It was no secret that the 9th-ranked Titans’ offense ran through Derrick Henry. Every defense that lined up against Tennessee had to focus on keeping Henry from getting in space and picking up momentum because his long strides and strength make him incredibly difficult to take down. This defensive focus led to successful play action for Tannehill, who took advantage of the single coverage his talented receivers faced as a result.
But Henry is not a particularly versatile player. He wasn’t often used as a pass catcher or set in motion. Game to game, his success heavily depended on whether the Titans’ offensive line could create holes or push the defensive line back to give him space to gain momentum. And if Henry was not successful, the entire offense struggled.
*Omitted the twice-postponed Tuesday game v. BUF. In a weird game, the Titans had 4 TD drives of 12, 16, 18, and 30 yards. Henry averaged 3.0 YPC but scored 2 TDs and they won 42-16.
This chart shows the strong correlation between Henry’s ability to gain yards and the Titans’ overall offensive success. In every game that Henry averaged over 4.7 yards per carry, the Titans had an Adjusted Rating above +0.31. And in every game where Henry averaged fewer than 4.7 yards per carry (other than their weird Tuesday game against Buffalo), the Titans had an Adjusted Rating below +0.17. On average, they were the 4th best offense in the league when Henry got going and the 23rd best offense when he didn’t.
The Titans impressively posted the second-highest red zone efficiency in the NFL at 74.2%. But this statistic can be misleading. When the Titans struggled offensively they had fewer red zone trips. When they moved the ball well, they had more red zone trips. So their numbers were heavily weighted towards favorable matchups because more frequent red zone trips created more data points.
TEN Red Zone Efficiency
|Games||RZ Trips Per Game||RZ TD %||Season RZ TD Pace|
|+ Adj. Rating||11||4.7||77%||58.3|
|- Adj. Rating||6||2.3||64%||24.0|
As this table shows, the Titans reached the red zone over twice as many times per game when they played above average offensively. The final column shows how many red zone touchdowns the Titans would have scored on the season based on their pace in those games. For context, only 2 teams (the Giants and the Jets) had fewer than 24 red zone touchdowns on the season.
The Titans’ passing offense was heavily concentrated towards A.J. Brown and Corey Davis, who accounted for over half the team’s receiving yards despite playing only 14 games each. With such a concentrated passing attack, the Titans were vulnerable if either of these players – particularly Brown – was taken out of the game. The Titans struggled early in the season when Brown was injured against DEN (-0.27 Adjusted Rating), JAC (+0.02), and MIN (-0.36), and in a crucial Week 16 matchup against Green Bay (-0.38). In that game, Brown faced off against Jaire Alexander, who had arguably the best season of any shutdown corner in the NFL. With Alexander able to handle Brown one-on-one, the rest of the defense focused on stopping Henry.
The Titans’ offensive strengths create a positive feedback loop against bad defenses: If they run well, they get in the red zone. If they get in the red zone, they score. If they score, they keep running. If they keep running, the play action works. All is good.
This was on full display in 2020 because the Titans faced a really easy schedule of defenses. Not only did they play 5 games against the worst 3 defenses in the NFL (DET, JAC, and HOU), but they caught some good defenses at the right time. In Week 11, Baltimore played without Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams, two of their best run-stopping defensive linemen. And in Week 12, Indianapolis played without stud defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Denico Autry or linebacker Bobby Okereke. The Titans won both of these games despite getting crushed by both Baltimore and Indianapolis at full strength in other weeks.
The Titans’ 27th-ranked defense was a huge liability in 2020. They routinely played below average but were often bailed out by forcing turnovers. Fortunately for the Titans, turnovers have an outsized impact on individual game results so this helped them win the AFC South in 2020.
But turnovers alone are not a sticky stat. Turnovers correlate with getting consistent pressure on the other team’s quarterback. This makes intuitive sense, because a pressured quarterback is more likely to force a bad throw (interception) or get sacked (higher likelihood of a fumble). The Titans did not pressure the quarterback in 2020. In fact, their turnover count was an anomaly given their pitiful pressure rate:
This chart plots each NFL team’s season-long pressure rate and subsequent turnovers forced for each of the last three seasons (creating 96 data points). The big blue dot represents the Titans in 2020, who managed to force 23 turnovers despite pressuring the quarterback at a lower rate (17.6%) than all but two teams in the last three seasons. For comparison, those two teams forced 12 and 16 turnovers. This production helped Tennessee attain the NFL’s best turnover margin in 2020 at +11. I’m skeptical they can maintain that production without significantly improving their pass rush next season.
As a result of their poor pass rush, the Titans were especially susceptible to fast wide receivers. The Titans’ cornerbacks were not especially quick and the low pressure rate allowed fast receivers the time to create space. Seven different pass catchers had their highest yardage total of the season against Tennessee, including some of the fastest receivers in the NFL:
Huge Receiving Games v. TEN
|J. Jefferson (MIN)||175||4.43|
|B. Cooks (HOU)||166||4.33|
|W. Fuller (HOU)||123||4.32|
|M. Brown (BAL)||109||4.33|
|M. Pittman (IND)||101||4.52|
|D. Peoples-Jones (CLE)||92||4.48|
|N. Fant (DEN)||81||4.50|
Although they performed poorly overall, the Titans’ defense generally exceeded expectations against mobile quarterbacks. Building on their playoff success against Lamar Jackson last year, the Titans turned in good performances against Josh Allen (+0.83 Adjusted Rating) and Lamar Jackson (+0.31 and -0.09). Each of these performances was comfortably ahead of the Titans’ average Adjusted Rating of -0.40.
The only truly mobile quarterback who capitalized against the Titans was Deshaun Watson, who exposed them through the air using the speed of his wide receivers. As shown above, Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks each had their best performance of the season against Tennessee. Watson outperformed in the passing game but underperformed in terms of rushing:
D. Watson v. TEN
|Pass Yds Per Game||Rush Yds Per Game|
Overall, the Titans will need to perform better on defense by implementing a true pass rush if they plan to return to the playoffs in 2021. At first glance, their schedule looks much more difficult, including matchups against the NFC West and non-divisional AFC matchups against KC, PIT, and BUF.
Putting it All Together
- Overall, Tennessee is overrated going into the offseason. They took advantage of favorable matchups, key injuries against good teams, and an unsustainable turnover margin.
- Unless the new Offensive Coordinator injects some creativity into the offense, expect the Titans to outperform offensively when they can establish Henry but to struggle when they fail to get the run game going.
- Bet against the Titans when A.J. Brown is injured or when they face an elite shutdown corner who can match Brown 1-on-1, as their concentrated pass game struggles without him and the defense can focus on stopping Henry.
- Unless they establish a pass rush, do not rely on Tennessee against strong passing teams, particularly with speedy receivers.
- Consider betting on Tennessee in games where they are projected to win both sides, even as big favorites. This plays into their positive feedback loop and can lead to convincing wins.
- Increase confidence slightly in the Titans’ defense against mobile quarterbacks who do not typically throw downfield to fast receivers.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- A.J. Brown is an absolute beast with all the tools to be an elite #1 wide receiver. He has a rare combination of speed, size, and strength. With a new Offensive Coordinator and a bad defense, Tennessee could open up the passing game. If they do, he has true overall WR #1 upside. But he does seem to get banged up easily, so you must factor in the injury risk.
- Derrick Henry is due for some regression next year. Running backs typically do not get 370+ carries in back-to-back years because of the toll that takes on the body. He also accounted for 100 yards and 2 touchdowns in overtime and played a very soft schedule. I think Henry is a great football player, but if game scripts are not as favorable and the offensive line struggles against tougher defenses, there is nothing he can do to overcome that.
- Given the positive feedback loop created by the Titans’ offense, they can be expected to outperform across the board in easy matchups and underperform in tough matchups. Consider player props in good spots as a way to avoid relying on their defense, and fade player props when they are projected to lose the offensive line battle.
- Unless Tennessee improves its pass rush and/or adds speed at defensive back, look to play fast receivers against them in DFS. Avoid mobile quarterbacks who rely on rushing production against Tennessee.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
In a Week 16 Sunday Night Football matchup against Green Bay, the Titans began the week as 3.5-point underdogs. But other so-called “sharps” were betting on the Titans, forcing the sportsbooks to move the line down to -3. The SharpClarke Rating projected a huge advantage for Green Bay against the overrated Titans, particularly at home. And on top of that, the Packers’ corners had been playing lights out football. I expected the Packers to sell out to stop Henry and let their corners play one-on-one, shutting down Brown with Jaire Alexander. On defense, the Titans had no chance at stopping Rodgers without a pass rush. Playing from behind, I predicted they would have to abandon the run. It was my final week of the season-long DraftKings ATS contest and the line was locked at -3.5. I needed a strong week to have a chance to come 1st and I picked GB -3.5 as my final pick even though I was not getting great line value. The game was a total mismatch and the Packers won 40-14, locking in my 70% record ATS and 1st place in the contest.