Landry, Pass Rush Key to Titans' Success
NFL Divisional - The No. 1 seeded Tennessee Titans have slain the majority of the good teams put in front of them. There are eight teams left in the dance, and Tennessee has played and beaten four of them—the 49ers, Rams, Bills, and Chiefs—without a loss. And we lead with that because this is going to be the kind of piece that's going to irk Titans fans who have had to hear all year about how they're the worst No. 1 seed ever from various football statistical websites, in particular this one. I get it. I'm not trying to belabour that point beyond the context of the fact that this is a football analytics website and we kind of have to discuss how the Titans don't stack up well statistically. I know it's a sore spot, I know they have played more players than any other team, I think Mike Vrabel is a deserving coach of the year candidate, if not frontrunner. I get it.
But with the Cincinnati Bengals headed to Nashville to kick off the divisional round on Saturday, we have a battle of two teams that both have not been beloved by DVOA for various reasons. There are reasons to believe that the star power on both of these teams can overcome these rankings when we get down to it—Derrick Henry didn't really run all that well when he was healthy, but not a single Bengals linebacker is looking forward to trying to stone him in the gap. The Bengals have several weeks of data that point to the idea that they prefer a more regressive style of football under Zac Taylor. They also had two weeks of Joe Burrow unleashing hellacious assaults on Baltimore and Kansas City.
Whose stars will shine brightest on Saturday? That's the key to unlocking a berth to the conference championship game.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
|DVOA||0.0% (17)||-3.0% (20)|
|WEI DVOA||4.4% (13)||4.9% (12)|
|Bengals on Offense|
|CIN OFF||TEN DEF|
|DVOA||1.2% (18)||-2.3% (12)|
|WEI DVOA||5.6% (11)||-9.6% (7)|
|PASS||16.4% (15)||1.8% (11)|
|RUSH||-10.8% (20)||-9.2% (14)|
|Titans on Offense|
|CIN DEF||TEN OFF|
|DVOA||2.9% (19)||-4.2% (20)|
|WEI DVOA||4.6% (25)||-4.7% (20)|
|PASS||11.6% (24)||5.8% (21)|
|RUSH||-9.8% (13)||-6.5% (17)|
|DVOA||1.7% (8)||-1.1% (22)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
The problem the Bengals have faced more than any other this season is that Zac Taylor wants to run the ball often, and while Joe Mixon is a worthy franchise back, the team doesn't really have a good enough offensive line and scheme combination to make that worthwhile. To Taylor's credit he was able to sculpt some great plays last week, including getting Ja'Marr Chase involved as an end-around threat. But over the course of the season, Cincinnati finished with a mediocre run offense DVOA. They had just three games with an offensive rush DVOA over 0.0%: Week 12 vs. Pittsburgh, Week 7 vs. Baltimore, and Week 11 vs. the same Raiders they did decent enough against last week. The Bengals are one of the slowest offenses in the NFL, with a 32.7 situation neutral seconds-per-play rating that is 30th of 32 teams. Their neutral pass rates have generally crested and fallen despite the talent obviously being in favor of their pass game:
— Hayden Winks (@HaydenWinks) January 3, 2022
Tennessee's run defense stayed about level this year, but that level came with (as you'd expect from 91 players used) a lot of turnover in the front seven. Denico Autry, Jeffery Simmons, and Harold Landry played in every game, but they dealt with a lot of shuffling at linebacker. Jayon Brown started six games, David Long started nine, Rashaan Evans started 11, and waiver claim Zach Cunningham started four in a row. Long and Cunningham were the main starters against the Texans in Week 18, but Long, Cunningham, and Evans all platooned in Week 17, in a situation where each got more than 24 snaps against the Dolphins. Brown was a healthy scratch in Week 18.
The two games where Tennessee's run defense was outright gashed were Week 5 against Jacksonville and Week 7 against Kansas City. In that latter game, that was more of a stylistic choice for defending Patrick Mahomes. Evans only played 47% of the snaps against the Jaguars in a James Robinson breakout game. While the Titans aren't a top-notch run defense, the Bengals will probably need to be as creative as they were against the Raiders in big situations if they want to rely on the run game.
The big surprise about Tennessee's defense this year compared to where we projected them this offseason—as one of the worst defenses in the NFL—is their strong results against the pass. The Titans were 30th in the NFL in pass defense DVOA in 2020 but leapt to 11th this year, despite actually finishing with fewer turnovers than they did in 2020. The major leap has come in pass rush, with Bud Dupree, Autry, Simmons, and Landry becoming a much more complete unit than Simmons and Landry on their own were in 2020.
|Titans Pass Rush, 2020 vs. 2021|
|Adj. Sack Rate||Rank||Hurry Rate||Rank|
|Hurry Rate via Sportradar/PFR|
The Titans pass defense has tended to dip up and down with the performance of their pass rush. Their strong games against the Chiefs and Rams? They sacked Mahomes four times for 31 yards, which is one off of a career-high for Mahomes and the only time he took four all season. Stafford? Five sacks on Sunday Night Football, tying his season-high. Tua Tagovailoa in Week 17? Four sacks—which may not seem like much, but he never took more than two in any other game this year. Dupree in particular has been a bit of a skeleton key for discerning how good the Titans will play—he missed Weeks 3 to 5, then essentially missed all of Weeks 10 to 14 (he played a single snap against the Saints in Week 10). When Dupree plays, the Titans defensive DVOA plays up to -8.5%. When he hasn't, their DVOA has been 7.5%.
I know it's very funny to look at a player with three sacks (and, per SIS, 20 hurries) on the season as a linchpin for Tennessee's success. The counterpoint is that, per SIS, their pressure rate actually increased from 38.0% to 40.2% in games Dupree missed. Joe Burrow's QBR drops by 34.6 when he's not blitzed, and the Titans rarely blitz—just 19.9% of the time per Sportradar/SIS data, which is fifth-lowest in the NFL. The Titans need the best four-man rush they can muster. DVOA seems to suggest that Dupree boosts their cause quite a bit.
The Bengals were largely able to deal with one of their biggest problems in the wild-card round: Burrow getting sacked due to the unideal right side of their offensive line. The Bengals finished second-worst in adjusted sack rate at 9.1%. Right tackle Riley Reiff missed last week's game and is out of this one as well. Backup Isaiah Prince had some rough reps and there's little reason to believe he'll play above that this week; he has allowed 10 blown passing blocks in just 305 snaps in SIS charting. Hakeem Adeniji has held off rookie second-rounder Jackson Carman at guard in a battle without a real winner. This is one of the most important matchups in the entire game; if the Titans can get home with four—as they should be able to based on seasonal trends and Dupree's health—then it's going to put a crimp in Cincinnati's paths to victory.
That is the pinwheel that gets the Bengals stuck in their regressive ground game. Taylor pumps the brakes on an aerial assault because the line can't hold up, and Burrow gets dinged up when they do it, but when they lean away from it, their offense becomes less effective.
On paper, the Titans have no real way to stop Chase or Tee Higgins. Tyler Boyd becomes a mismatch as well. Tennessee's best corner is Jackrabbit Jenkins, a veteran in every sense of the word, and young players such as Kristian Fulton and Elijah Molden are hardly going to lock down Cincinnati's receivers one-on-one. (Fulton did finish with the third-highest success rate per SIS charting, though, at 69.2%.) The Titans are fairly neutral on man versus zone, middle-of-the-pack in both and reliant on catching opponents off-guard. Safeties Kevin Byard (as expected) and Amani Hooker (in his first year in a big role) have played very well, and that should limit opportunities for deep balls and keep the Bengals from making too many explosive plays happen downfield. Of course, I say that, but every time Chase touches the ball it can go to the house. That's what superlative talent does for you.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Aaron wrote a piece this week for ESPN+ about reasons for Titans optimism, and I'm not going to lift it word-for-word or anything, but this particular table seems like a good place to start with how we slice and dice the splits to decide how good of an offense this is. How were the Titans on offense with A.J. Brown (too many ailments to list) and Julio Jones (mostly hamstring) available?
|All Titans games||-4.2%||20||17||12-5|
|Brown & Jones available||10.7%||8||8||7-1|
In games where Brown either left early or didn't play, the Titans had a -22.0% offensive DVOA. While Derrick Henry is very obviously the most physically talented back in the league, the splits do not quite support his absence as being extremely meaningful for the Titans. This sounds like a dig, but I think it's actually a good thing given that we have no idea how healthy Henry is going to be off his Jones fracture, an injury that is usually a season-ender. Henry finished with a 2.4% DVOA, and the Titans as a whole had a rush offense DVOA of -0.4% in games he played. They had a -12.1% run offense DVOA as a team in games he missed, and I think the most obvious way to say it is that they were able to sustain run offense without him, but the lack of explosive plays was where they missed him most. If he comes back healthy, it adds an element to their game. If he doesn't, they can manage, but it won't be quite the same.
The biggest issue the Titans have had as a pass offense since Ryan Tannehill took over is his predilection for taking sacks. After cutting his sack rate enormously in 2020 (4.8%), it was more in-line with career norms in 2021 at 8.1%. In their five losses, Tannehill took six, seven, two, two, and four sacks. One of his two-sack games came against the Patriots when he attempted just 21 passes. It should be noted that all but one of those games came without Brown or with Brown leaving mid-game—Week 1 against the Cardinals when Chandler Jones feasted on Taylor Lewan.
Tennessee's play-action rate fell a little bit in 2021 under new offensive coordinator Todd Downing. They ran 145 play-action passes for 1,114 yards in 2021, whereas they threw 174 for 1,541 yards in 2020 (when they had one less game to play) with Arthur Smith per Sportradar/PFR. Some of that is undoubtedly the lack of weaponry they had to work with outside, but Downing has not exactly been a one-for-one replacement for Smith.
Bengals edge rusher Trey Hendrickson (concussion) is expected to play on Saturday, having cleared concussion protocol. Larry Ogunjobi (IR) is out, and the Bengals reportedly are set for recent free-agent signing Zach Kerr to get a real role in their defensive line rotation. The Bengals finished with a below-average 6.3% adjusted sack rate, and Ogunjobi being out leaves them with just three players on the active roster with 5.5 sacks on the season. One of them, B.J. Hill, profiles as Ogunjobi's direct replacement. The good news for the Bengals is that Lewan has had a rough season by his standards, allowing more blown pass blocks per SIS than he has in any other year of his career. David Quessenberry has started most of the season at right tackle and was more solid/average than unimpeachable. The Titans can be beat by good pass-rushers, and that's going to be Cincinnati's best way off the field.
The Bengals allowed only three opponents all season to run for double-digit positive DVOA, but two of them are in the last three weeks: Kansas City in Week 17, and the Raiders in the wild-card game. D.J. Reader has been a monster at nose tackle this year, but he's the only major impact player the Bengals have against the run. If Derrick Henry is indeed back and is indeed rolling, it could definitely be one of those days…
Chidobe Awuzie had a breakout year for the Bengals, finishing with 44 points saved in SIS' metrics and allowing just a 45.2% completion rate in coverage. Awuzie rarely follows wideouts into the slot, though, and Brown does get moved inside plenty. Julio Jones almost never got moved into the slot until Week 18, when he was suddenly a fixture inside. Jones did seem like he developed a rapport with Tannehill in Week 18—he was a few overthrown deep balls short of having a monster fantasy day. The only opponent the Bengals held to a negative pass offense DVOA that had a good seasonal pass offense DVOA is the 49ers, who are anchored to the mercurial Jimmy Garoppolo. The unit has taken some strides this year, but they may need some turnovers to hang with the talent the Titans have if it's all in working order on Saturday.
The Bengals were the only team to rank in the top four in both placekicking and kickoffs, and Evan McPherson handles both of those duties. He was perfect on field goals under 40 yards this year and only missed two extra points. (He did only go 15-for-20 on longer kicks.) McPherson went 6-for-6 on field goals and extra points against the Raiders. The Bengals were weakest on returns, where they were bottom-10 on kickoffs and bottom-five on punts. Chris Evans looked shaky handling kickoffs against the Raiders, but Trent Taylor did look decent on a few punt returns. Taylor only had seven regular-season attempts, taking over after Darius Phillips went on IR. Evans had only two regular-season attempts before the playoff game.
The Titans have paired good kickoff coverage with good punt returns. They're sixth in each category, and Chester Rogers has done an exemplary job as the primary returner. Matthias Farley, Nick Dzubnar, and Dylan Cole have been stellar special-teamers on kickoffs. Randy Bullock has been, as he usually is, an adventure. Bengals fans know about this—Bullock is a lifetime 50% kicker from beyond 50 and has a penchant for missed kicks in the clutch. Somehow it's better than the Titans got last year, with all the injuries and poor play at the position! But it's … not ideal.
Our projections see the Titans winning with a fair amount of confidence, and our projected line is a little higher than than the 3.5-point spread. But this remains a game with a fair amount of uncertainty because we simply haven't seen much of what a fully functioning Titans offense looks like. We certainly don't know if Henry will be back to full strength for the game as we're writing this. We don't even know for a fact that he'll play.
Cincinnati's pass offense is the best unit in this game, in my opinion. There's going to be a lot of pressure on the Tennessee pass rush to keep them from being unlocked. Ultimately the line is fair and concedes to the fact that the Titans have played very well as a pass rush, but it's worth pointing out that the Bengals have not turned the ball over since Week 14. That matchup is the most likely place where the game swings one way or the other.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.