There’s no way around it, that one hurt. Antonio Brown and the Pittsburgh Steelers completely dismantled the Tennessee Titans 40-17 Thursday night in western Pennsylvania. The two tone blue had the chance to showcase who they were to a national audience on Thursday night, and in some not so good ways, they did. The offense dealt with the same issues that have plagued them the entire year: lack of execution, with a stagnant running game and an erratic passing offense. Coupled with a defense that crumbles when playing a competent quarterback and special teams that were also disappointing, allowing a blocked kick, the Titans were thoroughly outplayed in all three phases. Here are a few thoughts on the game as the Titans head into their “mini” bye week.
Advanced Statistics Tell the True Story
Ever since the Cleveland Browns appointed Sashi Brown and Co. to the front office to run team operations last year, there has been a lot of back and forth between “analytics guys” and old school “football guys.” While in my opinion, teams need a certain amount of both types to be successful, valuable insight can be gained from both sides. I’m going to focus more on the analytic and statistical side of things for right now, with some more traditional “football guy” analysis to follow. What I’m about to tell you may not be easy to hear if you’re a Titans fan, but the advanced statistics tell us one thing: the Tennessee Titans are not as good as their record indicates.
The first thing I am going to talk about is DVOA. I’ve mentioned DVOA in numerous other posts, but one last time, I’ll give a short explanation as to what it is. DVOA is essentially a ratings system that ranks a team’s offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiencies while taking into account things such strength of opponent and other variable factors. The Titans rank 19th overall in DVOA, closer to teams below them like Cincinnati, Buffalo, or Chicago, and further away from teams ahead of them like Atlanta or the Los Angeles Chargers. Offensively, the Titans are a little higher, ranking 17th overall. Defensively, they are just outside the bottom third of the league, ranking 23rd overall. The only DVOA ranking the Titans are in the top half of the league is their special teams, where they rank 13th overall. DVOA is telling us that the Titans are an average, to slightly below average team, benefitting from a weak schedule.
The next thing I want to bring up is something Football Outsiders calls “Pythagorean Expected Wins.” It was made famous by baseball analyst Bill James, who stated that the record of a baseball team can be approximated by taking the square of team runs scored and dividing it by the square of team runs scored plus the square of team runs allowed. Later, statistician Daryl Morey (yes, the same Daryl Morey who is the GM of the Houston Rockets) extended this idea to other sports, like professional football. One of the reasons people like to use Pythagorean Expected Wins is because the number is easy to digest, and it relies entirely on point differential rather than win loss outcomes to measure performance. The formula for expected wins in professional football is this:
PYTH = ((PF^EXP)/(PF^EXP+PA^EXP))*16
PF = points for
PA = points against
Exponent = 2.37
This is difficult to understand, but let me show you an example. Last year, the Tennessee Titans finished with a record of 9-7. They scored 381 points and allowed 378 points, for a positive three point differential. When you plug these numbers into the formula above, the Titans had a Pythagorean Expected Wins of 8.1. By finishing the season 9-7, the Titans finished .9 wins better than their point differential assumed they would have. By looking at this expected wins number, along with the Titans actual win loss record, we can see if the team underperformed, over performed, or performed about where they should have. Last year, the Titans record showed they over performed their true level of performance, but not by a considerable margin.
This year, the expected wins are telling a completely different story. So far this year, the Titans have scored 222 points and allowed 253, for a -31 point differential. Plugging those numbers into the formula above (I changed the 16 to 10, since the Titans have only played 10 games) and the Titans only have 4.2 expected wins. Through 10 games, they have significantly outperformed their true level of performance by 1.8 wins. In simple terms, based on point differential, the Titans should only have 4 or so wins. Instead, the Titans have 6 wins due to their 4-1 record in one score games.
While these numbers are not all encompassing, in general, they do a great job of giving us as fans a better idea of how good a team actually is. In the case of the Titans, the underlying numbers, Pythagorean Expected Wins and DVOA, are telling us we’re not as good as our record indicates we are. So far, I’ve done an excellent job of giving reasons why we shouldn’t be excited about the Titans after their bludgeoning by the Steelers. However, I’d like to end this post on a more positive note, which leads me to my next observation.
Mariota Wasn’t as Bad as He Looked
Look, I’m not going to sit here and say Mariota played a good game on Thursday night because he didn’t. He threw four interceptions, looked skittish in the pocket at times, and was overwhelmed by the Steelers defense. However, with some of what I’ve read and heard from talking heads, you’d think it was Nathan Peterman out there playing quarterback for the Titans… too soon? There’s been a lot of negativity surrounding the game Thursday, so I’m going to try and focus on some of the positives that I saw from the Titans quarterback.
First, I saw a tweet that discussed Marcus’ true completion percentage from Thursday night. While Mariota completed 22, not 23 passes, as the tweet said, the point remains. Three of Mariota’s incompletions were dropped passes, including an absolute dime that should’ve been a touchdown to Delanie Walker. Add these drops to a throwaway incompletion, and Mariota only had seven “true” incompletions. Unfortunately, four of these seven true incompletions were interceptions. And saying, “Well besides the four interceptions, he played great!,” is essentially saying “Apart from that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” You cannot separate one from the other. Despite this, Mariota didn’t play as bad a game as it seemed, and I’m going to try and focus on some the positive aspects of his performance.
I’m going to start with a couple throws Mariota made in the first quarter.
After a delay of game sets up a 3rd and 6, the Titans really need a first down to keep the drive alive and keep Pittsburgh’s offense off the field. In the shotgun, Mariota fakes a handoff to DeMarco Murray and begins to scan the field. The offense does a great job of protecting the quarterback, and Marcus does an excellent job of sliding in the pocket. DeMarco Murray drags the linebacker with him as he releases, and Mariota sees Rishard Matthews come open across the middle. He throws a dart, away from the two defenders, and Matthews secures the catch and moves the chains to keep the drive alive.
Here’s another throw that’s on the money from later in the first quarter.
It was the first play of the drive and the Titans come out in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, and three receivers). Mariota fakes the handoff to DeMarco Murray and knows where he wants to go with the ball right away. Eric Decker releases inside on the nickel corner, before breaking outside on a corner route. The nickel cornerback isn’t in bad position, but Mariota throws the ball over the defender’s head, and drops it in perfectly over Decker’s shoulder for a big gain. Finally, on this throw, Mariota throws an absolute dime, but Delanie Walker lets him down
I chose this angle because it perfectly illustrates Mariota doing something not many NFL quarterbacks can do: move through his progression, slide in the pocket, and deliver an accurate pass. Mariota drops straight back, looking to his right for an open receiver. Ben Jones, the center, gets driven back into Mariota’s lap, forcing him to slide to his right in the pocket. After sliding, Mariota shifts his eyes to the left, seeing an open Delanie Walker and throws a bullet. Unfortunately, the pass was too perfect, as a would be touchdown pass slipped through Walker’s normally sure hands. There’s a reason Walker was so open. One, he ran an incredible route. Two, by looking to the right initially, Mariota drew the safety across the field, leaving an open window for him to deliver the ball. While this pass shows up as an incompletion in the box score, that’s a high caliber NFL play by the Titans quarterback.
The last thing I am going to talk about is the most positive play of the evening from Thursday night: the 75 yard touchdown pass to Rishard Matthews. While I have shown a lot of the things Marcus did well (excluding the interceptions obviously), this was a relatively easy throw that resulted from a perfectly called play against the Pittsburgh coverage. Rishard Matthews and Eric Decker ran a version of a route concept that is called PIN. The PIN route concept is where the outside receiver, in this case Matthews, runs a post, and the inside receiver, in this case Decker, runs and in route (hence the combination of post + in that equals PIN). Here is an illustration of the route concept.
Now the question is, why was Matthews so wide open across the middle of the field?
One of my favorite football writers and experts Chris Brown actually wrote an article about the PIN route concept earlier this week. He explains in incredible detail how it exploits defenses, their coverages, and can be run out of various formations. You can read that article here. In short, the Steelers were running a coverage called “Cover Four,” a perfect defense to run PIN against. Cover Four is a four deep, three under zone that uses some man to man principles. In Cover Four, the safety, who was lined up over Decker during this play, has the responsibility for the inside receiver if he runs a vertical route past 10-12 yards. However, if the safety can be fooled, there is room to exploit the vacated space he leaves behind. Oftentimes, the safety overplays the “in” route by the inside receiver, breaking downhill, thinking he is about to make a play in coverage. This leaves the outside cornerback to his side in a precarious position. The cornerback has outside leverage, thinking he has help to the inside from the safety, but when the safety overplays the in route, he has no such help to the inside. This gives the outside receiver a tremendous advantage; he knows the cornerback has no inside help and can exploit this. Rishard Matthews, the outside receiver, blows by the cornerback. He runs a post route into the vacated space where the safety should have been, but wasn’t, because he jumped Decker’s in route. Matthews is wide open because it’s impossible for the cornerback with outside leverage to keep up with him as he runs an in-breaking post route. Mariota hits him in stride and Rishard does the rest after the catch. Boom, the Titans have their best play of the game, and possibly the year. The Cover Four buster PIN route concept run to perfection.
While the result on Thursday wasn’t positive, and neither was the entirety of this article, hopefully the last little bit of this post helps maintain some optimism for the team. We still have a great shot to win the division and make the playoffs, and I cannot wait to see what this team has in store these last six weeks.