There is more than one way to win a football match. This season has seen much publicity about ‘high octane’ offences (Kansas New Orleans, LA Rams etc.) and high scoring shootouts which almost resemble something more akin to a basketball back-n-forth. However, there is a different way, one which relies more on a turf war approach, treating each set of downs and distance as gradual steps to eventually wearing your opponent down. This approach requires application in the trenches with less reliance on individual ‘stars’ to win the match for you on a series of dynamic one-off plays. A game of inches.
In reviewing their 2018 season this appears to be the approach which has worked for the Tennessee Titans. This franchise has quietly completed three consecutive winning seasons (9-7 each time) and is unlucky to have only had one playoff appearance in that time (making the divisional round in 2017). Only a week 17 defeat by divisional rival the Indianapolis Colts prevented another wildcard appearance this year. Looking at the statistics the fans were not going to see a whole lot of points following the Titans. In 2018 they averaged 19.4 per game (27th) but only conceded 18.9 per game (3rd). Well, you only have to win by one to get a W in the books and the Titans were 4-3 in games decided by one score (8 or less).
Highs and Lows
There were some definite highlights for the Titans this season: wins against 4 playoff bound teams, including an astonishing 34-10 win versus the Patriots. Common themes in victories were based around dominating the running game (primarily through Derrick Henry), therefore winning time of possession and the battle of 3rd down conversions. They liked to get out in front and grind out the win, rarely would they come from behind to win. Also, for the Titans there was ‘no place like home’ as they went 6-2 at the Nissan Stadium in Nashville. The lowest points were probably the two heavy defeats to closest divisional rivals the Colts, who cemented their wildcard spot at the expense of Tennessee. When going behind in defeats, which in turn would see them need to rely more on an inconsistent passing game, they would usually fail to recover.
As with all teams, much of the Titans offense revolves around the performance of the QB, even with Derrick Henry leading a reliable running attack. Marcus Mariota is now at a pivotal point in his career. He is stuck in a ‘no man’s land’ – neither proficient pocket passer (like an Andrew Luck) nor dynamic dual threat (like a Deshaun Watson). He sits somewhere in the midst of these two styles. The Titans were 29th in overall passing yards as opposed to 7th in rushing. The O-line and players in other blocking assignments take some responsibility here as he was sacked 42 times (joint 8th highest) and that will need to improve, but all eyes are on Mariota as in 2019 he most likely enters the 5th year option of his contract ($20.9M which eats up a lot of cap space). With his ongoing injury struggles the Titans are expected to protect themselves by bringing in an experienced second QB – could they be in the Flacco, Foles, Bridgewater et al market? That could be an expensive business but they would certainly benefit from a proven option at back up QB. There have even been whispers of possibly seeking to cut Mariota which would be a huge change in direction from the front office.
Taking the next step
Many of the Titans team statistics from 2018 put them middle of the road in the league: average time of possession 29:23 (22nd), 3rd down conversion 40% (15th), turnover differential of -1 (21st) are just three examples. With some small targeted improvements this could push the Titans over the top and back into the playoffs and the divisional title. So what do they need to do?
As with most seasons, there are several decisions to make on the roster in order to make the most of the approx. $40M cap space they should have. After Mariota, first up would be the decision on offensive tackle Jack Conklin and whether to go with the 5th year option after his 2018 struggles trying to recover from a torn ACL. This decision has to be taken in the context of 2020 and money tied up for Pro-Bowl tackle Taylor Lewan, and the outcome of discussions around left guard Quinton Spain who it is reported may be cut. On the defense the big decisions are around Kenny Vaccaro at safety and Derrick Morgan at linebacker. They will need to be careful with how they cut their cloth during the free agency period.
They will need to use the draft wisely in order to improve the roster, in light of the contract decisions to be made. The one obvious area of need is to provide the offense with greater weapons to utilise and take the over-reliance off the run game – help at wide receiver and tight end would be ideal. On defense they need to create more disruption and more turnovers so they should be looking at the pass rush and the secondary (you can’t have too many great cornerbacks in today’s NFL).
There is no doubt that the building blocks are in place for Tennessee, and Mike Vrabel’s first year as head coach should be seen as a success with the team navigating their way through a tough season, particularly in terms of injuries (Conklin, Logan Ryan, Jurrell Casey, Johnathan Cyprien, the list went on.…). It was notable that the team improved as the season went on and the wins against the likes of the Patriots and Cowboys appeared to give them belief they could make the playoffs – the four wins down the stretch almost put them through and, but for the Colts resurgence, the Titans could have certainly proved a nuisance to the other playoff sides in the AFC.
If GM Jon Robinson and HC Mike Vrabel can make those incremental improvements to the roster then the Titans should rise in 2019 to compete strongly for the AFC South title.
Mark or MJ has turned his love of the NFL into sharing his thoughts and opinions on twitter @47yards and on 47yards.blog – He has been a New York Giants fan since their Super Bowl wins in 1986 and 1990 (47 yards is a reference to the distance Scott Norwood missed from in 1990 for the Bills – sorry Bills fans). He enjoys all things NFL and has extended that enjoyment to College football of late, following Ohio State. He is loving seeing the growth of the NFL fan base in the UK and finds September to February is the best part of the year!
Image credit: Mark Zaleski/AP