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

Any Given Sunday: Bengals Over Titans

Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

The Tennessee Titans have won the Regression Olympics -- Ryan Tannehill's franchise quarterback status has stood the test of 16 games. This is something that doesn't often happen, it's something we were skeptical about in Football Outsiders Almanac 2020, and it clearly means a lot that it happened. The Titans are 5-2 and they are the team getting upset in this column rather than the plucky team pulling off miracles. That says a lot about how things have been upgraded in Nashville under Mike Vrabel and Jon Robinson.

What the Titans have not done a good job of is replacing defensive coordinator Dean Pees and long-time interior disruptor Jurrell Casey, whom they shipped to the Broncos this offseason. They did sign Jadeveon Clowney, but the Clowney that they've gotten has not been a star. And if you watch Clowney's pressures, they have a disturbing trend of remaining that way because he often is only winning inside. Vic Beasley and Harold Landry, likewise, haven't performed miracles as edge players.

With Adoree Jackson' missing most of the season up until this point, the Titans have been crushed any time they've been asked to cover. Their No. 1 corner is Malcolm Butler, who has been average at best throughout his Titans career. Their main No. 2 and No. 3 corners this season have been Johnathan Joseph, who lost a step three years ago, and LSU rookie Kristian Fulton. (Editor's Note: The Titans cut Joseph about a half an hour after we published this article.) That has manifested itself in the Titans having the worst DVOA on third/fourth down in the NFL: 45.8%. If you want to use a more conventional number: the Titans have allowed a league-worst 61.9% of third downs against them to be converted this year, as well as five of seven fourth-down attempts. The Bengals converted 10 of 15 third downs on the Titans on Sunday, as well as one major fourth down:

This is gonna show up in the Where the Game Swung chart below. Look at how little rush the Titans get here from anybody. They cover everything well for the first three seconds and have underneath guys so that Burrow doesn't run for the first down. But nobody actually does the business of getting Burrow down, so he just buys time until someone gets open.

If you remove interceptions from defensive DVOA, the Titans drop from 20th to 27th. So they have been fairly dependent on interceptions. In the two games where the Titans haven't recorded a takeaway, they've allowed 607 and 441 total yards of offense to a pair of teams that have a combined three wins.

To be clear: I would say this is more of a talent problem than a coaching problem, but the Titans are clearly asking a lot of Vrabel to be both head coach and primary defensive signal-caller. (Jim Haslett, the inside linebackers coach, is the only other defensive assistant with a lot of known NFL cachet in the room. Outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen gets a lot of time in interviews.) There is room for things to get better as Jackson's return should be a tide that lifts all secondary players into easier positions for them to win.

But Pees has a lot of coaching acumen and was probably a bigger loss than was let on this offseason, particularly as we see a lot of what he threw at Baltimore in the AFC playoffs stick as game-planning 101 against Lamar Jackson.

Where the Game Swung

Chart 1

Where the Game Swung
Event Time CIN GWC
J.Burrow fourth-down pass to T.Higgins 2:36 Q2 39.1% 53.2% 14.1%
J.Bates intercepts R.Tannehill 5:16 Q1 22.3% 35.4% 13.1%
G.Bernard TD run 0:32 Q2 53.1% 61.8% 8.7%
L.Wilson sacks R.Tannehill on third-and-8 @ CIN 40 4:39 Q3 68.0% 76.0% 8.0%
D.Henry TD run 6:04 Q2 47.7% 39.9% -7.8%
R.Tannehill incomplete third-and-12 11:22 Q3 64.0% 70.4% 6.4%

Most of this actual game was decided by the Titans getting themselves into trouble in favorable field positions -- i.e., the worst time possible -- and then not coming through in any real way. Let's look at the Tannehill sack:

Hard to find a lot to actually critique with the decision to not throw here. But because of where they were on the field, this was a huge sack that forced a punt and marked the beginning of the end for Tennessee's chances.

By the (D)VOA

TEN 31.9% 29.7% -13.1% -10.8%
CIN 19.2% 20.0% 6.8% 6.1%
TEN 41.5% 26.8% -13.1% 1.6%
CIN 25.1% 33.5% 6.8% -1.6%

The Titans come out ahead on VOA. The Titans outgained the Bengals 7.4 yards per play to 5.3. I, in fact, have no idea how you lose a game in which you average 7.5 yards per rush on 29 attempts. That sounds like a scenario that wouldn't pass simulations very often.

The Titans did rack up the offense in garbage time, though -- 104.4% offensive DVOA and 9.6 yards per play in the fourth quarter. Both teams had negative offense in the first quarter and both teams had their best offense in the fourth quarter.

David Carr Alarmism, Joe Burrow, and You

One very peculiar strain of thought I have had shot into my eyelids this year is the idea that the Bengals are going to "David Carr" Joe Burrow because he is a young quarterback who is behind a very bad offensive line. That was supposed to be exacerbated this week because the Bengals were almost entirely down to backups on the line.

David Carr has a really complicated legacy, and one I think is worth exploring some time in more detail than just numbers. Unfortunately, you can't find most of Carr's starts just hanging around on YouTube to be diagnosed. You can watch the Texans' first game as a franchise -- Carr was real bad in it -- but that's about it. NFL Game Pass picks up in 2009. The 2002-2006 Texans were the opposite of appointment viewing and generally just exist through the legacy of ruining Carr and wasting Andre Johnson's gifts. I would love to get a bushel of these Carr games and just watch them, but my Torrent days are behind me and I have no idea where else they would be.

The thing is: great quarterbacks transcend their circumstances in some way. There are people who would have you believe that Carr's bludgeoning forced him into who he was, just as there are people today who would have you believe that Sam Darnold is a new head coach away from greatness. The truth, as it often is in the NFL, is that usually multiple things are true, and that the players also just aren't as good as they were supposed to be.

Burrow is taking a lot of sacks, but he's not taking a David Carr amount of sacks, and he has generally done quite well for a rookie. The area he needs to improve upon is actually his deep pass play:

Joe Burrow: Short Passes versus Deep Passes
  DVOA League
(qualifying QBs)
Deep -4.3% 64.1% 26 30 of 32
Short 19.7% 9.6% 542 6 of 32

The Bengals do own some shame on this because Burrow has not exactly been given great shakes for deep targets. A.J. Green has lost a step upon returning from injury and is really more of a short-area, big-slot guy as things currently stand. That's a problem because Tyler Boyd is already signed to be that guy. John Ross has become persona non grata. Tee Higgins is a rookie who is still working on refining a number of areas in his game. At the same time, Burrow's arm was not the reason he was drafted No. 1 overall -- he does not have the kind of effortless arm power that makes scouts fall for Josh Allen or Carson Wentz. This may be a thing that keeps him from becoming a superstar.

But the things that we saw at LSU were still generally right on: Burrow is smart and heady, and is already proving that he can make great short-area decisions. As he gets more experience, the hope is that the sacks will get cut or the deep passing will improve. If either of those things happen, well, the Bengals are set up to be in a good position for quite a bit.


4 comments, Last at 04 Nov 2020, 3:53pm

1 That reticence to throw deep…

That reticence to throw deep, that shaky line, and the legacy of David Carr are not independent functions.

Burrow was a mad bomber at LSU.

3 Deep throws

I am a big LSU fan. You are spot on--Burrow will throw deep when the opportunities are there. Not to say he is on this level, but Brees and Brady are two QB's who are well known for picking you apart on short and medium throws, with the occasional deep shot.

(As a Saints fan, one of the reasons Brees has stopped throwing deep is that they haven't had a good deep threat since they traded Cooks. They used to have Devery Henderson, then Robert Meachem, then Kenny Stills, then Cooks. They traded Cooks (using that pick on All-Pro RT Ramczyk--so that worked out well), and then signed Ted Ginn to be the deep threat. He was meh in his first year, and injured last year. So yeah, it's not wise to throw deep when you don't have anyone to be a credible deep threat.)

2 You know your team has made…

You know your team has made it when they're the victim of an AGS. Hope it doesn't happen anymore though, and that the defense can be shored up.