How the Tennessee Titans Can Adjust to Ryan Fitzpatrick, Stay in Playoff Race
Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker injured his right hip in the third quarter of Sunday's game against the New York Jets when defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson dropped his helmet and delivered a huge hit.
Locker was immediately carted off the field and would not return. It appears he will miss 4-6 weeks, possibly more.
Whatever procedural move #Titans make (to keep Locker on active roster or not) he's sure to miss at least a month. Ryan Fitzpatrick steps in— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) September 30, 2013
This could not have come at a worse time. The 3-1 Titans have postseason aspirations—thanks in large part to the splendid play of Locker. The third-year quarterback has been close to flawless this season, passing for 721 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions for a passer rating of 99.0.
Before he was injured on Sunday, Locker completed 18 of 24 passes for 149 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 130.0, a career high.
Locker's replacement will be nine-year veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, who previously played with the St. Louis Rams, Cincinnati Bengals and, most notably, the Buffalo Bills. Fitzpatrick signed a two-year deal with the Titans over the offseason, after he was released by Buffalo.
As it turns out, this could wind up being Tennessee's most important offseason transaction.
#Titans are spending $3.25 million this year on backup QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. If Locker's injury is as serious as it seems, well worth it.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) September 29, 2013
However, there are necessary adjustments that must be made by the Titans if they are to have success with Fitzpatrick under center.
The coaching staff must realize that Fitzpatrick's weakness is throwing to his left—which happens to be Locker's strong side. Fitzpatrick flourishes when he is able to complete passes over the middle; perhaps he sees plays develop better from that vantage point.
Take Fitzpatrick's 2012 grades by direction from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) into consideration:
Pro Football Focus
The Titans need to play to Fitzpatrick's strengths. Keeping the majority of his reads in the center or right-hand side of the field is key. Dictating his passes by a distance and direction he's comfortable with will be crucial.
Forcing him to keep away from his gunslinger mentality by utilizing short-to-intermediate routes is necessary. He is not afraid to take risks and heave the occasional deep ball. Unfortunately, his tendency to force the ball downfield has not always worked out so well, as since 2008, he has posted a touchdown-to-interception ratio of nearly 1:1 (19 TDs, 20 INTs) when throwing the ball 20 or more yards in the air.
Of his 16 interceptions with the Bills in 2012, 12 of them came on passes over 10 yards. This is not to say that Fitzpatrick cannot throw a deep ball, but the circumstances have to be right.
Establishing the run will be of the utmost importance. A very healthy dose of Chris Johnson, Shonn Greene and Jackie Battle should be expected. Once the run is established, play-action will be more effective. This is when Fitzpatrick can afford to air it out.
Simply put, the Fitzpatrick need to be patient when taking his shots downfield. Avoiding turnovers is obviously the key with this change at the quarterback position. Tennessee has not turned the ball over at all through the first four games of 2013, and the Titans need to figure out how to continue that trend without Locker on the field.
Creating turnovers will be just as important.
The Tennessee defense has been a pleasant surprise in 2013. Their averages per game are very impressive: Currently, they are ranked seventh in the NFL in points allowed with 17.2, ninth in yards allowed with 313.2, 10th in pass yards allowed with 214.2 and 10th in rush yards allowed with 99.0.
Aside from those commendable defensive statistics, the Titans are plus-nine in turnover differential—tied for first in the NFL—as the defense has racked up five interceptions and four fumble recoveries this season.
Tennessee is playing solid, efficient football under head coach Mike Munchak, and it is resulting in wins. Simplifying the game plan for Fitzpatrick and further stressing clean, fundamentally sound play are necessary if this team is to continue marching toward a playoff berth in 2013.
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