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Lying in the weeds: The Tennessee Titans?

Posted by Chase Stuart on October 12, 2010

After five weeks, three teams appear to have separated themselves from the rest of the league: the Ravens, Steelers and Jets. Pittsburgh and Baltimore have navigated the two toughest schedules in the league, and came out with only one blemish. The Steelers beat the 4-1 Falcons, won on the road against the Bucs (whose only loss was to the Steelers) and Titans (3-2), and lost in the final minute to the Ravens. Baltimore handed the Jets and Steelers their only losses of the season; meanwhile, the Ravens only loss came in Cincinnati, in a game where they were -4 in the turnover margin and still came within five points. The Jets lost a one-point game to the Ravens where they were flagged for 14 penalties, including a decisive one on a field-goal attempt that led to Baltimore's only touchdown of the game. New York then gave the Patriots their only loss, beat 2-0 Miami, obliterated Buffalo and outlasted the Vikings.

The NFC looks particularly weak this season, and lacks anything resembling a dominant team. Meanwhile, the AFC appears to have three very strong teams, the usual suspects hanging within shouting distance (Patriots, Colts and Chargers) and a couple of upstarts (Chiefs, Texans). But when you look at the SRS ratings through five weeks, the ratings reveal a surprise:

Rk.                     W  L  PF    PA   MoV    SoS   SRS    OSRS  DSRS
1. Pittsburgh Steelers  3  1   86   50    9.0   6.2   15.2   5.1   10.1
2. New York Jets        4  1  135   81   10.8  -0.4   10.4   6.5    3.8
3. Tennessee Titans     3  2  132   95    7.4   2.6   10.0   6.7    3.3
4. Baltimore Ravens     4  1   92   72    4.0   5.4    9.4   0.5    9.0

Maybe I'm the only one not paying attention, but I was pretty surprised to see Tennessee's name in the top three. Since Vince Young moved into the starting lineup in week 8 last season, Tennessee has an 11-4 record, second best in the league:

Team	W	L	Win%
SDG	12	3	0.800
TEN	11	4	0.733
IND	11	4	0.733
BAL	10	5	0.667
GNB	10	5	0.667
NOR	10	5	0.667
PHI	10	5	0.667
NYJ	9	5	0.643
NWE	8	5	0.615
ARI	9	6	0.600
ATL	9	6	0.600
DAL	8	6	0.571
HOU	8	6	0.571
MIN	7	6	0.538
PIT	7	6	0.538
CHI	8	7	0.533
CIN	7	7	0.500
MIA	7	7	0.500
JAX	7	8	0.467
KAN	6	7	0.462
TAM	6	7	0.462
NYG	6	8	0.429
CAR	6	9	0.400
CLE	5	9	0.357
OAK	5	9	0.357
SEA	5	9	0.357
WAS	5	9	0.357
SFO	5	10	0.333
DEN	4	11	0.267
BUF	3	11	0.214
STL	3	11	0.214
DET	2	13	0.133

Let's do a quick run down of the Titans games so far this season:

  • Week 1: The Titans defeated Oakland 38-13, the largest blowout by any team in week one.
  • Week 2: Tennessee outgained the Steelers by over 100 yards, holding Pittsburgh to just 2.4 yards per play. The Steelers didn't record a single passing first down, and gained just six first downs on the ground (and another via penalty). Pittsburgh converted just 2 of 15 third downs. So how did Pittsburgh win, 19-11? The Titans fumbled 7 times, losing four of them, and threw three interceptions. Despite 7 turnovers -- and allowing a kickoff return for a touchdown -- Tennessee lost by just eight points to one of the best teams in the league. Only once in the last 25 years has a team won a game with a -6 turnover margin, and no team has ever done so when also allowing a kickoff return touchdown. Pittsburgh fumbled four times in the game, but recovered all but one of them. Throw in an 85-yard touchdown run by Chris Johnson negated by a holding penalty, and this is as palatable a loss as you'll see all year.
  • The Titans lost to the Broncos in week four, in another close game that could have gone either way. Denver won 26-20, with the game winning touchdown set up by a 49-yard pass interference call. Down by 3 with 1:38 to go and 2 timeouts, the Titans still had a chance to win the game. But they muffed the kickoff return, the Broncos added another field goal, and Tennessee dropped to 2-2.
  • Week 5: The Titans beat the paper champion Cowboys, 34-27. I still think Dallas is a good team, although at 1-3 it's hard to get excited about how they've played this season. Still, winning in Dallas isn't easy, and the Titans surprised a lot of people with the win on Sunday.

Tennessee ranks first in rushing touchdowns, but just outside of the top five in rushes, yards and yards per carry. Chris Johnson is off to a slow start, but assuming his league-leading 113 carries don't take a toll, we should expect better play out of him the rest of the way. Vince Young continues to develop as a passer, something that may have flown under the mainstream radar. He averaged 6.8 AY/A last season, and is up to 7.4 AY/A this year. To be fair, he's got an unusually high TD rate and he's taking more sacks than he should, but it looks like Young may be turning the corner. If Nate Washington and Kenny Britt can continue to develop as receivers, the Titans offense may be able to remain in the top 10 in total scoring.

The Titans pass defense has been something of an enigma under Jeff Fisher. From '03 to '06 -- the rebuilding years in Tennesee -- they finished in the bottom quarter of the league in NY/A allowed each year. Then, out of nowhere, they rose to #3 in 2007 in that statistic. Most thought that was a fluke, especially after Philip Rivers threw for 292 yards on 30 passes in a playoff lost to the Chargers. But in '08, Tennessee finished 4th in NY/A, and boasted the league's top record. After two great seasons on the defensive side of the ball, the Titans finished 28th in points allowed in '09 and 23rd in net yards per attempt. But last year was a tale of two seasons for the Titans. And while I won't credit Vince Young for the turnaround, the Titans pass defense played much better in the second half of the season. After six games -- the last being the bludgeoning delivered by Tom Brady and the Patriots -- the Titans ranked dead last in ANY/A allowed at 8.29; over the last 10 games, Tennessee ranked 8th at 4.64. This year? The Titans are 11th in ANY/A.

Outside of the rebuilding seasons, Fisher's Titans almost always seem to play well against the run. This year is no exception. Felix Jones rushed for 105 yards on Sunday against Tennessee, the first 100-yard rusher they've allowed since Maurice Jones-Drew in week eight last season.

Putting the pieces together, Tennessee could field the most explosive running game in the league, a capable passing game, and a strong defense against both the run and the pass. They're 3-2 right now, but no one views them as a sexy team. The Titans schedule is manageable the rest of the way, and a week 17 game at Lucas Oil Field could be meaningful for a change. What do you think of Tennessee? Potential top-five team in the AFC (and by extension, the NFL )? Or just another boring Titans squad that won't win a playoff game?