Any Given Sunday
The weekend's biggest upset goes under the Football Outsiders lens.

Any Given Sunday: Cardinals Over Titans

Any Given Sunday: Cardinals Over Titans
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

The Tennessee Titans are not a good football team. As you are reading a statistics site and are the likely target market for this sort of material, I don't expect this will be a hard sell to you. Let's look at the extent of the damage.

The Titans have been outscored by 21 points on the season. The Texans, a 4-9 team that will be eliminated from playoff contention the second the rest of the AFC gets its act together, have been outscored by 24 points. To be certain, plenty of teams have snuck into the playoffs with a negative point differential over the last few years. The Texans -- again an instructive example -- made it last year despite being outscored by 49 points. Over the past five years, one team has won a playoff team while having a negative point differential in the regular season: The Carolina Panthers upset the Arizona Ryan Lindleys in 2014, after Arizona limped into the playoffs with an injured Carson Palmer.

The Titans are not a good offensive unit. They enter Week 15 with a -2.7% offensive DVOA. They are fourth in rushing offensive DVOA, but when they can't run on a team, they are practically out of options. This is surprising only in that Marcus Mariota was supposed to be further along by this point in his career, and we will look at his issues a little more in-depth in a few paragraphs. (It should be noted that Tennessee's seasonal passing rating is weighted down a bit by Mike Mularkey's insistence on giving Matt Cassel work in 2017.)

And, as we looked at a couple weeks ago, the Fighting Gabberts in Arizona are a team that thrives on stopping the run. They're now third in run defense DVOA, and continued that dominance by holding the Titans to a pathetic 54 yards on 20 non-quarterback carries on Sunday.


Tennessee's defense has been interesting in that they are good only if they can rush the passer. They're 21st in overall defense DVOA, but that includes a six-sack game against the Dolphins, an eight-sack game against the Colts, and, now, eight more against Blaine Gabbert. That's 20 of the team's 36 sacks in three games. The Titans have played just three teams with top-11 pass offense DVOAs: Pittsburgh, Oakland, and Seattle. They were torched by each of them, as well as a healthy Deshaun Watson, for a total of 150 points. A team that can both run and stop the run, the Titans are the team Chuck Pagano would create if he were any good at his job.

Tennessee has picked up a lot of buzz over the past two years for a few good reasons. Exotic Smashmouth memes aside, the Titans actually do run the ball well, and when they do, it's both a joy to watch and a relic that older writers and minds latch on to. It's exciting to watch Derrick Henry turn the corner and run over some poor safety. It creates matchup problems for teams that want to play small.

But what we've learned over this past month, with Mariota's struggles, is that it's a lot easier to run when teams fear that you'll pass. After starting the year with double-digit run offense DVOAs in five of their first six games, the Titans have gotten back to that mark once in their last seven games.

The Decline of the Tennessee Run Offense

Run Offense DVOA Pass Offense DVOA
Weeks 1-6 17.4% (1st) 7.2% (20th)
Weeks 7-14 3.1% (8th) -17.5% (30th)

From Week 7 to Week 14, the only teams with a worse passing DVOA than the Titans are the Bills and the Broncos. Yes, they are narrowly behind the Browns.

It's entertaining that the Titans are counter-punching in the era of the dominant pass offense. But what would be more entertaining is if their run offense had something to counter off of.

How the Game Swung

The Tennessee defense had this game pretty much in-hand for most of the game. The only time Arizona dipped over a 50 percent chance to win came when the Titans ran a fake punt inside their own 40. It appeared the play had succeeded, but the Titans were ruled to be short on the rare successful NFL spot challenge by Bruce Arians.

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Arizona only got a field goal out of it, so all returned to normal until Marcus Mariota was picked in the red zone. He was looking for Rishard Matthews to break in, but Matthews did not get that memo.

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The Cardinals continued to putter around in the red zone, missing a would-be go-ahead field goal. But the Titans did nothing to add to the lead, either. Arizona would drive from their own 15 for the go-ahead points, and the Titans answered with yet another interception, this time deep in Tennessee territory. Mariota targeted Delanie Walker in the middle of a zone and appeared to never see inside linebacker Josh Bynes.

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Tennessee was bailed out by one of its many sacks, as Jurrell Casey took Gabbert down on second-and-goal from the 5.

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A made Phil Dawson field goal and some punts put the Titans in need of a touchdown drive with roughly 1:30 to play and no timeouts.

However, the Titans continued to have no pass offense, and on fourth-and-10 at their own 22, Mariota and Tennessee put the win in the hands of their most explosive ... defensive player. Yes, Adoree Jackson, Tennessee's first-round cornerback, was targeted short of the sticks. This, to everyone's surprise, did not work.

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And so the Titans, despite playing a team that had essentially no offense beyond counter-punching, sacks, and overthrows of Larry Fitzgerald, turned the ball over deep in their own territory twice, to lose by five points.

By the VOA

As you'd expect from the score, this was not the game for offense. Or, really, good football.

TEN -27.7% -7.5% -3.5% -23.8%
ARI -30.1% -36.7% -7.1% -0.5%
TEN -42.2% -18.7% -3.5% -27.0%
ARI -23.0% -41.4% -7.1% 11.4%

Negative numbers were the name of this game. Sort of interesting how not-close the numbers were given the score and how many sacks Tennessee was able to produce.

Marcus Mariota: Superfraud!!!!(?)

It isn't really news that Marcus Mariota has been an awkward fit in his offense. This was the expected outcome from the moment when the Titans hired Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie. Robiskie had not been an NFL offensive coordinator since 2004, when he led the Browns to a 27th place finish in DVOA. Before that, he hadn't been an offensive coordinator since the early 1990s.


The Titans have managed to this point for two reasons. One is that general manager Jon Robinson has done an able job of stocking the roster with talent that fits what the coaching staff wants. Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan give the Titans bookend tackles that most of the league can't match. Henry has been an excellent back early in his career. Mariota's ability to run only further buoys the run game ... when he's been healthy.

The second reason is that Mariota, despite not being played to his strengths, had lived up to the hype. His hyper-efficient style of play made the Titans offense look better than it was. The Titans don't follow most modern tenets of an NFL passing game. When they run play-action, they limit the number of players going out in routes. They have a quarterback who can process information quickly and find open players, but they've surrounded him with blockers to make his life harder.

I think the most instructive example I can make of how dysfunctional this has played out this year is that there is virtually no split between short balls and deep balls. The Titans have declined precipitously in both areas.

Where Has The Tennessee Passing Offense Gone?

Short Pass DVOA Short Balls/G Long Pass DVOA Long Balls/G Play Action YPA
2016 37.2% (6th) 24.8 87.3% (15th) 7.0 8.3 (14th)
2017 11.5% (26th) 24.4 16.0% (30th) 6.6 10.0 (3rd)

However, let's look at how things break down by receiver and see if we can find any differences between the hot start of the season and more recent weeks:

Receiving Splits by Tennessee Offensive Player

Weeks 1-6 DVOA Targets Weeks 7-14 DVOA Targets
Rishard Matthews -0.7% 42 20.4% 31
Delanie Walker -9.6% 39 0.5% 52
Eric Decker -11.8% 36 -2.0% 28
DeMarco Murray -14.4% 17 20.2% 25
Corey Davis -23.5% 13 -42.8% 36
Jonnu Smith -2.2% 12 -61.9% 12
Taywan Taylor 12.8% 12 -28.5% 10

Now we're getting somewhere. The Titans lost Rishard Matthews for a bit as he dealt with a nagging hamstring injury. One thing you've perhaps heard if you've played fantasy football for the last few weeks is the ascendance of Corey Davis. After all, he has all the world's snaps, and usually players with snaps get plenty of targets.

But Davis has struggled all season to get open or do anything with his targets. Here are a couple of examples:

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Davis has inside position on Patrick Peterson here. The ball would have been catchable if Davis had made a good play, but Davis trips and doesn't really seem to sell out for it.

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Oh dear.

This sort of feels like the kind of sickness that gets up and bites the Packers from time-to-time. They're trying to fit together a bunch of young receivers and, well, sometimes young receivers are not ready to be on the field, running a specific scheme. Davante Adams is a very instructive role model for Davis at this point. Tennessee has the same offensive play-calling issues that we have belabored with Mike McCarthy. They also have a quarterback who is clearly not Aaron Rodgers, and the funky odor isn't even hidden in the hamper. It's just flat-out bad.

Mariota looks tentative and hesitant right now. He's hitching up a little extra on the longer throws, especially outside the numbers. His footwork reflects this. He has developed happy feet.

I think writing Mariota off forever is a step further than I'm willing to take. He was hurt at the end of last season, he was hurt in this game, and this is not the first time he's been hurt this year. I don't know that he'll rebound this season, but I'm going to need to see multiple years of injuries holding him down before he's scratched off the franchise quarterback list.


2 comments, Last at 12 Dec 2017, 2:15pm

2 Re: Any Given Sunday: Cardinals Over Titans

The Titans are an above average team hampered by a ill-conceived offense and buoyed by a weak schedule. Mularkey's awful offense is compounded by Robiskie's horrible play-calling. I do like the idea of focusing on the run to counter the NFL's tendency towards smaller defenses as a reaction to more passing, but not when it's married to such an archaic passing game that does Mariota no favors.

Trolls and ignorant people are writing Mariota off, he isn't playing as well as he should be, but this offense requires him to practically be perfect. He'll bounce back given time to heal and placed in a more conducive offense, which I hope will happen before it's too late.