Last Thursday evening the Tennessee Titans routed the Jacksonville Jaguars, 36-22, at Nissan Stadium.
The final score unfortunately does not indicate how readily the Titans won.
Consider, for instance, each team’s statistics at halftime. The Titans dominated the Jaguars in points (27 to 0), total yards (354 to 60), first downs (13 to 3), and time of possession (19:33 to 10:27) — which gave the impression of a guaranteed win after just 30 minutes of play.
The Jaguars, admittedly, did respond on their first possession of the second half. Quarterback Blake Bortles led an 11-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Julius Thomas and a subsequent two-point conversion.
However, the Titans immediately quelled the Jaguars’ efforts to surmount an unlikely comeback with a 75-yard drive of their own. The scoring play was a 4-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Marcus Mariota to wide receiver Rishard Matthews.
When a 33-yard field goal by Ryan Succop increased the Titans’ lead to 36-8 with 12:32 remaining in the fourth quarter, head coach Mike Mularkey sidelined Mariota and running back DeMarco Murray for the remainder of the game.
Thereafter the Jaguars had two scoring drives in ‘garbage time,’ which pushed the final score to 36-22.
After such a dominating performance on national media, optimism surrounding the Titans has taken another step forward, and with good reason: The 2016 Titans appear to be escaping the shadow of their 2015 selves.
There are new personnel on the field (DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry, Ben Jones, Rashad Johnson, among others). There are new, Hall-of-Fame personnel on the sidelines (Dick LeBeau, Russ Grimm). And after Thursday night the Titans are 4-4, having one more win than they garnered all of last year.
The win was particularly pleasing for coach Mularkey because he, since the beginning of the preseason, has argued that the 2016 Titans are a much-improved team: “I think [Thursday night] shows that this team’s going in the right direction. We’re doing some good things.”
If we consider statistics at various areas of play, the improvement becomes more evident.
Offensive Line: The injury-riddled offensive line of 2015 gave up 3.38 sacks per game, a mark that ranked last in the league. This season’s offensive line has moved entirely to the other end of the spectrum. They allow 1.5 sacks per game, which is the league’s third best average, and tackles Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin are performing at levels worthy of Pro Bowl consideration.
Rush Offense: In 2015 the Titans rush offense ranked 25th in the league, averaging 92.8 yards per game on 4.0 yards per carry. This season DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry lead the league’s 2nd overall rush offense, which averages 152.3 yards per game on 4.9 yards per carry. Murray also ranks 2nd for rush yards (756) behind only Ezekiel Elliot (799) of the Dallas Cowboys.
Pass Defense: Due to injury the Titans’ 2015 pass defense, arguably, performed as poorly as the offensive line. The unit sacrificed 14.9 points per game, which ranked 30th in the league. Although pass defense still plagues the Titans in 2016, the unit is healthy and sacrifices fewer points, 10.5 per game, which ranks 14th in the league.
Third Downs: From 2015 to 2016, the Titans’ third down defense improved from 25th to 12th overall (43% allowed vs. 39% allowed), and their third down offense improved from 29th to 3rd overall (32% converted vs. 48% converted).
Now, the goal for Tennessee is to keep improving through the second half of the season.
They have a tough schedule remaining with games against each interdivisional opponent as well as the San Diego Chargers (Week 9), the Green Packers (Week 10), the Denver Broncos (Week 14) and the Kansas Chiefs (Week 15). Those four teams have a cumulative record of 18-12.
Nonetheless the Titans still have reasonable chances to win the AFC South since they currently sit one game behind the Houston Texans (5-3) for the Division lead.