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In an opening week where even the elite teams in college football looked mortal, the SEC had two big surprises in Texas A&M and Georgia defeating their South Carolinian opponents by big scores.

11 Sep 2007

Any Given Sunday: Titans over Jaguars

by Ned Macey

The Jaguars and Titans finished last season tied for second in the AFC South with 8-8 records. DVOA saw them as light years apart, with the Jaguars ranking sixth and the Titans 24th. This off-season saw what already seemed an enormous divide between the two widen into a chasm. The Jaguars returned with much the same team intact, and star defensive end Reggie Hayward returned from injury. The Titans lost their best defensive player, Pacman Jones, to suspension, while their leading running back and receiver left in free agency.

So, naturally, the Titans go into Jacksonville and win on opening Sunday, 13-10.

The Jaguars made headlines by releasing their appointed starting quarterback the week before the regular season started. The debate over who is a better quarterback between David Garrard and Byron Leftwich has probably consumed too much virtual ink. Neither is more than an average quarterback and debating their relative merit is like debating between Miller Lite and Bud Light. Neither tastes particularly good, but both can get the job done when surrounded by a solid supporting cast of hamburgers, chips and, six hours of football.

Garrard played as effectively as can be expected and was certainly not the primary problem for the Jaguars. In most contests, the game is won by the team with a superior passing attack, but this game was clearly won on the ground.

The Jaguars were supposed to feature the dominant rushing attack with the two-headed monster of Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor. The Titans upstaged them with their own duo of Chris Brown and LenDale White. Brown was the star of the game with more than 190 yards on the ground. This was the same Brown who failed in 2005 as the presumptive heir to Eddie George. This past off-season, Brown was a free agent for ages before the Titans seemingly reluctantly re-signed him in June. Apparently LenDale White had spent too much time with the aforementioned hamburger and chips while opting against light beer for the real stuff.

Brown's big day against the Jaguars run defense was shocking on its face. The Jaguars ranked seventh in DVOA in rush defense a season ago. Three separate theories could explain Brown's success. First, the Titans may be developing a dominant offensive line. Michael Roos is a developing Pro Bowler at left tackle, and Kevin Mawae is the necessary crafty veteran at center. The line returns intact from 2006 and has clearly developed as a stout run-blocking unit. They dominated the vaunted interior duo of Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, neither of whom ever seemed to get any penetration.

The second theory is that the presence of Vince Young opens up the running game for the backs. A running quarterback must always be accounted for by the opposition, and the possibility of bootlegs requires that defensive linemen contain the back side of the play. As a result, cutback lanes are there for the taking.

A season ago, Travis Henry emerged as a solid starting running back after spending his career posting poor DVOAs. Henry's DVOA was still a below-average -2.4%, but that was the highest mark of his career. His success, however, was not a season-long endeavor. Henry played 14 games on the season. In his first two, with Kerry Collins at quarterback, he totaled 82 yards on 30 carries, an average of 2.7 yards per rush. For the rest of the season, with Young at quarterback, he totaled 1,129 yards on 240 carries, an average of 4.7 yards per carry.

Sample size issues and minor injuries to Henry make this less than conclusive proof of the phenomenon. Further, the best analogy to Young as a running force is Michael Vick. Warrick Dunn was much more successful in 2003 with Vick hurt than he was in 2002 or 2004 with Vick healthy. However, it remains notable that throughout Sunday's game the defensive end would have to play contain, allowing Brown and White opportunities to make big plays.

The final reason could be the changing Jaguars safeties. Donovin Darius was released before the season due to his declining speed. Deon Grant was allowed to leave for Seattle. To help replace them, the Jaguars drafted Reggie Nelson in the first round and imported the aging Sammy Knight. Gerald Sensabaugh, a third-year veteran, started opposite Knight.

For whatever reason, the Jaguars continually left the safeties back deep. The three safeties made all their tackles down the field. They made only one play on a run of less than six yards, a half-tackle by Knight on a first-and-goal run by White.

What was the point of this strategy?The Titans ran for 282 yards and controlled the ball for almost 37 minutes. At the same time, the Titans only scored 13 points. The 13 is somewhat misleading considering the Titans twice had the ball inside the five-yard line and failed to score a touchdown. On one of those series, White fumbled on a fourth-and-goal run. Against an explosive offense like the Bengals, the Jaguars' strategy is understandable, but were the Jaguars really worried about a Vince Young-to-Brandon Jones long bomb? The good news is that with this alignment, the Titans' already poor passing game was rendered nearly useless.

Still, the Jaguars clearly believed they could stop the Titans run offense with just their front seven. They were wrong and strangely reluctant to adjust their game plan. For a team that finds itself in far too many close games against poor teams, the lack of mid-game adjustment was notable.

Offensively, the Jaguars game plan was equally bizarre. The two teams were never separated by more than a touchdown, but the Jaguars only called running plays to their two backs 13 times. Meanwhile, David Garrard attempted 30 passes, and more of his five runs were scrambles than designed runs.

Sure, Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth dominated at times, but the Jaguars are a running team. After they came out throwing on four of their first six passes, ending with a 47-yard touchdown to John Broussard, the Titans adjusted. The Jaguars' first drive of the third quarter included 13 plays and only four handoffs. They led 10-6 at the time. The Jaguars got the ball back trailing by three points with more than eight minutes remaining. Garrard proceeded to throw three incomplete passes. The Jaguars were stuffed more than they usually are, but if the Jaguars have no patience with the running game in this situation, what will they do if they fall behind early?

Perhaps the Jaguars' fears are based on the least-reported important injury of the preseason, the broken foot of center Brad Meester. Mawae dominated the offensive line for the Titans, while Meester's replacement Dennis Norman was overmatched. Meester hopes to return in October, and the Jaguars offense could take off at that point. Until then, the Jaguars may have to feature Jones-Drew on outside runs and deemphasize Taylor.

The Jaguars can console themselves with a variety of explanations. They played the game without their kicker, Josh Scobee, who was injured in pregame warm-ups. The Jaguars had to go for a fourth-and-10 in field goal range (a play where they inexcusably called a shovel pass that never had a chance of working.) Also, Jones-Drew fumbled late in what would have been the go-ahead drive. They have excellent run defenders who maybe just had a bad day.

Still, the Jaguars have to be concerned. The Titans are simply not a very talented team, but they still dominated the Jaguars on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The coaching decisions were questionable at best. Their chosen quarterback appears at best to be average, and the Jaguars passing offense will certainly not be dynamic. The only good news is that the Jaguars get to take their frustration out on the hapless Falcons.

For Tennessee, however, this game was as encouraging as a Week 1 game can be. Franchise player Vince Young was hardly spectacular, but the Titans identified a winning formula: Control both sides of the line of scrimmage and deemphasize the skill positions. They lack talent at the skill positions and in the secondary. Still, they do feature solid offensive and defensive lines. Young will likely endure growing pains, but he may be able to steal a game here or there if the lines keep the game close.

The Titans get a reality check with a visit from Indianapolis and then a trip to New Orleans the next two weeks. Win either one and they could be on their way toward a winning season -- and likely back in this space. Thanks to a good offensive and defensive line, this week may not be their last surprise.

Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.

Posted by: Ned Macey on 11 Sep 2007

36 comments, Last at 14 Sep 2007, 1:08am by Gilman

Comments

1
by omar (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 10:53am

Fred Taylor looked like he was 40. Little to no burst.

Looks like a good sign for MJD owners.

2
by Schuyler (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 11:03am

1- 13 total carries is a bad sign for MJD and Taylor owners.

3
by Brooklyn Bengal (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 11:06am

I didn't go through the archives, but I'd swear we had almost the exact same article last year. Lowly Titans surprise the studly Jags. Really, is anybody surprised when the Jags lose anymore? I'm sure they have the talented players that give them such a consistently high DVOA, but Jack Del Rio is absolutely atrocious as a head coach. Does DVOA take that into account?

4
by Theo, Holland (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 11:43am

Jax were playing with 3 safeties? Deep?
That's an awefull strategy against the run. No wonder.

5
by Kaveman (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 11:48am

#3: I'm wincing, at the tirade from sam that might inspire... :-P

6
by Starshatterer (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 11:52am

Theo (#4 )--

I think the author meant that the three safteies shared time, not that all three were on the field at once.

7
by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 12:14pm

The Titans were a frequent AGS team last year, but not against the Jaguars. In their first meeting, the Titans couldn't do anything right and lost 37-7 in a game that wasn't necessarily that close. The Titans won the second game 24-17, because they had 3 defensive touchdowns and a long KO return to set up a FG.

Keep in mind the Jags had NO success running the football-at halftime, they had 9 carries for 6 yards, including a 6 yard carry from their own 25 with :25 left. Meanwhile, they had had success throwing the ball, thanks in part to Garrard's ability to move around and avoid the pass rush. They had more "success" running the ball in the second half, but it was Travis Henry-style boom and bust running, and the only good RB gains came in what were already short yardage situations. For the game, here's how they did on 1st down designed rushes: 1, -1, 2, -3, 2, 1, 0, 0. That's 8 carries for 2 yards. All running the ball on first down did was put the Jags in 2nd and long. Yes, maybe they should have called a running play or two on one of their final two drives, each of which went 3 pass plays & out, but I can't say they should have.

Remember, too, that the Jags gave up 282 yards rushing, including an insane PAR game by Chris Brown, couldn't run the ball at all, fumbled the ball away to prevent a goal-to-go, had to go for it on 4&10 rather than kick a 37 yard field goal, and still only lost by 3 points. The sky hasn't fallen on the Jags yet.

8
by MCS (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 12:41pm

Slow day at work so some quick splits from AGS last year + this article...

19 total articles
2 AFCE
4 AFCS
3 AFC Interdivisional
1 NFCE
1 NFCW
2 NFC Interdivisional
6 AFC/NFC Interconference

Who are the stars?
Titans 3 wks as victor, 1 as loser
Colts 2 wks as victor, 1 as loser
Jags 0 wks as victor, 3 as loser
'Phins 2 wks as victor, 1 as loser
'Skins 2 wks as victor, 0 as loser
'Boys 0 wks as victor, 2 as loser
Pats 0 wks as victor, 2 as loser
Broncos 1 wk as victor, 1 as loser

The following teams were mentioned once as a victor: 49ers, Bills, Browns, Bucs, Eagles, Lions, Raiders, Rams, and Texans.

The following teams were mentioned once as a loser: Steelers, Bears, Bengals, Falcons, Giants, Ravens, Saints and Seahawks.

Besides the obvious AFC bias (J/K), the most interesting item to me is that the guys at FO are surprised when the Titans win and when the Jaguars lose. This scenario is 5/19 articles.

9
by Crushinator (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 12:54pm

8

I think it's a combination of things that contribute to that.

In this article for example, The Jags were predicted to be one of the best teams in the league by FO, so they have a bit of extra attention. Meanwhile, since it's week 1, we have no idea what anything means yet. Denver eked out a win against Buffalo - Does Denver suck? Is Buffalo awesome? Was it a match of future 6-10 teams? Is the Niners D dominant? Is the Bengals?

For all the previous ones, I think it has a lot to do with the Titans pretty bad DVOA the past few years, while they've still upset quite a few teams that are considered "good".

FO is unable to calculate the VY Just Wins factor.

10
by Ben (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 1:04pm

At least after next weeks Colts-Titans game, we should have the answer as to whether the Colts defensive improvements are real, or if the Titans run game actually is that good...

11
by Nathan (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 1:06pm

Maybe I'm just being sheepish, but I felt a lot better about FO stats and Kubiack at the beginning of last season than this one. I'm questioning a lot, except for Ronald Curry.

I think maybe last year I drafted with my thoughts 1st, then kubiack second for decisions, and it worked so well last year that I went all kubiack with very little of my input, and made choices I normally wouldn't, like MJD in the first few picks.

12
by Nathan (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 1:12pm

I'm probably over reacting after week one. I need to not think about fantasy for a few days. :)

13
by sam (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 1:28pm

4:

I think you're kidding. But in case you're not, or in case somebody else is thinking it... Jacksonville was playing a lot of two-deep, rotating three different safeties. Reggie Nelson missed a lot of time in the preseason and was not ready to be starting on Sunday.

The article kind of mentions it, but I'll say it again. Basically, almost everything that could possibly go wrong for Jacksonville did go wrong, and they were never down by more than 3 points and were in the game until the end of the 4th quarter.

275 rushing yards allowed
No FG possible >25 yards
No running game
The killer (and bizarre) MJD fumble on one of their few good offensive drives in the 2nd half (own teammate forced the fumble)
Killer drops by Dropcutt
The inadvertent whistle preventing a 98-yard fumble return TD

Given all that, you might have expected them to lose 30-10, not 13-10.

14
by morbeer (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 1:54pm

To summarize, the Jaguars are who we thought they were.

15
by morbeer (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 1:55pm

...based on their actual play last year.

16
by paul (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 2:01pm

13:
Hey, that all sounds just super, but I would temper your optimism for the jags with the following: If Murphy's Law continues to strike a team time after time, sooner or later you have to reevaluate the talent on the team. This kind of game from the jags is not the aberration you seem to think it is. Look at the component parts of the team: very good defense, great ground game; below average qb, lousy receivers. gerrard's numbers were decent because the titans secondary is horrid.

17
by Ashley Tate (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 2:07pm

A key point that's missing in this article is the freakish variability in performance shown by Jacksonville last year, as measured by DVOA. The title should be something like "Jags Still Inconsistent". C'mon guys, if you won't pump the power of DVOA on your own site, who will!? :)

18
by Kal (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 2:12pm

I wonder if there's some way we can correlate poor coaching to high deviation in play. For that we'd have to evaluate coaching quantitatively, but that might be okay to do with some obvious ones and see what the relationship is of (say) Bill Parcells coming to the Cowboys to their overall variance.

19
by morbeer (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 2:49pm

I was just checking out teams' average Wonderlic score from last year. Jax is 27th. I wonder if there's a correlation between a low Wonderlic score and the inconsistency of a team? I could look it up but I won't since I actually have to get some work done today. Click my handle for the page.

20
by sam (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 3:19pm

16:

First, it's Garrard. Two a's.

Secondly, I'm a fan. I won't ever temper my optimism.

Thirdly, this game is an aberration, for the above-stated reasons. The rushing yardage allowed wasn't just a record for the Jack Del Rio/Mike Smith Defense in Jax, but a franchise record. Their very good kicker was injured about 60 minutes before kickoff because he kicked the ground about a foot from the tee, instead of the ball.

Now, if the defensive line turns out to be truly bad, then this game isn't an aberration. But it's still not expected based on last year--last year, the defense remained fairly stout most of the year. Maybe not ultra-consistent, but certainly nowhere near this bad.

You would also expect the 6th-best rushing team to be able to run the football. But they coudln't do that. how can you say that's not aberration based on last year?

Finally, Garrard was far from the problem. He did not fumble the football in the Titans redzone, Jones-Drew did. He also didn't drop the first down pass on the final offensive drive, Northcutt did that. Nor was it his fault they didn't have a field-goal kicker. He's not a premier QB, but he's probably average. On a day when you're running backs can't get anything going, his 200 yards throwing aren't bad at all. Vince Young had a great runnign game going for him and still couldn't throw the ball when they did try.

Finally, Murphy's Law hasn't struck time after time. It struck on Sunday. Last year, the inconsistency wasn't murphy's law, it was bad play. This Sunday, the defense played miserably, for the first time since the beginning of 2003. That's either an aberration, or else a sign of bad things to come which were unexpected.

I'm really not sure what your point is.

21
by Rollo (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 4:27pm

I agree with Sam generally. There were alot of fluky things happening, and very good defensive personnel just got beat. Its still bad coaching because the team wasn't ready. But, I'm optimistic that this will serve as the season gut punch and the team will do as well as DVOA expects. However, its a major bummer that our first 3 1st round picks of the Del Rio era for Sunday (supposed to form the nucleus of our passing attack) had this statline: cut, inactive, 0 catches.

22
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 6:59pm

#16: When Murphy's Law strikes a team over and over, what happens is that when it finally stops (and it will) everyone talks about their "miraculous turnaround" and tries desperately to find someone to credit for it.

Weird stuff happens. It's a game. It evens out.

Though even I thought having the safeties deep was moronic.

23
by R. Barton (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 8:13pm

The Jaguars will be fine. You underestimated the presence of Young, which is not understandable considering that he took an 0-3 team to 8-8 in his rookie year after coming out of college as a junior. Eventually observers will realize that Young is a winner and has been a winner at every level. Pick against him at your own risk. For those who think it was a fluke, consider that it happened in Jacksonville. Consider that a "fluke" happened 8 out of Young's 13 starts last year. When the Titans get slightly better talent around Young, they will be a formidable foe for anyone in the league.

24
by johnnyxel (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 9:04pm

23
oooh, that (and Young's stat line from Sunday) reminds me of someone....

25
by Sifter (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 10:53pm

I'd like to see Vince Young beat the Madden curse, then he'll prove that he really has the golden touch. Until then, I'm just waiting for the breakdown... and for people to stop touching themselves whenever he plays.

26
by paul (not verified) :: Tue, 09/11/2007 - 11:32pm

13 and 20:
I think you should have deleted everything after the word "optimism" in your second point. You cant admit you're a homer and then expect your arguments to be seen as logical and well-constructed. Your 2nd point undermines everything that comes after it.
oh, and thanks for the spelling tip-I'll file it away for the next time he pisses away a game that the jags have otherwise dominated(see last year against hou and ten).
Finally, please allow me to reciprocate:
if you're trying to make a series of points, only one of them(the last one) can begin with "finally".

27
by Sunil (not verified) :: Wed, 09/12/2007 - 9:20am

Sunday's game was clearly a continuation of the build-out of a very dominant Titans offensive line. Much of Travis Henry's yards last year came after since Jacob Bell switched sides on the line. The line has solidified since then and I expect the trend to continueWhat was disheartening (to a Titans homer) was the lack of confidence that Vince Young displayed in his throws. Many of his throws fell short of his receivers - a clear example of his fear of being intercepted. He doesn't seem to be comfortable playing from the pocket yet. In fact, if you go back and see game tape, there is a point where Eric Moulds, in a veteran move, gestures to VY to throw higher after a botched throw.The defensive line seems stout and Bryce Fisher's addition will only help. Stephen Tulloch has been an upgrade over Peter Sirmon but it remains to be seen how he does against a strong passing attack like IndyFor all the naysayers who beat up on Fisher and crew for letting Travis Henry go ... looks like they knew what they had going as a foundation for a running game. I won't be surprized if the running game continues to be strong. The only chinks in the TN armour seem to be VY's ability and the corner back position.

28
by sam (not verified) :: Wed, 09/12/2007 - 9:29am

26:

I see. So it doesn't matter that I *AM* a Jaguars fan, as long as I don't say it? Truth is truth. Frankly, I basically ignored most of what you said when it became clear you couldn't properly identify one of the the two starting quarterbacks in the game. My optimism about the future does nothing to change what has already happened--namely that it's impossible to have predicted a meltdown in the run defense based on what had happened for the last 3.5 years.

29
by lionsbob (not verified) :: Wed, 09/12/2007 - 1:15pm

#23
Mike Vick says hi!

30
by NewsToTom (not verified) :: Wed, 09/12/2007 - 4:37pm

Re #29
We're not all so sanguine about the Titans' chances as #23. As a Titans fan, it was a nice win, and I enjoyed watching the game. Still, for the reasons enumerated in the recap post I did (linked) and what I said in #6 about why the sky isn't falling for the Jags, I'm not letting this go to my head. For somebody who is, check out Dr. Z's power rankings this week (#4? after a 13-10 win?).

31
by DEW (not verified) :: Wed, 09/12/2007 - 6:50pm

With regard to Warrick Dunn's superior 2003, wouldn't the defensive ends playing contain against Vick also end up playing contain against Dunn's outside-running style? How did power guys like Duckett do with as opposed to without Vick in the lineup?

32
by Sunil (not verified) :: Wed, 09/12/2007 - 7:33pm

I wonder if there are any Titans fans in Atlanta. My favorite sports bar in Buckhead closed down and I'm looking for alternatives where I can see and hear the game and maybe watch it with some Titans homers. Suggestions?

33
by Richie (not verified) :: Thu, 09/13/2007 - 9:40am

Just wait until Vince Young gets hit by the Madden Curse and breaks both his legs in the next game from a Bob Sanders tackle. THEN Tennessee will be screwed.

34
by Gilman (not verified) :: Thu, 09/13/2007 - 8:17pm

I've seen this before at UT. Vince Youngs running ability opens things up for other players and makes the O-line look better thn they really are.

When Vince was at Texas Jamal Charles and Selvin Young looked all world primarily because they couldn't focus solely on him on the running game. The line looked great too because the defensive front rarely went tearing upfield after the quarterback. If they did Vince would just avoid them and run loose in the secondary.

Last season after Vince left pretty much the same offensive line and the same running backs couldn't run on anyone.

I see the exact same thing happenning here.

35
by Chuck Coleman (not verified) :: Thu, 09/13/2007 - 10:11pm

Didn't Vince Young bomb the Wonderlic? Ron Jaworski showed his poor decision-making in a clip. With plenty of time in the pocket, Young rushed for a first down. He could have had a much longer gain had he seen his open receiver 20 yards downfield.

36
by Gilman (not verified) :: Fri, 09/14/2007 - 1:08am

wonderlic... bleh

I bet David Carr had a great wonderlic score, but he was never 9-3 in his first 12 starts.