NASHVILLE – It’s not every day we can compare the Tennessee Titans to the federal trade deficit , but see if this makes sense.
When it comes to big plays this season, the Titans – through four games – are running big-time in the red. The defense is allowing far more explosive plays than the offense is producing, an imbalance that – if left to trend in the current direction – will eventually produce even more negative consequences.
When the New York Jets – who’d been shut out the previous week -- recorded three plays of 30 yards or more last Sunday, it meant the Titans had surrendered nine such gains already this season. Tennessee’s multi-faceted offense, meanwhile, has only produced three plays of 30 yards or better in 16 quarters.
Is that such a big deal? It is when you look at it this way.
The nine plays of 30 yards or more allowed have led – directly or indirectly -- to 40 points by the opponents. There were three touchdown passes among the nine plays and another 19 at the end of five other drives that included the big plays. In fact, opponents only went scoreless on one of those big-play drives, and that’s because the big play occurred as the clock expired at the end of the first half.
The other side of the ledger is even less appealing.
The three plays of 30 yards or more by the Titans have resulted in 17 points, leaving the Titans 23 points behind their opponents on balance. Break that 23 points down over four games and opponents are averaging nearly a touchdown more per contest because of plays 30 yards or better.
Tough to overcome.
“Not every week, but a few weeks, you come in and say, ‘Well they had five plays for 190 yards and 50 for 100, or whatever it was,’” coach Mike Vrabel said. “We’re just trying to eliminate those five plays or a big penalty or whatever it may be that those chunk plays change the momentum and change the field position.”
Even lowering the measurement for a big play doesn’t help much on either side of the ball.
The Titans have completed only eight pass plays of 20 or more yards this season, which is tied for 30th in the NFL. The league-leading Buccaneers and Ravens have both produced 23 of those plays.
Why haven’t the Titans been able to produce more big pass gains?
One significant reason is that the pass protection has been sub-par, which hasn’t allowed quarterback Ryan Tannehill the clean pocket for that extra split second that can make all the difference when throwing deep.
But there have been other issues with downfield passing as well. Per Pro Football Focus, Tannehill has attempted 17 passes of 20-plus yards in the air. Only six have been on target, and three of those have been dropped. The resulting completion percentage of 17.6 percent is the lowest in the league for starting quarterbacks.
“Explosive plays are huge,” Tannehill said. “We have had some good opportunities but haven’t been able to make the plays. It all works together. We need a little bit of extra time when we are trying to push the ball down the field, we need good pocket movement and awareness by me, a good ball location, and we need receivers to be able to get open and make a play on the football.”
Absent big plays, the Titans have put up sizable numbers in other categories – like first downs, time of possession and overall plays (first in the league). But Tennessee ranks 14th with 23.8 points per game. The longer that drives last, the more the opportunity that things can go wrong – like penalties or turnovers.
“That is the math game,” Tannehill said. “The more plays you run, the more consistent you have to be with your execution. (But) if you are able to create some chunk plays, you are eating up yards without using as many plays. That’s definitely big for us. We have had some opportunities but haven’t made the plays, so we have to clean that up.”
The Titans’ defensive shortcomings in the big-play department apply whether the definition of an explosive play is 30 yards – as referenced earlier – or otherwise. Tennessee has surrendered 17 pass plays of 20 or more yards, the seventh-highest total in the league. Stretching things in the other direction, the Titans have surrendered five pass plays of 40 or more yards, tied with Kansas City for worst in the NFL.
“It’s definitely annoying,” safety Kevin Byard said. “You come to the sideline and you’re frustrated, because you feel like you’re playing a good game and then one big play – boom – and they score, and the momentum kind of shifts.
“That’s the message of the week. If we can make teams drive the ball on us, we think we’ll be pretty successful.”
One issue that’s been problematic is maintaining coverage after a play breaks down. Opposing wide receivers that may have been well-covered when the quarterback was in the pocket have extra time to break free when the quarterback buys time by eluding the front seven. Cornerback Jackrabbit Jenkins said it’s harder to maintain coverage after a quarterback gets free than beforehand, simply because defenders don’t know what will happen next.
“We’ve just got to be better finishing plays when the quarterback is doing a good job extending plays with his legs,” secondary coach Anthony Midget said. “We’ve just got to be better on the back end. Staying deep on top of those deep routes and not allowing the ball to get behind us.
“Because when you’re giving up (explosive) plays, it’s going to be tough to win in this league.”