Examining the production opposing TEs have had against Tennessee Titans

KANSAS CITY, MO - JANUARY 06: Tight end Travis Kelce
KANSAS CITY, MO - JANUARY 06: Tight end Travis Kelce /

For the second consecutive week, the Tennessee Titans will face a Pro Bowl Tight End. Minimizing Rob Gronkowski’s production is easier said than done. How have Titans defenders fared against TEs in 2017?

“Stopping Gronkowski” seems like an oxymoron in and of itself. Many teams have tried, few have been successful in stopping the freak that is New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski . Gronkowski heads into Saturday night as the Patriots’ leader in touchdown receptions.

After missing the postseason last year, Gronkowski plans on making waves. Last year in the playoffs, teammate WR Julian Edelman had to make up for the absence of Gronkowski by emerging as QB Tom Brady’s most reliable pair of hands. This season, Gronkowski will have to do the same in order to help secure the Patriots another crack at a Super Bowl title.

The Tennessee Titans have had their ups and downs when defending the tight end position throughout the season. Saturday’s matchup features arguably the best in the game. Although Kansas City TE Travis Kelce leads the league in some key categories at the position, Gronkowski is the more well-rounded of the two, with durability being his only knock.

Kelce presented the Titans with a preview of what to expect with Gronkowski, and had he not been lost to a concussion, who knows if the turnout of the game would have been the same. The Titans must be prepared for the damage Gronkowski is capable of causing both as a pass catcher and as an effective blocker in the Patriots’ resurrected running game.

Let’s look at how the Titans have done against tight ends throughout the season and what impact it had on their win-loss record.

Titans Personnel

In Tennessee’s seven regular season losses, production from the tight end position was often times a factor. The Titans’ linebacker corps has been effective in stopping the run and getting to the quarterback. However, in terms of covering the TEs of the league–most of which are a hybrid mix of size, speed and strength–Tennessee’s linebacker unit is typically undersized.

Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans /

Tennessee Titans

The addition of rookie LB Jayon Brown has helped due to him having the speed and agility to make up for his lack of size. Brown is not on the field in base packages and is utilized more based on situations and in passing down scenarios. Brown held his own against Kelce, but the latter’s subtle finesse and deceptive speed made it difficult for the Titans rookie to be in a solid position. When LB Avery Williamson tried covering Kelce, the result was a touchdown.

Brown, who is considered one of the new age linebackers in terms of being a “hybrid” (having defensive back speed/size but lacks ideal build/frame for a linebacker), is the Titans’ best coverage linebacker. If he’s not on the field, the Titans will look to their safety tandem of FS Kevin Byard and SS Johnathan Cyprien to help assist their linebackers in coverage.

The problem with that is it could compromise coverage in dealing with a team’s wide receiver arsenal. CB Adoree’ Jackson has been better than many outside the Titans’ brass anticipated. Combined with CB Logan Ryan, the duo have done their part and are a key reason for the success of the Titans secondary.

CB Tye Smith and CB Kalan Reed have aided in filling in for the loss of CB LeShaun Sims and the struggling play of CB Brice McCain, who has been on the losing end of the opposition scoring touchdowns throughout the season.

Brady will have familiarized himself with the Titans secondary by Saturday night. He will aim to exploit matchups, pick apart the zone and use his arm to dissect areas of the field the Titans struggle to cover. His quick release and knowledge of where his players need to be, combined with the discipline of his receiving targets to be at the right place at the right time, presents a big challenge for a Titans defense filled with youth and a lack of wealthy experience outside of ex-Patriot Ryan.

The linebacker corps–primarily the interior linebacker unit–has to avoid being a liability in coverage and protect the middle of the field from exposure. Gronkowski will be working the middle of the field just enough to create an opportunity to create a play on the outside.

Opposing Tight End Production in a Loss

Below are the statistics of what the tight ends the Titans faced were able to put up in games Tennessee lost, per NFL.com.

  • Oakland TE Jared Cook had 5 catches for 56 yards
  • Houston TE Stephen Anderson had 2 catches for 28 yards and TE Ryan Griffin 2 catches for 13 yards
  • Miami TE Julius Thomas had 1 catch for 15 yards
  • Pittsburgh TE Jesse James 5 catches for 21 yards and a touchdown
  • Arizona TE Jermaine Gresham 2 catches for 21 yards, TE RIcky Seals-Jones 1 catch for 20 yards and TE Troy Niklas 1 catch for 7 yards
  • San Francisco TE Garrett Celek 3 catches for 63 yards and a touchdown and TE George Kittle 4 catches for 52 yards
  • L.A. (Rams) TE Tyler Higbee 1 catch for 15 yards

As evidenced above, production from the tight end position factored into some regular season losses. In games the Titans should have won against Arizona and San Francisco, it was the difference between a win and a loss.

Cook did enough to help open things up for the run and allowed his receivers some favorable matchups and room to work. James benefited from the Titans being forced to dedicate a lot of attention to stopping PIttsburgh WR Antonio Brown. The same can be said for Anderson and Griffin, whose numbers are reflective of a big day by Houston WR DeAndre Hopkins.

Titans Wins Decided by Five points or Less

This is where it gets a little interesting. In nearly all of the Titans’ narrow victories, the opposing tight ends did some serious damage. However, despite piling up yards, the Titans only allowed one touchdown, and that came at the hands of Kelce, who was a nightmare Tennessee only had to deal with for a half.

Below are the numbers opposing tight ends produced in games the Titans won by five points or less, per NFL.com.

  • Cleveland TE David Njoku had 2 catches for 58 yards and TE Seth DeValve had 2 catches for 27
  • Baltimore TE Bejamin Watson 7 catches for 41 yards and TE Maxx Williams 3 catches for 29 yards
  • Cincinnati TE Tyler Kroft 1 catch for 4 yards
  • Indianapolis TE Jack Doyle 7 catches for 94 yards
  • Jacksonville TE Marcedes Lewis 2 catches for 13 yards
  • Kansas City TE Travis Kelce 4 for 66 yards and 1 touchdown and TE Demetrius Harris 2 catches for 22 yards

If the Titans’ linebackers and secondary can work together to bend and not break, Tennessee can hang around and win the close games, if their offense is producing points.

Titans Wins Decided by More Than Five Points

Again, it gets even more interesting here. In Week 2, the Titans completely eliminated any production from the Jacksonville Jaguars’ tight ends. Outside of that game, tight ends produced not only the points, but accrued touchdowns as well.

Below is the statistical date of what opposing tight ends did in games the Titans

  • Jacksonville TEs did not produce anything
  • Seattle TE Jimmy Graham 7 catches for 72 yards and TE Luke Willson 3 catches for 53 yards and 1 touchdown
  • Houston TE Stephen Anderson 5 catches for 79 yards and 1 touchdown and TE C.J. Fiedorowicz 2 catches for 16 yards
  • Indianapolis TE Jack Doyle 7 catches for 50 yards and 1 touchdown

This is puzzling on the surface. How can the Titans allow both more touchdowns and yards by opposing tight ends, yet win by more than five points?

More from Titan Sized

For the first two games mentioned, the Titans’ ability to produce on offense played a huge role. In the latter two games mentioned, the Titans allocated their resources to stopping the opposing team’s biggest receiving threats (Houston’s WR Hopkins and Indianapolis’ WR T.Y. Hilton) by keeping them out of the end zone.

The Titans defense does better when they have an either-or choice. It’s a “pick your poison” mentality. Tennessee’s defensive front has been solid in containing opposing teams’ running backs. Once the running back has been neutralized, the secondary dedicates its focus to the opposing team’s biggest playmaker.

Where the Titans struggle is when a team possesses more than one big time playmaker, as was the case against Kansas City.

The Titans face a similar task this week.