Are the Titans Even Worse Than Last Year?

Though the Titans never led the ballgame, they competed until the very last second against the Texans on Sunday, ultimately falling in another close game by a score of 27-20. For every mistake that the Texans made, the Titans seemed to make one themselves, losing both the penalty and turnover battle. After a lackluster 1-3 start, the question is begged as to whether or not the Titans have improved since last year’s nightmarish 3-13 season. Let’s take a look.

 

By the Numbers:

The Titans’ first four opponents of the 2015 season were, in order, the Buccaneers, Browns, Colts, and Bills. They finished those four games with a record of 1-3. Here are the important stats from those games:

Total Score: 102 (Titans), 91 (Opponents)

Passing Yards: 1,020

Rushing Yards: 475

Total Offensive Touchdowns: 12 

Sacks: 12

Interceptions: 4

Over the first four weeks of this season, the Titans have faced, in order, the Vikings, Lions, Raiders, and Texans. Stats:

Total Score: 62 (Titans), 84 (Opponents)

Passing Yards: 911 

Rushing Yards: 508

Total Offensive Touchdowns: 7

Sacks: 6

Interceptions: 4

Statistically, the 2015 Titans performed better than this year’s squad has during their first four games. However, these numbers are very  inflated due to the Titans having faced bad defenses in the first four games of last year, whereas this season they have already faced four talented units, and players such as Anthony Barr, Khalil Mack, Darius Slay, and Whitney Mercilus.

By the Film:

The biggest difference I see in this year’s Titans team versus last years is the play of the offensive line. Last year the unit was a mess, and Mularkey noted that fact in his opening press conference. So far this year, the unit has held up very well. Against the Texans, Marcus Mariota seemingly had all day to throw on a number of occasions, and DeMarco Murray has been able to use his excellent vision to hit big holes set up by the o-line. Here are two examples of the group’s success.

DeMarco Murray 67 Yard Run vs. Lions

This play is one of my favorites that I’ve seen while watching film this season. The Titans lined up in a one-back set with three TE’s on the line of scrimmage, a formation that screams run. The Titans run the play, inside zone, to absolute perfection. As you can see, every single person on the line of scrimmage, tight-ends included, picks up a man. The only thing DeMarco Murray has to do is find the hole and hit it hard, which he did on this occasion. Last year’s Titan’s offensive line struggled with assignments, and failed miserably to create space for running-backs. Through four games, DeMarco Murray has averaged an astounding 5.15 yards per carry.

Tajae Sharpe 8 Yard Catch vs. Panthers 

Though this play only went for eight yards, it is still a great example of how well Marcus Mariota has been protected this year. As you can see in this image, Tajae Sharpe is wide open at the 32 yard line, where Mariota ultimately hits him for a gain of eight yards. Mariota had an extremely clean pocket, and I’ve circled Jack Conklin to highlight how good of a job he did blocking veteran pass rusher Charles Johnson on a speed rush, giving Mariota a throwing lane the size of the Grand Canyon.

As seen above, the Titans clearly haven’t put up the same numbers offensively so far in 2016 as they did last season, but Marcus Mariota’s protection has drastically improved, allowing him more time to make decisions.

By the Coaching:

Contrary to popular opinion, I think the Titans play-calling has been very sufficient to this point. Offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie has done a nice job giving defenses several different look, and using motion to give Marcus Mariota a better idea of whether the defense is running man or zone coverage. I don’t fault him for not “going deep” more often, mainly because it rarely works. The few times the Titans have made a play in the passing game of more than twenty-five yards, it has been to blown coverage by the defense, not a special play by the receiver. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; it’s hard to call plays for an offense that lacks big time weapons.

So, what can be concluded from this brief study? If the Titans have improved up front, have made good play calls, run the football, and have played good defense (limiting DeAndre Hopkins to one catch for eight yards on Sunday and twice intercepting Brock Osweiler), then what is the issue? I see two.

First, as I mentioned earlier, the Titans lack explosion in the passing game. Kendall Wright’s return clearly provided a spark on Sunday, and he should continue to improve the more he plays, but he’s never been able to consistently command coverage from a defense. This team needs a #1 wide receiver that can make big plays and give Marcus Mariota someone he can consistently rely upon, and they unfortunately won’t be able to find one of those until free agency begins all the way in March.

Finally, Marcus Mariota has been, for lack of a better term, bad. He’s been bad. He’s thrown interceptions. He’s fumbled. He’s missed open receivers. He’s held on to the ball too long. If there’s something a quarterback can do wrong, Mariota has probably done it. He continues to admit that he tries “to do too much,” but Titans fans have seen six wins in the past three years, and that simply isn’t good enough. Sunday marked Mariota’s sixteenth career start, and perhaps that means that he’ll improve now that he has a full season under his belt (wishful thinking, I know).

I’m not a football coach, but I know how to win football games, and you don’t win football games with a one dimensional offense that offers no explosion and allows a defense to play aggressively for sixty minutes. Are the Titans worse than they were last season? Absolutely not. Through four games, they’ve been extremely competitive, run the football well, and played quality defense. However, mistakes such as costly penalties and foolish turnovers continue to haunt them, and perhaps correcting those things will lead to some semblance of success. DeMarco Murray thinks that will be the case, saying after the game, “It’s no time to panic. We’re fine. We know what we’re doing wrong. We’ve got to watch the film and learn from it. But nobody is freaking out, nobody’s going under the table and just caving in. We’ve got to just continue to get better.”

The Titans will travel to Miami next Sunday to take on the Dolphins, who are also three and one. Tennessee is only two games behind first place in their division with plenty of football left to play.

Luke Worsham on Twitter: @luke_worsham

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