Behind Enemy Lines: Tom Gower of Total Titans and the Football Outsiders

Tom Gower is one of the best analytical minds covering an NFL team. His work on Total Titans is always strong, and you can find him weekly on the Football Outsiders Scramble for the Ball column as well.  Be sure to follow Tom on Twitter too.

With the Colts playing the Titans on a short week, there won't be an Eyes in the Backfield column, so I took the time to ask Tom a few questions about what has been a tumultuous year for the Titans. You can check TotalTitans.com for my answers to Tom's questions.

As a side note, Tom will be in town for the Titans game in two weeks. If you are interested in meeting him during the game, come by section 614, row 3 and say hi.

CA: Now that Locker is done for the year, how do the Titans make a decision on him moving forward?

TG: I fully expect Jake Locker to be in the Titans in 2014. His contract is fully guaranteed, so there's not much downside to keeping him.

I think the answer to this question actually depends a fair amount on how Ryan Fitzpatrick performs as the rest of the season. Locker has now missed entirely too many games to be fully confident he'll last all 16 games as a starter. That means if you're going to stick with him, you need a competent backup.

If Fitzpatrick plays reasonably the rest of this year, you can take a shot with the same quarterback combination again next season, knowing that you'll be okay if Locker goes down. If Fitzpatrick doesn't play well the rest of this year, you can't go into next season betting on Jake Locker without a good Plan B if you want to make the playoffs. And a good Plan B in this case means a player other than a Fitzpatrick-like solid but unspectacular veteran backup, which means he's a player who should at least have a shot at displacing Locker from the starting job.

This most likely means a rookie. In that case, the rookie should play if he's ready and sit if he's not, which means Locker is no longer the future and probably not even the present of your quarterback situation.

 
CA: Give us odds that the current regime survives the year.

TG: With the new ownership taking over after Bud Adams' death, we have no idea what exactly their expectations are for the team and this season.

Even after the loss to the Jaguars, I expect the Titans to finish somewhere around 7-9, which would put them in a very indeterminate state. In that case, I could see ownership sticking with the current plan, believing a slightly better version of themselves is enough to get into the playoffs.

A somewhat bolder move would be to give Gregg Williams the head coaching job instead of going with a lame-duck Mike Munchak (under contract for 2014, but not beyond).

If ownership wants to make a change, though, I could see any record short of a playoff appearance leading to the firing of GM Ruston Webster and a complete organizational housecleaning. I don't think that happens unless the team craters the rest of this year, but I don't know enough to rule it out.

 

CA: Evaluate the "build around Chris Johnson and the running game" plan. How have the two big additions at guard (Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack) played?

TG: The Titans wanted to be able to run the ball when they wanted to run the ball and when they needed to run the ball. Chris Johnson just had 12 carries for 30 yards against the Jaguars. The Titans came out running the ball early in the game and got nowhere other than behind. It was just the latest in a series of run game struggles that have hurt them since Week 2.

CJ has stopped doing the inexplicable and awful things he was doing in 2011, but aside from that he's the same back he's been for the past couple seasons. When he has excellent blocking and green grass with no defenders in front of him, he'll gain yards. When he doesn't, he'll get roughly what's blocked.

I think many fans would say Andy Levitre has been a bit of a disappointment, and if you were expecting an All-Pro, he is. Rather, he's an outstanding pass protector with good mobility who can pull, but can be beaten with power and is not a people-mover in the run game. Since that's what I was expecting, I think he's been fine. Whether that's worth $46.6 million is a separate discussion.

Chance Warmack has done well what he did well at Alabama. He's decently mobile for a very large man (listed at 323) and is great at crushing smaller players in the run game. Unfortunately, the transition from collegiate left guard to NFL right guard has given him some new responsibilities and he's struggled a bit with those. Most notably, he hasn't been very good in pass protection. While he's been solid at the point of attack in the run game, on the backside of zone plays, he ends up on the ground an awful lot when he's asked to cut block NFL defenders. On the whole he's been perhaps an average starter at right guard. With the tenth overall pick and a player who was reportedly second on the Titans' board, I was expecting something better.

 

CA: The Titans are playing much better on defense (10th in points). Tell us how that happened?

TG: Gregg Williams is running the defense, not nominal coordinator Jerry Gray, and they look like a Gregg Williams defense. A lot more packaging of personnel, a lot more creative blitzes and solid coverages, and in general just a lot less of the unsound and predictable-bordering-on-stagnant things they were doing last year.

Personnel-wise, two players in particular are standing out this year. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey had been a solid player his first two seasons, but he seems to have taken a step forward as a pass rusher and has really been creating havoc against some of the poorer offensive lines the Titans have faced (the Steelers and Jaguars in particular).

The Titans have spent the past two offseasons trying to kick corner Alterraun Verner out of the starting lineup, but he keeps staying there because his smarts, technique, and understanding of the game are enough to compensate for his lack of ideal size and long speed.

 

CA: Are the Titans as they stand right now more like the 5 loss team or the four win team?

TG: They were ranked 27th by Football Outsiders' DVOA metric before the loss to the Jaguars. That I still think they can get to 7-9 or even 8-8 is a reflection of a schedule that includes another game against the Jaguars, plus contests against Oakland, Houston, and home against an Arizona team I still think is no better than average at best, not a sign I think they're particularly good.

The run game will be as week-to-week as it's been the past couple seasons, and Ryan Fitzpatrick is capable of making some solid plays in the passing game and offsetting them with a back-breaking turnover. The defense, meanwhile, is closer to solid than great and has struggled to deliver the one key defensive stop the Titans need to win the game or stay in it (e.g., Jacksonville took the opening kick of the second half down the field for a 20-7 lead after the Titans cut it to 13-7 late in the first half).

I think the rule of "you're never as good as your last win or as bad as your last loss" is pretty true for the Titans. People, both fans and those who should know better, were proclaiming them the favorites for the #6 seed in the AFC after the narrow win against the Rams, while it's all gloom and doom after last week. Understandably so, as the Jaguars are really bad, but I think a proper shift is instead that a performance like last Sunday is not that far off from who the Titans were, only they were as unlucky and unfortunate as they were lucky and fortunate in some of their other games.

 

CA: Care to make a prediction about the game?

TG: Notwithstanding what Tavon Austin did last week, Indy's clear edge on special teams will be a key factor in a Colts win. The Titans have been mediocre or worse in all areas of special teams this season, and new return man Damian Williams is almost certainly out after suffering an injury against the Jaguars. I'm expecting Pat McAfee to give the Titans plenty of long fields, and the CJ/Fitzpatrick-led offense to not be able to drive those fields with anything like consistent success.

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