothing to ease those concerns by completing just 11 of 24 (45.8%) this Preseason and just 51.5% of his passes last season, in limited action.

However, he’s got all the physical tools and showed them last season, showing off his arm by averaging 8.2 YPA and throwing 4 touchdowns to no interceptions and showing off his wheels by rushing for 56 yards and another score on 8 carries. Titans were better offensively with Locker on the field than Hasselbeck last season. Hasselbeck led the Titans to 264 points (not counting XPs or 2 PT conversions) on 162 drives (not counting end of half kneel downs/run out the clocks), good for 1.63 points per drive, while Locker led them to 33 points on 18 drives, 1.83 points per drive.

With a year under his belt and a better supporting cast, he has the potential to have a very strong 2nd season. After all, an inferior trio in 2011 combined to throw for 7.4 YPA and 21 touchdowns to 8 interceptions in 11 games with Kenny Britt and that was before breakout seasons to Cook and Washington and without the addition of Wright. Assuming Johnson is back or mostly back and Britt plays in most of the team’s games, he could have very strong numbers.

The Titans ran 636 passing plays last season, 584 passes, 28 quarterback runs, and 24 sacks. They are expected to increase that total this season. Let’s say they increase it to 650 passing plays, which is conservative. That sack total could go up because Jake Locker took a sack of 25.0% of pressured snaps last season, as opposed to 16.1% for Hasselbeck. However, the Titans return 3 of 5 starters from an offensive line that ranked 2nd in the league in pass blocking efficiency last year and the two that didn’t were arguably the two worst, Jake Scott and Eugene Amano. Scott was replaced by the superior Steve Hutchinson, while Amano sucked anyway. I can’t see them giving up more than 30 sacks.

So that’s 620 non-sack passing plays. Locker took off and ran once every 8.5 non-sack drop backs last season (in college, that number was once every 3.5 non-sack drop backs, but he played behind a much poorer offensive line, which required him to run for his life more, and on top of that, quarterbacks typically run less in the NFL than in college). If he continues to run once every 8.5 non-sack drop backs, he’ll have 73 runs, meaning 547 pass attempts.

If he averages the 7.4 YPA that Titans quarterbacks averaged in 11 games with Britt healthy in 2010, that’s 4048 passing yards. If he maintains the TD and INT rates that Titan quarterbacks had in 11 games with Britt healthy in 2011, that’s 37 touchdowns and 12 touchdowns. That’s obviously unlikely (remember their points per yard rate and how ridiculous it was as opposed to their points per game rate), but is something like 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions unlikely, after everything you’ve read? And is a top-10 offense for the Titans unlikely? Unless Locker proves to be a bust, I don’t think so.

The one thing that has remained consistent for the Titans has been their defense. Unlike their offense it’s consistent and much easier to predict. In 2010, they ranked 15th, allowing 21.2 points per game and in 2010, they ranked 8th allowing 19.8 points per game. They should be closer to 8th again in 2011, which would probably give them a top-10 defense to go with a top-10 offense. This was a very young defense last year with 6 of 11 starters drafted since 2009 (including a whopping 4 rookies). The continued maturity of those players along with strong depth and the addition of Kamerion Wimbley to bolster their pass rush (31st in the league last year), will make up for the loss of Cortland Finnegan. Unless Locker implodes, the Titans might just be one of the most balanced teams in the NFL.

If you’re interested in doing a fantasy football league with me, here’s the link (no draft date set yet, currently standard, with the option to become PPR with group vote).




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