Commentary

Jets defense eliminated Titans' run game, perfect record

Originally Published: November 25, 2008
By Ned Macey | Football Outsiders

Kris JenkinsJerome Davis/Icon SMIOffseason pickup Kris Jenkins and the Jets' run defense put a halt to the Titans' offense.
The Jets dominated the previously undefeated Titans to win their fifth straight game and suddenly enter the conversation as a potential Super Bowl contender. But rather than signaling a seismic shift in the AFC, the Jets merely exposed some of the Titans' weaknesses. The Jets' short-passing attack and stout run defense took the Titans out of their element and turned the game into a blowout.

The Titans' undefeated record was built on a dominant defense and a solid running game. In recent weeks, however, teams have loaded up against the run. Facing eight-man fronts, the Titans increasingly relied on resurgent quarterback Kerry Collins. His success, however, led the Titans to outthink themselves. The Jets have a much better run defense than pass defense, but their quality run defense allows them to defend the run with just seven players. Rather than challenge strength against strength, the Titans went to the air early and often with limited success.

The Titans threw on 13 of their first 19 plays -- but gained only 22 yards on three completions. The Titans have a pedestrian group of receivers who struggled to get open against tight coverage and dropped a number of passes. Only after the Jets built a big lead and switched to softer coverage was Collins able to find openings. Collins completed 9 of 10 passes for 120 of his 243 yards after the Titans had fallen behind by three scores.

The pass-happy tendencies and second-half deficit meant that the Titans never even attempted to stick with their running game. Their two-headed attack of Chris Johnson and LenDale White combined for only 11 carries. For a team built around its offensive line and running attack, this move away from the ground game was an enormous error.

Defensively, the Titans have been among the league's best all season based on a dominant defensive line, athletic linebackers, and a couple of great secondary players in cornerback Cortland Finnegan and safety Chris Hope. The one possible weakness is their struggle with short passes to the right side, opposite Finnegan. The Titans' normal starting left cornerback is Nick Harper, who missed the game with an ankle injury. The Jets attacked his replacement, Chris Carr, mercilessly. Favre threw 16 passes to the short right side of the field, completing 11 and picking up two additional pass-interference penalties.

The Titans cannot be attacked down the field: Their pass rush affords little time, and their safeties cover a great deal of ground. Favre didn't complete any passes that traveled more than 15 yards in the air. He did pick up a pass-interference penalty on Carr but also was intercepted by Finnegan. To beat the Titans, the passing attack has to be underneath.

Of course, the underneath passes are the specialty of this Jets team. Favre, in spite of his gunslinger reputation, throws almost everything underneath these days. His arm strength is now used to fit balls into tight spaces rather than throw balls down the field. His precision underneath was just what the doctor ordered against Tennessee. The short passing attack led to a ball-control offense that held the football for over 40 minutes. They wore down the Titans' defense, and the Jets gained more than half their rushing yards in the fourth quarter.

The Jets' domination was certainly an impressive feat, but the Titans presented a perfect opponent for a team built around ball-control offense and stout run defense. The breaking point in a matchup between these two playoff-caliber teams was whether Tennessee could run the ball, and the Titans did not even give themselves a chance.

Despite the impressive win, the Jets are not the best team in the AFC. They have a good and improving offense but only an average defense. That defense is wildly inconsistent, allowing more than 30 points three times and now holding four teams under 15. It is no surprise that two of the big games came against two of the NFL's top pass offenses, San Diego and Arizona. The third was against the rejuvenated Patriots' passing attack. A bad matchup for the Jets would be a pass-first team that does not need to establish the run. Among potential AFC playoff opponents, only Denver, Indianapolis and New England pose that challenge. The Jets' defense would likely struggle against all three of those teams but play well against Baltimore; Pittsburgh; or, as Sunday proved, Tennessee.

For the Titans, one really bad loss is no reason to panic. They need to get back to basics and use their running game to open up the passing game. Against eight-man fronts, they can pass with great success, but make no mistake: This is a run-first team. Sunday's game was a not-so-gentle reminder of this fact and should make the Titans better going forward.

Ned Macey is an analyst for Football Outsiders.