If the Tennessee Titans can learn to move the ball through the air consistently, only atmospheric pressure might be able to stop them. Ryan Tannehill doesn’t need to throw for 400 yards. He simply needs to be efficient, and against Green Bay, there’s no denying how efficient the Titans’ passing attack was.
With Buffalo, Kansas City, Miami, Baltimore, and Cincinnati all in the conference, we can’t consider anybody the favorite yet. While Philadelphia appears to have a stranglehold on the NFC, the AFC race is wide open, with six legitimately “good” football teams.
But with Derrick Henry, a passing attack finding its groove, and an incredibly well-coached defense, Tennessee could beat anybody, even if they do things differently than the rest of the league.
Ryan Tannehill Holds the Keys
The Titans’ offense runs through Henry. It’s the narrative we’ve lived with ever since his career explosion, which curiously coincides with when the Titans traded for Tannehill. Too often, when discussing the merits of one player, the assumption is that it’s a slight toward the other. That couldn’t be further from the truth in this case.
Henry is special. It’s not always quantifiable, which makes the nerds unhappy, but there’s a psychological effect with Henry that doesn’t exist elsewhere. There are no other 250-pound runners. He’s a… wait for it… Titan… amongst men.
But make no mistake, passing the football well is the key to success in the NFL. When the Titans’ offense was really rolling in the Arthur Smith era (fourth in EPA over that time), it was because of the balance between play-action passing efficiency and the run game.
Yes, their run game was outstanding. Over that two-year span, it ranked second in EPA at (0.018). By contrast, their passing attack generated 0.22 EPA per play. That’s the gap between the two entities. That is why trading A.J. Brown was so peculiar, and why seeing their passing attack devolve into a pumpkin early this season made sense.
For a while, Tennessee lived off their defense performing well. But to make a run, they need to throw the football well.
Treylon Burks Made Himself a Name on Thursday Night
Treylon Burks, or “new A.J. Brown,” had his best game as a pro against the Packers, catching seven of eight targets for 111 yards and a touchdown. If the athletic, refrigerator-bodied receiver can continue to play as strong as he did Thursday night, this passing attack could start to look like pre-Todd Downing.
The Titans drafted Burks with the pick they got for Brown, and while it’ll be impossible to avoid comparisons, they’re not fair to the rookie. Tennessee needs him to be a guy, not the guy.
Burks isn’t yet a precise route runner, so you won’t see him separating like Justin Jefferson. Yet, he will continue to be the explosive element in the Titans’ passing attack.
Despite running poorly at the NFL Combine, it didn’t really worry evaluators because they’d seen Burks’ on-field speed in college, and they have the 22.6 MPH tracking data to prove it.
It’s impossible to overstate how important explosive plays are to an offense. If Burks can just be that while molding himself into an all-around receiver, he’ll be worth the price paid for him.
The Titans Are Different Now
Over the span of 2019 and 2020, Tennessee’s defense ranked 23rd in EPA allowed defensively. They were not a balanced team. Their offense carried them. Titans fans could have higher hopes in 2022. If the offense can show improvement down the stretch, Tennessee will have that balance.
The Titans’ defense ranks just inside the top 10 in DVOA. While it’s not a dominant defensive unit, it’s one of the more consistent in the league. Their secondary is incredibly well-coached and has the talent to give offenses a bevy of different looks.
According to TruMedia & PFF, the Titans run four different coverages more than 15% of the time. Unlike many teams that run softer “country” or “spot drop” zones, Tennessee is more aggressive matching their zone coverages. That means instead of covering an area or “grass,” they’re covering the man within the grass.
NFL teams don’t like doing this because of the communication and cohesion necessary for it. It’s a way to mess up a read and watch a receiver run free downfield with nobody within 20 yards of them. But Tennessee does it incredibly well, making it difficult for even the veterans to pick them apart in zone coverage.
Pepper in Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry rushing the passer, and you have quite the unit. But I’d be remiss to talk about the Titans’ defense without mentioning those safeties. Kevin Byard is obviously one of the best in the game. But even without Amani Hooker, they’ve kept their efficiency with Joshua Kalu and Andrew Adams.
The Titans’ Playoff Hopes Rest on Play-Action
Tennessee has won seven of eight games, and not much of it has made sense. Tannehill missed two of those games, and one of them was their only loss in the stretch — an overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, a game in which Tennessee only completed five passes.
Before Thursday night’s game, the Titans ranked 24th in EPA and 21st in DVOA. Tannehill isn’t a bad quarterback in straight dropback situations, the Titans’ offense simply hits another gear when they get the play-action game rolling.
Tannehill averaged 11.2 yards per attempt on play-action and just 5.7 on straight dropbacks. They ran play-action 12 times on Thursday night on 33 Tannehill dropbacks, a 36.36% rate. The league rate is just under 26% for the season.
The 10-year veteran was outstanding against Green Bay on all dropbacks. His placement on the Austin Hooper touchdown pass was outrageous, and he hit a few other high-difficulty throws throughout the contest on his way to completing 81.5% of his passes. But it’s unwise to expect that level of play from Tannehill consistently in the true dropback game.
As long as the offense can find some explosives off play-action, Tennessee could sneak up on teams as January rolls around.