Titans defense faces another chance for third-down success vs Colts

The Colts, much like the Bears, have struggled to convert on third down this season…

A two-for-15 performance on third down by the Chicago Bears last weekend was a refreshing improvement for the Titans’ league-worst third down defense.

Through nine weeks, opponents have converted on 55.4% of tries in eight games. That number is down significantly from the 61.9% rate Tennessee had allowed through seven games.

Was last week’s success a result of new blood on defense? Recently acquired cornerback Desmond King made his Titans debut. Breon Borders, Derick Roberson, Teair Tart, and Amani Hooker all played season highs in snap counts after the team released Johnathan Joseph and Vic Beasley earlier in the week.

Or were last week’s results more of an opponent-based mirage? The Bears entered the matchup ranked 31st in the league on third-down offense, converting just 31.9% of tries. We saw some moments last week where the Titans’ defense made the “stop” helped largely by the Bears’ own ineptitude.

Allen Robinson goes out of bounds of his own accord, short of the line to gain, on the Bears’ first third-down attempt of the game.

Whether you think it was fresh players, an incompetent opponent, or some combination, Tennessee’s defense faces another opportunity for success on Thursday night against the Indianapolis Colts.

King, Borders, and Roberson will all likely play big roles again this week, especially if Adoree Jackson isn’t ready to make his return.

Borders performed well in his first real action as a Titan (he played seven snaps against Cincinnati compared to 77 against Chicago), limiting throws into his coverage to 5.1 yards per attempt. Borders is a journeyman, now on his eighth team since 2017.

Roberson played quite a bit and ended up performing as the Titans’ third-best defender according to PFF grades. Granted, the Bears were running with the backups’ backups on the offensive line, but it was an encouraging effort Roberson can build upon going forward.

King has only really scratched the surface of what he can do with his new team. After sitting out practice all week while waiting to pass COVID protocols, King played 70% of the defensive snaps and was responsible for one of the biggest plays of the game with his 63-yard touchdown on a fumble return. In addition to his nickel role, the Titans hope to take advantage of King’s explosive abilities on special teams going forward.

But the real opportunity for the Titans defense again lies with the opponent. Like the Bears, the Colts struggle to convert on third downs. Indianapolis ranks 28th in the league, converting third downs at a 38% clip. They’re 24th in red zone conversion rate at 57%.

In fact, Indianapolis has struggled on offense throughout most of the year, coming in at 19th in total yards per game and 15th in total points per game. Philip Rivers has thrown 7 interceptions in 8 games, the fifth-highest mark in the league.

Looking at more advanced stats, the Colts are 27th in rushing success rate (38%) and 16th in dropback/passing success rate (50%). They are 18th in yards per drive and 23rd in points per drive, 21st in rushing DVOA and 20th in passing DVOA.

The Colts defense has carried them through much of the season. They have allowed the fewest yards per game, third-fewest points per game, and rank third in defensive DVOA.

Boiling it all down, the Colts and Bears are actually pretty similar teams. The noteworthy difference is the Colts offensive line isn’t missing three starters and two backups. Although they’ve struggled to run the ball — 31st in the league in yards per carry at 3.7 — Indianapolis has protected Rivers extremely well; he’s been sacked just 7 times. They rank 6th as a team in ESPN’s pass block win rate.

Whatever you think of Rivers now in the advanced stages of his career, he’s still a sizable upgrade over Nick Foles. Looking at EPA per play amongst all quarterbacks, Rivers is 15th, while Foles is 28th (Ryan Tannehill is fourth, for comparison’s sake).

The Colts offense is a step up from the Bears, but they are still an inferior unit compared to the rest of the league. If the Titans’ defense can match their performance of last week, they stand a good chance to build on their AFC South division lead.

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