For just the second time in the last 25 years, an NFL team ended the season allowing 30 or more points to opponents in their last five games of the year. It was an ending most fans in Tennessee would like to forget. The Titans allowed 423 points last year, or just over 26 per game. Remarkably, five teams allowed more points. But unlike teams like the Saints, Giants and Eagles, who are capable of outscoring opponents to make up for defensive issues, the Titans don't have that type of offense. As a result, the Titans have won just 2 of 27 games (7%) when allowing over 14 points in a game the last two seasons. Not only is that the worst mark in the NFL (by far), but allowing 17-21 points is not even a terrible defensive effort, considering NFL teams have averaged 23 points per game the last two years.
Tennessee needs a move to help both sides of the ball, and they hope they made the right one in trading for DeMarco Murray. If the Titans play their cards right in 2016 behind Murray, they can do their best impression of the 2014 Dallas Cowboys. Examining the parallels, beyond using the same running back as Dallas used that year, is educational from a "football philosophy" standpoint. To understand what Dallas did in 2014, let's first back up to how they played in the 2013 season:
The 2013 Cowboys defense ranked 30th in efficiency. They allowed the second most yds/drive and the third most points/drive. They needed to do something to improve in 2014. What they did was hardly original, but it was highly effective. They altered their offense to help their defense.
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As I wrote last summer, the most glaring change the Cowboys made was a shift in play calling philosophy. In 2013, in one-score games, the Cowboys called 66% pass (second largest pass rate in the NFL). But they shifted in 2014, to call 50% runs, the fourth largest run rate in the NFL. That 16% shift from pass to run in one-score games was the largest in the NFL and was a philosophical shift for Dallas to become a physical, running, ball possession team that used the offense to help the defense.
How did it help the defense exactly? The 2014 Cowboys offense used up over 3 minutes/drive, the second best time of possession/drive in the NFL (improving by almost 30 seconds over 2013). And they gained almost 36 yds/drive, the fourth best in the NFL (improving by 5 yds/drive over 2013).
By gaining more yards and eating more clock, the Cowboys inevitably were more efficient at scoring, so their defense was not playing in large deficits as often. The defense was fresher, and opponents had to play more desperate offensively given their own limited time of possession and game score. That resulted in takeaways for the Dallas defense, and they stole 0.17 turnovers/drive, the most of any team in the NFL (and the team who wins the turnover battle wins 79% of games).
So how did the 2015 Titans compare to the 2013 Cowboys? The Titans were not nearly as pass-heavy last year as the Cowboys were in 2013, but their 59% pass rate in one-score games was still slightly above the NFL average. However, the Titans tried to start out the season relying more on Mariota in the pocket in these one-score games: weeks 1-5 they called pass plays 61% of the time, an extremely high rate for a rookie playing his first career games in the NFL. After his injury, to protect him, they dropped that rate all the way down to below 57%.
While that helped save Mariota from more hits, the Titans' run game was missing in action. In those 7 games, handoffs to running backs in one-score games generated just 2.9 yards per carry in over 100 attempts. For comparison, the NFL average was just over 4 yards per carry on any run play in a one-score game. Due to inefficiency on run plays, the Titans inevitably faced third and long often. In fact, Tennessee averaged 7.8 yards to go on third down, the third worst distance to go in the NFL. So, no surprise, the Titans had the second highest rate of 3-and-outs in the NFL last year, and their time of possession per drive was 26th in the NFL.
DeMarco Murray should help the Titans in all of these areas in 2016 if he is used correctly and run plays are called to his strengths. Murray should allow the Titans to run the ball more efficiently, which means the ability to run more often, which in turn will increase their time of possession. It will also result in more manageable third downs, and that alone is a situation where Murray's impact should be felt immediately.
Last year DeMarco Murray had 15 carries on 3rd or 4th down with 1-2 yards to go. He gained first downs all 15 times. He helped the Eagles (as a team) to convert 89% on such plays, the best rate in the NFL on such plays. The NFL average was a 69% conversion rate. The Titans were dead last in the NFL, converting only 37% on 3rd or 4th down with 1-2 yards to go.
As positive as this trade could be for the Titans, there rarely are quick fixes in the NFL. While in theory this move could help the Titans both offensively and defensively, producing a record like that of the 2014 Dallas Cowboys is a stretch because of one major factor: the Cowboys have a veteran, savvy quarterback in Tony Romo. The Titans hope one day Marcus Mariota can emulate Tony Romo, but he has a long way to go. In addition, the Titans may decide to let Mariota pass more than the 50% rate in one-score games that the Cowboys used, which could result in less benefit for the Tennessee defense. The Cowboys also have a better offensive line than the Titans. Regardless, we will soon will find out how much the Titans offensive philosophy will change in 2016, but any change that mimics the 2014 Dallas Cowboys would benefit the Tennessee offense and defense alike.