Its a casual Thursday here at By The Numbers. To celebrate we’ll review Week 1 via bullet points:
- The Pittsburgh Steelers gave up one 20+ yard run in 2010, and that one run went only 24 yards. On their first run play of 2011, they gave up a 36-yarder to Ray Rice. In the third quarter Ricky Williams rushed for a 26-yarder. Both plays running plays went to the left where new tackle Bryant McKinnie has been installed. It would appear that the Ravens running game has recovered from a down year in 2010 and father time has caught up to the Pittsburgh defense.
- Ray Rice and Ricky Williams split carries at about a 2:1 rate and both ran extremely effectively (5.8 and 5.3 yards per carry). The team would be wise to continue to deploy them this way. For as much as ‘The Curse of 370’ sounds like an urban legend, it is very real. On average, running backs with 300 to 369 carries will see their total rushing yardage decline by 15 percent the following year and their yards per carry decline by two percent. However, the average running back with 370 or more regular-season carries will see their rushing yardage decline by 35 percent, and their yards per carry decline by eight percent. Rice is obviously part of the Ravens future plans, so as long as Williams is healthy there is no excuse to let Rice end the 2011 regular season with more than 370 carries.
With Week 1 put to rest let’s ‘Suit Up‘ and go forward with a more formal narrative for our Week 2 preview. For the first time since November 14, 1994, Tennessee’s NFL team will be led by a head coach other than Jeff Fischer. However, Fischer’s departure doesn’t mean the Titans will be lacking in continuity at the head coach position. His replacement, Mike Munchak, has actually spent even more time on the Titans’ sideline in his career than Fischer, albeit at a position no higher than offensive line coach. Munchak’s path to the head coaching position is an unusual one. Typically head coaches ascend from coordinating positions where they manage almost half of the personnel but Munchak has never had to manage more than the small group of offensive linemen. As a result Munchak was seemingly lost leading first day of practice.
“I didn’t know half these things went on during practice. During seven-on-seven I was lost. I had never been down for seven-on-seven. I stayed with drills I haven’t been around much.”
Along with Munchak, the defensive administration is also new in Tennessee. Defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil and defensive line coach Jim Washburn both departed following the 2010 season signifying a change in the Titans’ defensive scheme. While it would be fun to speculate about the new scheme to be installed by defensive coordinator Jerry Gray we just don’t have sufficient data to do so. Thus, we’ll review the Titans defensive data in 2010 and see what trends we can piece out for Week 2.
Defensively the Titans suffered from bipolar disorder in 2010. In the first half of the season the defensive line dominated opposing passers resulting in sacks or intentional grounding penalties on almost 10% of offensive plays. However, in the second half of the season the sacks and intentional grounding penalties where cut in half and opposing quarterbacks had much more success. This year, based on a one-game sample, it appears that the Titans’ pass defense is somewhere in between these two personalities. Of the 32 teams playing last week Football Outsiders metrics ranked Tennessee as the 12th best pass defense. Tennesse was even better against the run, ranking third. Given the Ravens ability to run against the Steelers in it will be interesting to see how effective they are against Tennessee. If the Ravens struggle it would provide further evidence that Pittsburgh’s defense is over the hill and the Steelers could be in for a long 2011.
Not to be left out, Tennessee’s offense is also in a state of flux. Quarterbacks Vince Young and Kerry Collins left along with offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger and in came Matt Hasselbeck (QB), 2011 first round pick Jake Locker (QB) and former United Football League (UFL) head coach Chris Palmer (offensive coordinator). Again it seems silly to speculate on new schemes with a one game sample and the quarterback position in transition so we’ll rely on the 2010 data for our analysis.
Last year, whether it was Vince Young or Old Man River Kerry Collins, the Titans kept the quarterback protected. They allowed a league-low 24 quarterback hits to go with giving up ninth fewest sacks and intentional grounding penalties. Assuming similar protection this year, the Ravens’ defensive line will be tested. While the Ravens’ front seven is still the team’s greatest strength it has been surprisingly poor at rushing the passer. In 2010, the Ravens had a two-man pass rush: Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata. The two had 17 sacks while no other Ravens defender had more than three. Furthermore, they had 20 quarterback hits while no other Ravens defender had more than four. The biggest absence in the pass rush last year was Jarret Johnson. This year things appear to be changing., Johnson already split a sack with Ray Lewis in the Week 1 and he has reportedly recovered from the back spasms that plagued him in 2010.
It should be noted that Tennessee’s the improved pass protection in 2010 came at the expense of their running game. As BSR’s Fantasy God knows, Tennessee RB Chris Johnson was a mere mortal in 2010 after posting other worldly rushing totals in 2009. Specifically Johnson had trouble reaching outside running lanes. The obvious alternative would be to run between the tackles, but instead of opting for two-yard gains Johnson insisted on roaming outside in search of ten-yarders and often ended up tackled for a loss. Limiting Johnson will be key for the Ravens in Week 2. While the Ravens run defense has always been extremely good, Johnson is a special talent (the most comparable NFL player is Barry Sanders). Ideally the Ravens will encourage Johnson to take 2-3 yards towards the middle while spreading the defense wide to limit his outside rushing ability.
The only other Titan whose ability is close to Johnson’s is WR Kenny Britt. Britt has elite speed and physicality which helped him post a phenomenal season in 2010. He finished 2010 as a top ten receiver in terms of value added over an average receiver and was only shut out of one game when he was covered by Nnamdi Asomugha. No Raven and perhaps no other player in the league (possibly Darrelle Revis) possesses the coverage skills of Asomugha so the Ravens secondary will have their hands full with Britt on Sunday. Hopefully they will be doubling Britt or providing safety help with his coverage on most plays.
Its important to remember that the score of a single game is not a particularly predictive statistic for a team’s success for the remainder of a season. Advanced metrics such as those employed at Football Outsiders actually list the Titans as the 10th best team in the league, significantly ahead of the team that beat them (Jacksonville -17th). Of course, these same metrics also list Baltimore as the best team in the league by an extremely large margin. Still, its best not to count any baby ravens before they hatch. Tennessee’s Week 1 performance was better than the Bears, Falcons, Chargers and Jets all of whom most fans would consider a formidable Week 2 opponent.