The Titans offense has taken a turn for the worse and it's not just limited to Mariota
The offensive line, run game, and receivers have been worse as well
The Tennessee Titans are 8-5. They currently occupy the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoff race. According to the most recent SportsLine simulations, they stand an 82.1 percent chance of making it to the postseason, and they even had a better than one in five chance of overtaking the Jaguars and winning the AFC South.
And yet, the team still feels like a massive disappointment. Despite their 8-5 record, the Titans have actually been outscored by 21 points this season, implying that they've been massively lucky in coming up with those eight wins. Per Pro-Football-Reference, the Titans "should" have won just 5.9 games so far this season, based on their point differential. The 2.1-win difference between their expected and actual won-lost record is the second-highest in the NFL behind only the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Titans, as expected, have been fairly mediocre defensively. They rank ninth in yards allowed this season, but they're 17th in points allowed and 21st in defensive efficiency, as determined by Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA. (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which adjusts performance for down, distance, and opponent.) Tennessee's defense has allowed a touchdown or field goal on 37.7 percent of opponents' drives, tied for the sixth-highest rate in the league. It's not great.
But again, that was expected. The more concerning development is the stagnation of the team's offense. Last season, Mike Mularkey's "exotic smashmouth" offense was one of the most surprisingly efficient in football. DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry pounded the ball between the tackles, with a dominant offensive line paving the way for consistent positive yardage and opening large enough holes to allow the backs to break long runs. (Both Murray and Henry ranked in the top-11 in Football Outsiders' success rate.) Marcus Mariota worked off of that run game to deliver the ball to Delanie Walker and his other pass-catchers in the intermediate zones of the field, and he was extremely efficient as well.
They ranked 11th in yards and 14th in points in 2016, but they also ranked inside the top-10 in passing (9th), rushing (8th), and overall offensive DVOA (9th). With the team adding wide receivers Corey Davis and Eric Decker in the draft and free agency, respectively, it looked like the Titans were poised to jump into the ranks of the league's top offenses. Instead, the line, the backs, and especially Mariota have all taken significant steps backward, and as a result, the Titans have fallen off to 21st in yards, 19th in points, and 18th in offensive DVOA.
The line has been healthy this season, for the most part. Left tackle Taylor Lewan was injured during last week's loss, but it doesn't appear to be serious. Left guard Quinton Spain is the only starter to miss a game due to injury, and he's played 11 of the team's 13 games. But the group's effectiveness has nonetheless waned. Football Outsiders measures offensive line play with a couple statistics called Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) and Adjusted Sack Rate (ASR). ALY assigns credit to the offensive line in the run game based on a percentage of yards gained, but ASR adjusts sacks plus intentional grounding penalties for down, distance, and opponent. Tennessee has dropped off on both fronts this season.
If that's a little too fancy for you, consider this: Murray averaged 2.01 yards per carry before first contact last season, per Pro Football Focus. That number is down to 1.51 per carry in 2017. Similarly, Henry averaged 1.82 yards per carry before contact last season. That number is down to 1.32 per carry in 2017. No coincidentally, both players' averages are down by 0.5 yards per carry -- the same exact figure by which the team's ALY has dropped.
Interestingly, Mariota has actually been pressured slightly less often this season than last (27.1 percent of drop backs vs. 29.5 percent, per PFF); those pressures have just resulted in sacks more often. He was sacked on 4.9 percent of his drop backs a year ago and has been sacked on 5.8 percent of them this season.
His performance on the plays where you could assign credit or blame to the offensive line or the run game -- throws under pressure and throws off play-action -- has actually not dropped off at all. In fact, it's gotten better. His passer rating under pressure in 2016 was 72.6, and it's 83.8 this season. Mariota executed a run-fake before throwing the football on 20.2 percent of his passes last season, when the Titans had one of the strongest run games in football, and he had very good 99.4 passer rating on those throws. This year, he's faked a run on 24.6 percent of his passes, and has a league-best 123.6 passer rating on those throws.
Given those numbers, you'd expect that Mariota would be crushing it this year. Of course, you'd be wrong. He has a negative touchdown-to-interception ratio (10-to-14) and his yards per attempt, yards per completion, passer rating, and QBR have all fallen off. Weirdly, the issues driving that drop in production have actually come on his straight-drop back, in-rhythm throws from a clean pocket -- the easiest throws to make.
Mariota had a 103.3 passer rating on throws from a clean pocket last season, per PFF, with 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Again, that was solid but unspectacular. He ranked 12th in passer rating, 14th in touchdowns, and 12th in interceptions in those situations. This season has been an outright disaster. He's thrown only six touchdowns from a clean pocket and has been picked off 12 times. That makes him one of four quarterbacks with a negative touchdown-to-interception ration on clean-pocket throws, along with Brian Hoyer, C.J. Beathard, and DeShon Kizer. His 75.1 passer rating on those plays ranks 38th out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks. He simply has not been accurate with his passing, throwing a catchable ball only 75.1 percent of the time -- well below the league average of 75.5 percent.
This drop-off is reflected in his numbers elsewhere. Mariota had a completely respectable 94.7 passer rating on throws without play-action last season. This year, that number has crated to 61.8, the worst mark among 39 qualified quarterbacks. Similarly, he had a 103.6 passer rating on quick-strike throws within 2.5 seconds of the snap last season, and that figure is down to 76.5 in 2017.
Everything that should be easy to execute has instead been his downfall. His footwork, generally, just looks terrible. He's floating passes and missing high more often, which is why his interception rate has nearly doubled. He's not been helped by his receivers, as his drop rate has seen one of the largest spikes in the league (from an NFL-low 2.66 percent to a more average 4.44 percent), but he also has simply failed to develop chemistry with anybody other than Delanie Walker, who remains his top target. The receivers have been so mediocre that on a game-deciding play against the Cardinals last week, the Titans decided Mariota's primary read should be rookie cornerback Adoree' Jackson, on a play the team had never run before.
If the Titans are going to figure out how on earth to jumpstart their offense, it's going to have to happen soon. They have a cake matchup with the 49ers on Sunday, but after that, they face much tougher defenses in the Rams and Jaguars over the final two weeks of the season. They're a game ahead of other contenders for the AFC wild-card spots so they do have some wiggle-room (and they own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Ravens, which could come in handy), but they're not going to go make it out of the first round with unless they get back to playing the efficient brand of offense they did a year ago.
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