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

Any Given Sunday: Bills over Titans

Any Given Sunday: Bills over Titans
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

To steal a phrase from Mike Tanier, the only thing consistent about the Tennessee Titans is their ability to morph into whatever team they play that week. Want a shootout with the Eagles? You got it. Want to pretend it's 1965 again, Buffalo? They're in!

The reason it's hard to mess around with seasonal results for the Titans offense is pretty simple: there's not much consistent about their lineups. Rishard Matthews was here, now he's released. Delanie Walker was exceptional, now he's out for the year. Is Marcus Mariota hurt, or is he just not developing? Is Corey Davis a star, or has he stagnated? Maybe the answer is just yes, or maybe it's not! We certainly can't act like the Blaine Gabbert games mattered, as hilarious as it was that they managed to steal a game from the Texans on sheer guile and bootlegs. But other than that, the full gist of how the Titans are playing is entirely up for interpretation.

One thing we can say for certain is that the Titans miss their bookend tackles. Jack Conklin missed the first three games. Taylor Lewan missed Weeks 2 and 3 with a concussion, and then also limped off with an ankle injury in Buffalo, getting in only 17 snaps. The Titans still allowed fewer pressures than any team in the NFL through the first four weeks of the season, but that was largely due to the design of the offense. Gabbert has had the quickest time to throw in the entire NFL this season, with an average time over his 45 attempts of 2.27 seconds. Second-place Sam Bradford is at 2.51. Gabbert's intended air yardage of 5.6 is the second-lowest in the NFL, ahead of only C.J. Beathard. So, essentially, we have 45 dropbacks of screens, slants, bootlegs, and checkdowns to thank for the pressure figure.

With Mariota, the numbers are more in line with real NFL offenses. He's in the middle of the pack with 2.74 seconds of average time to throw. His 7.3 average intended air yards is still low, but not comically low. It puts Mariota in the company of players like Alex Smith and Blake Bortles. While Mariota, like any quarterback, does worse with pressure, he saw very little of it last year. Tennessee's 24.5 percent pressure rate allowed in 2017 was the fourth-lowest figure in the NFL. Where am I going with this? Mariota had a wide variance swing in his performance with and without pressure between 2016 and 2017.

Marcus Mariota With and Without Pressure, 2016-2017
Year Pressure% (Rk) DVOA Under Pressure DVOA Without Pressure Difference (Rk)
2016 21.1% (5) -72.4% 61.3% -133.7% (29)
2017 24.5% (4) -41.0% 30.4% -71.4% (6)

On the very first play of the game, the Bills sent rushers. On the second play of the game, Mariota airmailed a pass at checkdown receiver Derrick Henry. With Lewan out, and the Titans trying to run a non-gimmicky offense, the Bills were able to pressure Mariota in key moments in this game, causing disruption.

On third-and-3 at the Buffalo 7, Mariota was forced into a throw by Trent Murphy and the results were scary. In fact, it was almost an interception.

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On second-and-4, driving at the Buffalo 26, here's Lewan replacement Tyler Marz impersonating a speed bump for Jerry Hughes. Mariota throws off his back foot. The ball sails even though his man is open.

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The very next play saw Marz give up a sack to Trent Murphy that put the Titans in deep field-goal range -- they were actually lucky that Ryan Succop was still able to nail the kick.

And again, deep in Buffalo territory, in what is destined to be the most famous play from this game, Mariota was hugged by Jerry Hughes, scrambled away because Hughes didn't want to get a penalty flag, and then tried to fling it to the back of the end zone.

via Gfycat

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I don't think Mariota played a bad game on the whole. The Tennessee offense has a lot of moving parts right now that are all trying to settle together. They don't have a real replacement for Walker, with Jonnu Smith being essentially irrelevant in the offensive scheme. Taywan Taylor is still young, even if he shows promise. and the role players haven't shown much affinity for receiving.

But this was one of those games where, despite looking good on a few scrambles where he bought time, the results as a whole when Mariota was under pressure were bad. The Bills just happened to be able to force them at the most inopportune times. When the offense was in rhythm, the Titans looked good. When they were challenged, everything went off the rails.

Where the Game Swung

Using EdjSports' Game-Winning Chance statistic, here were the five biggest plays in this game. All of them occurred in the second half, as the teams traded turnovers and Buffalo's final drive played a big part in the proceedings:

Q3 5:53; first-and-10 -- GWC from 43.7% to 60.4% (Bills' recovery) -- +16.7%

Q4 8:03; second-and-7 -- GWC from 67.2% to 49.0% (Titans recovery) -- -18.2%

Q4 3:27; third-and-3 -- GWC from 32.9% to 48.2% -- +15.3%

Q4 1:45; second-and-6 -- GWC from 60.3% to 78.6% -- +18.3%

Q4 0:03; field goal -- GWC from 82.8% to 100% -- +17.2%

The story of the last drive was one that did not involve Josh Allen's arm at all. The rookie did not attempt a downfield throw. It didn't matter -- LeSean McCoy and Chris Ivory broke tackles left and right, and the quick screens that Buffalo ran seemed to catch Tennessee's defense off-guard. Here's the second-and-6 throw to Ray-Ray McCloud.

via Gfycat

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Quick screen, quick kick-out by the tackle, and an easy chunk of yards.

By the (D)VOA

TEN -38.9% -18.7% 19.2% -1.0%
BUF -33.9% -40.1% -1.6% 4.6%
TEN -47.4% -32.2% 19.2% 4.0%
BUF -31.0% -47.2% -1.6% 14.6%

You can see this game pretty squarely through Tennessee's Kevin Williams. He had a big punt return to set up the Titans deep in Bills territory on their first field goal. He also dropped a sure touchdown from Mariota that helped contribute to Tennessee's abysmal offensive rating in this game, and looked to have miscommunicated with Mariota on his interception in the second quarter as well.

Josh Allen Progress Report: What Exactly Do The Bills Do Well?

Since we covered the Bills in Week 3, Josh Allen has put up two games with DYARs of -40 and -220, where he threw for a combined 223 yards and three picks. He has also taken a league-high 19 sacks. In some ways, Allen's season is the proverbial car wreck you can't help but gawk at. In a league where Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes are making everything look easy, Allen has Goff's numbers ... from Goff's rookie season with Jeff Fisher.

But outside of the triumphant return of Shady McCoy this week, other players simply aren't stepping up for Buffalo. This is a group effort.

Of Buffalo's receivers with 15 or more targets, only Zay Jones has positive DYAR. Kelvin Benjamin has been an unmitigated disaster, catching eight of 27 attempts for 103 yards, and has been the intended target on three interceptions. Andre Holmes has never been able to catch.

Allen owns the 19 sacks, but Buffalo through Week 4 owned a 34.0 percent pressure rate on the offensive line, 28th in the NFL. (After this game, that's dropped to 30.3 percent, now 24th, according to Sports Info Solutions). The offensive design for Allen to take shots downfield under Brian Daboll's sage tutelage has created (per NFL Next Gen Stats) an expected completion percentage of 61.3 percent, the third-worst in the NFL. We have 33 deep balls for Allen in our data -- he's completed seven of them, for 205 yards, with four interceptions and one DPI. That equates to a DYAR of -152 just on those snaps, which is nearly triple the second-worst deep ball DYAR this season (Nick Foles at -53) and makes him one of just three players with a negative DYAR on deep balls: Allen, Foles, and Tom Brady. (That's right! Tom Brady comparisons in Allen's first year!)

Listen, we hated this draft pick for the Bills with the fire of a million suns, especially once you factor in trading up for him, but this offense is doing him no favors at all. The Bills need only look at their recent coaching past for inspiration on how you manage a tall quarterback with a big arm and lousy accuracy: the job Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett are doing with Blake Bortles in Jacksonville.

Allen has the size and speed to be a threat on running plays and do credible play-action. He's going to sail some easy throws, because he was always going to do that. Did you watch him in college?

via Gfycat

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But the last drive of the game has to be more instructive for how Buffalo plays offense with Allen. Use screen passes. Use Allen as a runner. Roll him out of the pocket and give him easy reads. When defenses adjust, mix in the slants and crossing routes, then go up the ladder and try to catch them off-guard with the arm strength.

Allen's rookie season has been, to this point, every bit the disaster every statistical profile saw it as. But it doesn't have to be quite this bad.

Daboll and Sean McDermott (and, because of spending cutbacks, Brandon Beane) have created a situation in which no rookie quarterback could develop. The fact that Allen has spectacularly bad numbers even in that context shouldn't absolve them of blame.


11 comments, Last at 11 Oct 2018, 6:04pm

1 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills over Titans

Josh Allen may well be bad. But I'm not willing to bury him just based on his stats. He plays for an administration so incompetent they can only aspire to Jeff Fisher's 8-8 bullshit. This is the same coaching staff that intentionally hamstrung Tyrod Taylor by trading away everyone who could catch or block and when that didn't work tried to play Nathan Peterson until it threatened to submarine Oakland's move to Vegas. This is a team trying to lose.

His best receiver is Zay Jones! I have more DYAR than Zay Jones!

Allen may well be bad, but this is a terrible offense and he's the best QB on the roster.

7 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills over Titans

They wouldn't have kept that talent, anyway.

The popular perception around here is that they should have kept Taylor. I don't agree with it - he is what he is, and with the cap issues they have they weren't going to be able to construct a roster that could carry him. Then again, I really didn't agree with picking Allen, either, and that's gone even worse than I expected, between Allen playing "hero ball" too much and Daboll losing his mind with the play calling.

9 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills over Titans

It was fine to move on from Taylor (he is what he is) but it would have made more sense to do so in 2017 when Mahomes and Watson were available and start the rebuild then instead of deliberately mucking it up for a year in no-man's land, hamstringing Taylor on purpose (?) with the lack of weapons and scheme to justify needing a franchise QB in 2018. I'm not saying this because of hindsight and seeing how good Mahomes and Watson have looked compared to Allen, but logic and team-building: you have a new staff, draft your QB and rebuild when you first come in instead of playing this wishy-washy, non-commital game with your starter for a year, sucking the team of talent, etc. And you're going to tank, do it correctly instead of sneaking in the playoffs!

3 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills over Titans

Have to defend Bortles a little here. He was a much better prospect than Allen, going by college stats. I always thought his throwing motion looked weird, but it's obvious Bortles can have a great game, just not play consistently well from game to game. I'm doubting Allen can approach Geno Smith level of competency.

4 Re: Any Given Sunday: Bills over Titans

I'm very concerned that the Jets are going to blow a game against this Bills team, just through turnovers. It seems the Bills defense has turned a corner; teams just need to play 9 in the box against them and not make mistakes on offense.