Any Given Sunday: Titans over Patriots

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

by Rivers McCown

The Titans managed a 46.7% passing DVOA on Sunday, the second time they've been over 40.0% in two weeks, and the fourth time they've passed for at least 39.0% DVOA in a game on the season. They've won all four of those games.

So the question we've arrived at is very simple. We can talk up Marcus Mariota's ability to play hurt and how his damaged nerve did and didn't affect the Tennessee passing game. We can talk about the overall health of the team, and how a bye week likely did wonders in clarifying rocky situations for tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin. But let's toss aside the win over the Texans, where Blaine Gabbert was able to scoot his way downfield a couple of times in a permanent rolling pocket. What is different about how the Titans play when their passing offense plays well with Mariota?

Surprisingly, it's mostly about their ability to go downfield. In Weeks 4, 9, and 10, the Titans threw deep passes 24 times for 14 first downs and/or touchdowns. Over those three weeks, the only teams with more deep-ball first downs or touchdowns were the Rams and Bengals. The DVOA itself on those passes isn't all that special at 126.4% -- it's well above-average, but you'd expect that in a small sample -- but it's still a big improvement over their other weeks:

Table 1: Tennessee Receivers Downfield
Split Deep Throws First Downs/
Turnovers DVOA
Wk 4, 9-10 24 14 1 126.4%
Wk 1-3, 5-7 21 8 1 23.4%
Total 45 22 2 74.8%

In their other six games, the Titans have only thrown the ball deep 21 times. They only managed a first down or touchdown eight times on those throws. Both the rate and the number of successes are the worst in the NFL over that sample of weeks, and the DVOA is fifth-worst. To give you an idea of how bad that figure above is: the average DVOA on a deep pass this year is 87.6%, and that league-wide average includes the Buffalo Bills. Yes, the Tennessee sample includes trace amounts of Gabbert. But even the Mariota-only games are noticeably lacking deep strikes.

Throwing deep balls at Corey Davis has usually been successful this season -- in these three particular games we've sample-sized out, though, Davis gets 14 deep targets, compared to six for every other game. Over the last two weeks, though, the Titans have been much more successful with their other receivers going deep. On 13 deep throws to non-Davis receivers through Week 8, four of them were successful. On six since, four of them were successful.

Given that the Titans are a team in the AFC, all it really took them to get back in the playoff picture was competent ball control offense mixed with the occasional big play. That's how Miami has lingered on the edges of the playoffs this year and in 2016 under Adam Gase. But if Mariota and Davis have actually established the kind of connection that has been lacking on these balls for whatever reason, that's a huge step towards opening up the AFC South and wild-card path.

Where the Game Swung

Per our overlords at EdjSports, here's how their Game-Winning Chance metric saw the major inflection points of Titans-Patriots:

Table 2: EdjSports GWC -- Patriots-Titans
Quarter Time Play Description GWC Before GWC After Swing
1 11:29 Jonnu Smith TD catch from Marcus Mariota 45.7% 53.4% +7.7%
1 10:16 Josh Gordon 44-yard catch from Tom Brady 56.7% 47.2% -9.5%
1 5:58 Corey Davis TD catch from Marcus Mariota 58.4% 65.7% +7.3%
2 9:23 Stephen Gostkowski missed 52-yard FG 57.3% 66.0% +8.7%
2 3:26 Corey Davis 20-yard catch from Marcus Mariota 66.5% 75.7% +9.2%

After going up 24-10, the Titans never saw their GWC% wobble to less than 83.7 percent in the second half. Here's the biggest play of the game, per GWC:

via Gfycat

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This was a filthy find by Mariota against Cover-1. The Patriots send an extra rusher, forcing Mariota to step up in the pocket to buy time. At the same time, Davis is imparting his own filth on Stephon Gilmore by faking the post, then heading to the corner. This is the kind of stuff you expect to see from your first-round quarterback and wideout.

By the DVOA

What's with this recent slate of underdog asskickings? Here's how the Titans handled the Patriots:

Table 3: By the DVOA
NE -27.0% 27.6% 3.2% -51.4%
TEN 24.7% -31.3% 5.4% 61.4%
NE -25.4% 21.8% 3.2% -44.0%
TEN 28.0% -22.7% 5.4% 56.2%

This was (just barely) New England's second-worst game of the year. The Lions game on Monday night in Week 3 edged it out with a total of -45.5% DVOA.

It was the best game Tennessee played all year by more than 30.0% DVOA. Second-best was against the Cowboys last Monday night.

Brady, the Blitz, and the Deep Ball

It was third-and-4 at the Tennessee 34, and the Patriots were down 10 points and driving. Tom Brady had just avoided a sack thanks to a defensive offsides penalty, and things seemed to be settling into the rhythm you're used to in Patriots wins: Take the first punch, then bring the roundhouse back. This time, though, Brady couldn't get it done:

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

The Titans threatened a blitz, but dropped off -- and Brady, one of the best quarterbacks of all time, chucked it at the feet of James White with almost no pressure. It was a three-man rush, and had Brady waited, he had something opening up deeper. It was a reaction to how poorly he had been playing against the blitz. And that's part of a trend that started in 2017, and now threatens the Pats squarely as an offense. Brady is no longer reacting to the blitz like he did in his prime:

Table 4: Tom Brady Versus the Blitz
Year QBR Rk Passer
Rk 1st Downs/
2006 62.7 10 89.9 6 37.9% 10
2007 93.6 1 126.8 1 46.7% 2
2009 77.6 9 102.3 6 38.9% 12
2010 77.3 7 121.9 1 43.6% 1
2011 83.8 3 125.1 2 48.0% 1
2012 89.5 2 126.7 2 47.7% 2
2013 70.2 14 99.6 11 41.4% 12
2014 92.8 1 108.5 7 50.3% 1
2015 87.1 1 110.6 5 45.2% 3
2016 88.1 2 125.7 1 44.4% 6
2017 58.1 25 84.3 22 37.2% 18
2018 23.6 32 59.6 32 26.4% 32
Source: ESPN Stats & Info

According to Sports Info Solutions data, when the Titans brought the heat with a blitz in this game, Brady was 2-of-7 for 36 yards, plus two sacks.

Given how bad Malcolm Butler has been this year for the Titans, the Patriots should have absolutely welcomed the blitz. One-on-one with anybody on that side of the ball was an appealing matchup. Through Week 9's games, Butler was 56th of 62 qualified cornerbacks in Sports Info Solutions' Success Rate. He was 57th in yards per pass allowed, at 11.2 a pop (subscription required). With fourth-and-6 from the Tennessee 42, on their last gasp drive with 10:53 left, Brady had Chris Hogan isolated against Butler.

via Gfycat

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Hogan's reaction tells it all, doesn't it? The Patriots were able to target Butler just twice. They completed one of the passes, for 5 yards.

This was a microcosm of what has gone wrong for the Patriots this season on offense. Brady isn't playing poorly, but he's finally showing some cracks in the armor. Brady's got just 212 DYAR on deep balls this year, a number that puts him 19th in the NFL, behind Eli Manning. The addition of Josh Gordon has helped a bit -- nine of 19 deep balls targeting Gordon have been successful by FO definitions, and Gordon is an inaccuracy eraser given how he can win the ball with his body downfield. But on the heels of last season's scorched earth campaign with Hogan downfield, Brady has targeted Hogan just eight times on deep balls all season.

These are the kinds of scenarios where Brady used to make you pay. We've got a trendline here. It makes me nervous to even point it out, because people have been jumping the gun on Brady being done for most of this decade. But this is starting to become a noticeable issue for the Patriots. It was certainly the major reason they lost on Sunday.


1 comment, Last at 13 Nov 2018, 3:36pm

1 Re: Any Given Sunday: Titans over Patriots

This was (just barely) New England's second-worst game of the year. The Lions game on Monday night in Week 3 edged it out with a total of -45.5% DVOA.

Are the VOA and DVOA tables reversed?

DVOA says this was a -51.4% game for New England, which is worse than the Detroit game.