The Jaguars and Titans Brought Hope for the AFC South's Future on Sunday
In a week of fascinating football -- arguably the best week of the NFL this season -- one of the most entertaining games somehow came from the third and fourth place teams in the AFC South. It wasn’t trending that way, even once the game started, as the first three drives started with three and outs. Then the Tennessee Titans opened the scoring with what would be the first of 11 touchdowns scored during the game.
There were no field goals, there wasn’t a lot of defense played, and there really wasn’t much on the line -- the teams entered the week with a combined 1.2 percent chance of making the playoffs according to our numbers, all from Jacksonville -- but the eventual 42-39 win for the Titans over the Jaguars highlighted a few things that could make games in this division worth watching in the future.
Marcus Mariota was one of the most impressive players on any field throughout Sunday. When combining his Net Expected Points (NEP) from both passing and rushing, he had the second most value for any signal-caller this week, behind only Russell Wilson. For those new to the metric, NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data.. Mariota split his value almost evenly, per the metrics from numberFire Live, with 14.68 Passing NEP and 14.60 Rushing NEP.
Mariota has been known for his athleticism at the quarterback position. While he’s fast enough to be a quarterback who can run, he’s not always a great running quarterback. Many think about Mariota in the Chip Kelly system at Oregon, running read option in a hurry up offense but, really, Mariota is more of an Andrew Luck-style runner than Wilson or Cam Newton. He prefers efficiency over volume. He’s only carried the ball 31 times this season, 14th among quarterbacks, but the 30th run of the season is what everyone will remember.
The 84-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter from a scramble was the third longest run by a quarterback since 1960, behind Terrelle Pryor and Colin Kaepernick, and was included in a day that featured nine attempts for 112 yards.
A focus on Mariota’s running ability take away from what he’s been as a passer this season. He entered the game ranked just 23rd in Passing NEP per drop back out of 39 quarterbacks who had dropped back at least 100 times this season, but that’s not a bad place to be for a rookie. He’s just one spot behind fellow rookie Jameis Winston, and both are well ahead of where last year’s trio of rookie quarterbacks finished -- Teddy Bridgewater was the only one of the three with positive Passing NEP per drop back at 0.05. In 2012, Luck also ended his rookie campaign with 0.05 Passing NEP per drop back.
The Growth of Green-Beckham
With three touchdown passes in the game, Mariota completed his fourth such game doing so this season, tying Peyton Manning for the most as a rookie. The most impressive of which on Sunday went to fellow rookie Dorial Green-Beckham, who had the best day of his career against Jacksonville.
Throughout his rookie season, Green-Beckham had both struggled to get on the field -- it took him until Week 6 to play more than 20 offensive snaps in a game -- and find consistency once he was there. Coming into Week 13, Green-Beckham had been targeted 37 times and ranked 53rd in Reception NEP per target among receivers who had seen at least 30 targets, and had just a 43 percent catch rate. Some of the inconsistency showed up this week, as Mariota’s lone interception went through Green-Beckham’s hands for what should have been an easy reception. Despite his athleticism and measurables, he's been unable to put his skills together for an extended period of time, until Sunday.
The deflected interception was the only ball thrown Green-Beckham’s way that he did not catch on Sunday, as he finished with 5 receptions for 119 yards and a touchdown. On his touchdown catch, he caught the ball in the middle of the field, bounced off a defender attempting a tackle, and ran in for what amounted to a 47-yard score.
Green-Beckham’s 12.60 Reception NEP for the game is nearly half -- 49.8 percent -- of the Reception NEP he had totaled over the first 11 games. It's possible this was a case of taking advantage of a poor pass defense -- Jacksonville entered the game 28th against the pass, per our numbers -- but it could also be the start of a player with tools putting them together. If Green-Beckham can continue some development through the end of his rookie season, he could fit nicely with Kendall Wright and Delanie Walker as the core group of skill players for Mariota.
Relying on Robinson
Any achievement from a wide receiver in Week 13 -- not just in this game, but the whole league -- was thwarted by the production of Allen Robinson. For the most part, Robinson has been known by his fantasy football owners and those less fortunate fantasy football opponents.
With 17.96 Reception NEP on Sunday, Robinson was worth over three points more than the next best receiver by NEP this week -- Odell Beckham at 14.78. A lot of that value was from scoring three touchdowns, but Robinson had seven other catches in the game on 15 total targets.
Robinson -- along with Allen Hurns, who was inactive this game -- have helped carry a passing attack that has struggled when other players are involved. Despite Robinson being one of the best players on a per target basis, the Jacksonville passing offense came into the week ranked 28th in Adjusted NEP per play. Without Hurns in the lineup, Robinson saw his highest target share of the season, and had one of his most efficient days.
Neither one of these teams has been good this year -- Jacksonville entered the week ranked last by our nERD metric, while Tennessee was 22nd. In terms of this season, the rest of the year has little on the line aside from draft order for these two franchises. But with some of the young talent on these two rosters, especially from some of the standout players in Week 13, there’s hope these teams can improve and help bring back some exciting football to the AFC South.