Since it went so well, we decided to do it again. Tom also contributes to Football Outsiders, and we're pleased to work with him again, as we respect his work and thoughts about football.
Here are five questions that I asked, and Tom answered, about the Titans:
Q: The numbers suggest that the Titans pass defense is good. What have they been doing, and who is playing well in pass defense?
A: Jerry Gray is still officially the defensive coordinator, but this is now a Gregg Williams defense. Williams has shown a disturbing tendency to fall in love with pressure for the sake of getting pressure, but we haven't seen much of that this year. Rather, one thing he's done is run much sounder coverages than Gray did, especially compared to 2012. They'll mix it up, playing man or zone, and he's still Gregg Williams, which means formations with extra defensive backs, and safety and linebacker blitzes.
Personnel-wise, the key players have been corners Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty, plus defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. Casey's been incredibly disruptive from his normal 3-tech spot this year and has 9.0 sacks. The Titans kept trying to replace Verner, who lacks the ideal size and deep speed for Williams' preferred press-man style, but he's had a great season thanks to his smarts and terrific technique. McCourty fits the press prototype better and has also played well, though I still think you can take advantage of him with sharp-breaking routes.
The other key to Tennessee's improved pass defense over last season is there aren't obvious weak links to take advantage of. Middle linebacker Moise Fokou isn't great, but he's a lot better at getting the defense lined up and being in the right place than Colin McCarthy was. You can take advantage of Bernard Pollard in coverage, but he knows how to play defense and is willing to hit. "Throwing an out route" is not a guaranteed way of beating nickel corner Coty Sensabaugh anymore. Free safety Michael Griffin has been taking much better angles and is tackling reasonably well for a safety.
Don't get me wrong-by Football Outsiders numbers, this is an average defense (17th overall, 12th against the pass), and you can beat them. But you'll have to beat them, they won't beat themselves the way they did last year.
Q: When I see the Titans, they sometimes look like they're getting their running game blocked, and then I see a box score for a game I didn't watch, and Chris Johnson is rushing for 30 yards on 12 carries. What's the status of the Titans run game?
A: They built the whole offseason around developing a run game so they could run the ball when they wanted to. They can't. Well, they can at times, just not consistently and not reliably when they want and need to be able to run the ball. Chris Johnson is a more effective back than he was the last time the Titans and Broncos faced off in 2011, by which I mean he's pretty reliably getting the yards that are blocked. Sometimes less-he doesn't have great vision, but he normally gets what is there. Teams have learned to set the edge against him and deny him the space he craves (Josh McDaniels after the 2010 game was the first coach who really talked about this), and he is not a great running back without that. He can still make hay if given space, but how many times a game can you give a running back 10 yards of open space and a patch of green grass to run to?
Q: What happened with Kenny Britt? He seems to have gotten buried, and I'm wondering if his play warranted that, or if it's just the off-the-field stuff.
A: The off-the-field stuff wasn't much of an issue with the offseason. His lack of playing time this year has been a result of his play. I don't think they like the (lack of) precision with which he operates on the field, and even worse, he has developed a terrible case of "inability to catch the ball." Toss in a couple penalties on run plays, some dumb, some a bit unfortunate, and you end up with a player the coaches clearly have absolutely no trust in. The Titans were down two tight ends last week, with Craig Stevens out with a concussion and Delanie Walker going down in the first quarter with his own concussion, and even then Britt as the fourth receiver only got 1 snap. He could theoretically go back to being a highly productive receiver at any point, as he looks good physically, but I've stopped waiting for it to happen.
Q: On the topic of receivers, what are your thoughts on Justin Hunter? He seems to have made some big plays, but his numbers suggest rookie inconsistency.
TG: Hunter's role in the offense has slowly expanded. He started off as just a deep threat, making some very good catches, including the game-winning score against the Chargers, but also sometimes looking like the receiver I saw in college who struggled to catch the ball. As Britt lost snaps, though, and Damian Williams took over as the return man, he basically inherited the WR3 job and started running some shorter routes. He had success doing so against the Raiders, but he's still a work in progress. With Williams returning from injury this week and Leon Washington the new return man, my guess is Williams will play as much as he can and Hunter will lose snaps this week compared to what he's been
Q: How would you characterize the Titans offensive scheme this year? Is OC Dowell Loggains sticking to the kind of stuff that's worked there in the past, or is he going his own way?
TG: Schematically, the run game is a mix of the zone stuff they've run and some power plays. They run counter a fair amount, after hardly doing so the past couple seasons, and to either side. Left guard Andy Levitre is very mobile and right guard Chance Warmack moves pretty well for a guy his size. If you crash the edge hard on it, you can disrupt it, as Johnson many weeks runs like he doesn't have a great feel for the rhythm or timing of run plays (Shonn Greene, who gets the occasional series and some short yardage work, is better in this regard). Warmack's work on the backside of zone runs has been an issue at times this year.
They're in the process of reworking the pass game, adjusting for Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback instead of Jake Locker. Locker had the arm to attack defenses vertically with deep outside throws. Fitzpatrick does not, with anything over 15 yards downfield potentially an adventure. Fitzpatrick is at his best in the quick short game-there's a reason the offense he had the most success in was Chan Gailey's 3-step attack in Buffalo. Loggains is trying to adjust to that, but it's tough. They really worked the short crossing routes to Kendall Wright and Delanie Walker in the first Colts game, but most teams have linebackers that are harder to exploit in coverage and even the Colts took that away the second game.
Wright's turned into a good player after dropping 14 pounds in the offseason, doing his best work in the slot. He'll work both inside and out, with the whip route something they've gone to in key situations. Especially with Walker likely out for the game with his concussion (he didn't practiceThursday), taking away Wright becomes the top priority for an opposing defense. The Colts hi-lo'ed him on some third downs and got Fitzpatrick to take risks with the ball. Beyond Wright, the only thing close to a consistent element of the pass game is Fitzpatrick using his legs. Bad things tend to happen the longer he stays in the pocket, so the Titans are encouraging him to take off quickly. He's not as fast as Locker, but he moves well enough to pick up a key third down if you let him.
Really, though, this is a frustrating offense to watch that lacks a reliable sustaining element. Any given week they could score 14 points like they did last week against the Colts, and I wouldn't bat an eye.