Any Given Sunday: Titans Over Bills
by Rivers McCown
You know, a Dave Wannstedt with a $120 million talent infusion to his defensive line is a little like the mule with the spinning wheel: No one knows how he got it, and danged if he knows how to use it.
Wannstedt came before Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey with the idea to sign Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to rejuvenate a moribund pass rush -- one that had finished in the bottom nine in Adjusted Sack Rate each of the last two seasons -- it was probably the greatest ... ah, it wasn't for them. It was more of a Virginia Cavaliers idea.
So Nix and Gailey conferred, said "well, show us your idea and we'll vote for it," and were sold. The results have been, succinctly, catastrophic. Buffalo has gone from bad to worse despite this huge investment. They were the 24th-worst defense by DVOA (25th against the pass, 28th against the run) in 2011, and are now the 31st-worst defense by DVOA (27th against the pass, 32nd against the run) in 2012.
Let's have a little question-and-answer session. Yes, you there in the back!
I hear that defense is awful simple?
It pops as easily as a pimple. Wannstedt's coverage concepts, spacing, and rushers are imminently predictable. Through Week 6, we have Buffalo rushing three or four players on 194 snaps -- they have sent five, six, or seven rushers a grand total of 39 times. That's about 83.2 percent of the snaps where Buffalo sends just three or four rushers -- which is even more than they did last year under deposed defensive coordinator George Edwards.
Now, the pass rush has clearly been improved by the signings (14th in Adjusted Sack Rate this year through Week 6), but the coverage concepts are so easily exploitable that despite some decent (if not game-changing) talent in the secondary, quarterbacks often don't even need a third or fourth read. Matt Hasselbeck spent the first drive of this game completing pass after pass underneath against off-coverage. There are no complex problems to be solved, and there are no wrinkles that change the pre-snap reads. It's a lot like watching Frank Bush's old Texans defenses, which you or I could diagnose pre-snap.
Is there a chance Mario Williams could bend?
He'a almost always on the mend! Williams has always been an elite player that you had to proceed with a "but." But he's injury-prone. But he has games where he disappears. But his pass-rushing repertoire is limited. Nothing has changed in Buffalo. His wrist has been hurt, he's had some invisible games, and he still tries to bull rush over everybody. The only difference is that the whole "being the most highly-paid defender in NFL history" thing has raised expectations.
Williams' best days in a Bills uniform are probably still ahead of him. He will probably have a few games later this season that conjure up "he's back!" headlines. But, he's still going to be a "but" player.
Is anybody going to lose their job?
Throw the linebackers to the mob! In some ways, the Bills are still trying to make up for the loss of Paul Posluszny to free agency after the 2010 season. Nick Barnett is a capable tackler, but he's not on Posluszny's level. Changing back and forth from 3-4 to 4-3 concepts has left Buffalo light on outside linebackers that can actually cover and stuff the run. Converted safety Bryan Scott has seen plenty of time at linebacker, the Bills experimented with Arthur Moats outside for a few games before seeing enough of that, and they've also shuffled Kelvin Sheppard, Chris White, and Nigel Bradham into the mix. Barnett is the only player in the entire linebacker corps to have played at least two-thirds of the snaps in every game this season. Sheppard has shown promise at times, but is purely a two-down player. This is a unit that will probably see some turnover when the offseason hits.
If you were talking specifically about Wannstedt, it's rare for a hand-picked defensive coordinator to hit the road after one season. Of course, it's rare for a unit to be this bad after putting that much money into it too.
Whither Marcell Dareus?
His season has come to bury us. Dareus is just a smidge behind his 2011 pace at creating negative plays: he posted 5.5 sacks and 14 defeats in 2011, and this year has two sacks and four defeats through seven games. However, in 2011, his average run play came 2.1 yards past the line of scrimmage. This year, that has more than doubled to 5.4 yards. You don't spend the third overall pick on a huge nose tackle hoping that he'll be making plays downfield, so that's a pretty big issue for Wannstedt to solve as well. Particularly when you don't have many consistent tacklers in your back seven.
Well, I guess Wannstedt's plan hasn't worked so far, but at least he's put Buffalo on the map!
By the VOA
So, after all that lead-in, do you feel like the Titans actually won this game in our spreadsheets? They didn't. However, it's not hard to explain why:
|Dewey Defeats Titans|
|Team||OFF VOA||DEF VOA||ST VOA||TOTAL VOA|
It's a rather sizable difference -- way more than I would have thought watching the game, but keep in mind that VOA is very down on non-repeatable events, and this game had quite a few of those:
- The Titans snagged both of the game's fumbles.
- Buffalo wound up with 40 more yards in penalties, but most of them (like Unneccessary Roughness) aren't the kinds of calls that matter to VOA.
- Enormous one-time gains (like say, an 83-yard touchdown run) tend to get blunted in importance when you're looking at a long-term model like VOA.
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Of course, there's also the massive special teams disparity. Still, that's a little wider than I would have thought even after considering all those facts.
Call of the Game
It seemed like there was an outbreak of well-considered fourth-down shots by teams this weekend that just didn't work, and the Titans were a part of that as they faced fourth-and-5 from the Buffalo 36, down six points, with 3:55 left in the game.
Certainly Rob Bironas has earned the benefit of the doubt at this point in his career that he's one of the best kickers in the NFL. But since A) the Titans defense hadn't stopped anything and B) the Titans special teams were getting gashed on a regular basis, there was a pretty decent chance that Tennessee would have wound up down more than three or, at best, with poor field position.
Mike Munchak decided to go for it. Jared Cook dropped Hasslebeck's pass just past the sticks, and the momentum had swung, never to return! ... At least until Jason McCourty intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick three plays later. Luck is the residue of design, some would say. Others, like me, would simply say that the Titans were karmically rewarded for playing things correctly.
Spotlight on: Chris Johnson
The butt of many jokes for most of the first six weeks of the season, Johnson enacted some vengance on the Bills in this one. Nearly 200 yards later, Johnson dug his way into positive DYAR territory for the first time all season.
Looking at Johnson's splits this year, one of the most counter-intuitive aspects is that most of his good runs have come through the interior line rather than on the edges. You're far more likely to hear an announcer say that they need to get the ball to Johnson in space, but to parrot Greg Cosell on this, Johnson has become an "avoid contact" player. That means that the further away you can keep defenders from him, the more time he has to actually put his track speed to use. It's a trend that has carried over from last season:
|Johnson Horizontally by DVOA|
|Year||Left End/Tackle||Guards/Middle||Right End/Tackle||Overall|
Thus, it should come as no surprise that his best games of this season have come against teams that aren't defending the run well up the gut. The Texans have a good run defense overall, but their mediocre nose tackle platoon has them just 23rd in Adjusted Line Yards up the gut through Week 6. The Steelers? 24th. The Bills? Dead last. And this game won't be helping them out at all.
Another thing the Titans could do to help Johnson is to run him more out of shotgun. Last season, despite having only 19 carries from it, Johnson garnered 39 DYAR and a 40.6% DVOA. This year, the Titans have embraced it a little more, and with 23 carries out of shotgun so far, Johnson has a 13.6% DVOA and 21 DYAR.
As for his success in this game? Well, when Ben Muth covered the Bills, he said:
Byrd doesn’t squeeze the hole at all. He hugs up next to the tackle and waits for Gronkowski to come to him. He keeps his outside arm free and thus maintains his leverage, but by not squeezing down at all, he has left a crater in the middle of the defense for Barnett to fill.
I found a couple of examples in this game that filled this same basic idea: a Buffalo safety waiting for the running back. I'm sure there are some cases where that's a good idea, but against an "avoid contact" player, wouldn't you want to crowd him as soon as possible? Not if you are a Bills safety! Check out Johnson's first touchdown run:
This play is going to be cut back to the outside. I've circled George Wilson so you can keep an eye on how the play develops for him.
As it stands, Wilson can get help from either side. He has a corner maintaining outside position on the left and a linebacker fighting through a block on the right. He can take an angle that forces Johnson somewhere and makes him dance. Or he can just stand there.
Here's how that looks from the regular camera angle:
Here's how the play ends:
The verdict? You probably shouldn't call it a comeback. But if you were one of the many who got stuck with Johnson in a fantasy league, now is the time to bail out if somebody actually still believes.