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All-22 Review: How Ryan Tannehill provided the spark Mike Vrabel was asking for in his 300-yard debut

The Titans new starting quarterback wasted no time getting his wide receivers involved during Tennessee’ 23-20 win over the Chargers.

Los Angeles Chargers v Tennessee Titans Photo by Silas Walker/Getty Images

The All-22 Review is a recurring feature here at Music City Miracles breaking down the tape from the previous week’s Titans game. The focus will vary depending on where the action on the field takes us, but the idea is to bring insights that may have been missed on the TV broadcast.

Mike Vrabel said he wanted a spark last week when asked about his reasoning for making the move from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill as his starting quarterback.

It’s pretty safe to say he got that spark.

The Titans tied or beat previous season highs in total yards, passing yards, first downs, and third down conversion rate in this game. Before we get too carried away though, it’s worth noting that the Chargers check in as the second worst pass defense Tennessee has faced this year behind — you guessed it — Atlanta based on Football Outsiders DVOA rankings. So it’s at least possible that a big chunk of this aerial revival is the difference between facing two top ten pass defenses in Buffalo and Denver and a bottom ten one in LA.

That being said... the offense sure did look different.

The two biggest differences were the involvement of the Titans wide receivers and Tannehill’s willingness to cut the ball loose into some tight windows and trust his playmakers to make plays. We can measure the first of those assertions. Below are the average per game number of catches, targets, and yards for all Titans wide receivers combined by quarterback so far this season:

  • Mariota: 9.1 catches on 14.9 targets for 135.3 yards per game
  • Tannehill: 17.3 catches on 21.3 targets for 188.7 yards per game

Mariota has targeted wide receivers on 52% of his pass attempts this year while Tannehill has looked for them on 71% of his throws. Titans receivers combined for 18 catches against the Chargers after having a previous season high of 12 against Jacksonville. That’s a pretty significant difference, and with all due respect for Delanie Walker, this team’s best weapons are at receiver now.

As for the tight windows... well, let’s just let the tape tell the story on that.

We’ll start with the very first play of the game for the Titans offense. It’s a 1st and 10 at their own 31 and they come out firing immediately.

NFL Game Pass

The Titans are running a passing concept that is designed to put the Chargers linebackers into a high-low conflict. Jonnu Smith’s skinny post is followed by MyCole Pruitt’s shallow crosser. Pruitt is actually more open as the middle linebacker turns to run with Smith, but Tannehill sees Chargers lineabacker Thomas Davis’s back is turned to him and Smith’s position relative to the path of Davis gives him the opportunity to throw to the back shoulder and allow his tight end to make a play.

This is a great example of a quarterback “throwing someone open”. Smith is very clearly covered in a traditional sense, but Tannehill’s understanding of leverage allows him to throw a pass where only Smith can get to it and it results in a big 24 yard gain to start the game. Could he have taken the safe throw to Pruitt underneath? Sure, but I love the mindset to attack when you see an opportunity for a chunk play.

You can also get a good view of Tannehill’s mechanics as a quarterback from the end zone angle. He’s very precise with his footwork with little wasted motion and he has a nice, quick release that generates easy velocity. Everything here is very balanced and crisp and it results in a ball that is perfectly placed for his target to make a play.

The Titans would nearly stall out after that initial play on the opening sequence due to a couple snap issues. The first one appeared to just be a mishandled exchange between center Ben Jones and Tannehill — not that surprising for two guys with very limited experience working together — but the second one is yet another snap that looks like it comes before the quarterback (or anyone else for that matter) is ready. Here is a still shot of the ball in Tannehill’s hands.

NFL Game Pass

As you can see, Tannehill is surprised and has to body catch the snap basically and almost nobody else on the offense has moved. Delanie Walker — standing up tight to the line next to Taylor Lewan — is still checking to make sure they’re lined up correctly on the left side. Tannehill should get some credit for actually making a completion here, though it was ultimately called back for an illegal shift.

These types of things are happening far more frequently than they should to the Titans right now. Starting with the Bills game, something has been very off with the way that the snaps and cadence are handled. The team has eight false starts over the last three games after just three through their first four matchups. I can also remember at least three snaps that have come before the rest of the offense is ready.

If you have a good theory for why this is happening, I’d love to hear it because I can’t make heads or tails of it. This is Ben Jones’ fourth year here and it’s never been a major issue previously and they just changed quarterbacks and it remained a problem. This offense isn’t good enough to waste snaps on mental errors like this so whatever it is, the Titans must figure it out quickly.

Facing 4th and 8 after they were unable to overcome those snap issues, Mike Vrabel dialed up a fake punt.

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Brett Kern — who should be on his way to his third straight Pro Bowl this year — hits Kevin Byard in stride and Byard does a nice job of turning up field and picking up the first down.

The fake punt would get the Titans in field goal range, but the following series was short-circuited after a 3rd and 5 pass to A.J. Brown was broken up.

NFL Game Pass

Brown is working against Chargers corner Michael Davis, but a pretty blatant grab at the top of the route keeps Brown from being able to separate and make the catch. This is pretty clear DPI to me — even removing my two-tone tinted glasses — but the non-call results in a field goal for the Titans.

It’s fair to say that Tannehill’s pass could have been placed further outside to give Brown a little more chance to make this play, but if the corner doesn’t interfere, this is probably an easy completion for a first down on the edge of the red zone. As it stands, the Titans kick the field goal for an early 3-0 lead.

The Titans second drive saw another early impressive throw from Tannehill.

NFL Game Pass

This time, the Titans are running a very familiar concept that we’ve come to expect to see some variation of multiple times per game. It’s a play action shot off an outside zone play fake. A.J. Brown is running a deep post while Corey Davis runs what initially looks like the crosser in a Yankee concept, but instead he sits down and drifts back towards the near sideline.

The Chargers linebackers don’t really bite on the play action and it leaves Tannehill with no real wide open options downfield. However, with pressure coming right in his face, he rifles a pass into a tight window, trusting Davis to make a play. His receiver does an excellent job of coming back to the ball and going up to attack it with his hands.

These are the types of throws that I’ve been wanting to see Marcus Mariota make over the past couple years, but for whatever reason, it never seemed like he was able to develop this type of trust level with anyone besides Delanie Walker (and, briefly, Rishard Matthews). Tannehill demonstrated tremendous faith in both his own arm talent and his receivers multiple times during this game and was richly rewarded for that faith.

The Titans run game did a pretty good job of keeping the offense on schedule, but they failed to make many chunk plays. That doesn’t mean they weren’t close though. This next play on the snap following the play above is a good example.

NFL Game Pass

The Titans do a pretty good job up front on this outside zone run. Jonnu Smith (lined up next to Dennis Kelly) kicks out the edge, Kelly is able to effectively reach Isaac Rochell (No. 98), and Ben Jones does a nice job hooking Cortez Broughton (No. 91). Derrick Henry very nearly pops this, but neither Nate Davis nor MyCole Pruitt are quite able to get enough of their man. Henry doesn’t need both blocks, he just needs one here, but he doesn’t get it.

I feel like I’ve said this week after week, but Henry is running really well right now and has been extremely close to ripping off a few long runs like we are accustomed to seeing from him. He’s very much due.

The next play brought another ridiculously accurate throw from Ryan Tannehill.

NFL Game Pass

Once again, the Chargers linebackers don’t really buy the play action fake which narrows the window that the Titans want to find Corey Davis in with the deep in-cut here. Nate Davis gives up a slight pressure, but does a good job of recovering to push his man past the quarterback.

Tannehill rolls to his left to buy some time and then finds Davis with an absolutely incredible throw near the sideline. It’s an absolute dime on the run, hitting Davis right in stride for a 16 yard pick up. Phenomenal throw.

Tannehill didn’t play perfect by any means. Later in that same drive the Titans faced this 3rd and 5 just outside of field goal range.

NFL Game Pass

Tannehill appears to have either Adam Humphries (at the top of the screen) or Anthony Firkser (back man on the stack towards the top) on the whip routes early in the read and Corey Davis running the corner route to that side has some space to work with too. However, he doesn’t pull the trigger and as he starts to work to the back side with A.J. Brown, pressure is starting to leak from the line and he throws the ball away.

This was a missed opportunity to convert and get the team in scoring position.

The Titans added a few different looks to their passing concept mix this week. I don’t know if that is a function of Arthur Smith growing into his role as offensive coordinator, something they saw on tape from the Chargers that they wanted to exploit, or just concepts that Tannehill liked more than Mariota, but this is one of them.

NFL Game Pass

It’s not that we haven’t seen a double slant — also commonly referred to as “dragon” — in the Titans offense before, they ran it last year at times, but we haven’t seen it much this season.

This is really well executed by Tannehill here. He carries out the play fake and wastes little time in locating A.J. Brown and hitting him in stride for a 16 yard gain on the opening play of the drive. The level of confidence and decisiveness at the quarterback position made a huge difference in this game.

After a Derrick Henry run for 2 yards, the Titans went back to the air and Tannehill made another accurate tight window throw.

NFL Game Pass

This is another straight drop from under center — something else we saw very infrequently while Mariota was in the game — and Tannehill initially wants Corey Davis on the deep post, but the safety in the middle of the field has that route covered so he moves to A.J. Brown running a deep hook route.

Again, there isn’t much space here, but Tannehill trusts his arm and his receiver. He fires a pass into a perfect location — slightly away from the nearest defender, but still on frame to give Brown a chance to shield the ball with his big body — and his receiver does a great job of attacking the ball and making the contested catch.

After a nicely set up screen to Derrick Henry that gained 18, the Titans went with another positive development from a playcalling standpoint.

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This is something that I believe is opened up by the success the Titans were having through the air at this point in the game. Take a look at the box on this run. The Chargers have just six defenders inside as Tennessee spreads things out a little bit from 11-personnel.

That light box makes things easier on Derrick Henry, who is able to punch through for 12 yards behind some nice blocks up front from Jonnu Smith, Dennis Kelly, Jamil Douglas, Ben Jones, and a pulling Rodger Saffold. Just like pass rush and pass coverage are complementary functions are defense, so are the pass and run games on offense. Passing success makes it harder for defenses to stack the box against the run and vice versa.

After another run from Derrick Henry and another nice strike from Tannehill to Brown, the Titans were set up with a 1st and goal from the 8 yard line with 27 seconds remaining in the first half.

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This touchdown follows the theme of the day for Tannehill: trust in his arm and receivers. Again, it’s not like Davis is wide open here. He simply goes and sits down in the middle of two defenders in zone coverage and Tannehill drills it in between the 8 and the 4, allowing him to shield the ball with his body. That’s a very important detail. A throw off-frame here is almost certainly not caught, but Tannehill’s accuracy and velocity squeezes it in for the touchdown.

The Titans opened the second half with a 2 yard run from Derrick Henry, setting up this 2nd and 8 snap.

NFL Game Pass

This is an example of a sack that has almost nothing to do with the offensive line. The Titans have a really nice pocket set up for Ryan Tannehill, but nobody is really open downfield in the aggressive vertical pass concept that Arthur Smith has dialed up. It looks to me like Smith was hoping that the safety would be drawn to the trips side and give Jonnu Smith a one on one opportunity on the opposite side, but the safety plays it straight — even drifting bit towards Smith — and takes that option away.

I thought Tannehill could have taken a shot towards Davis downfield, but with Tajae Sharpe running a vertical route right next to him — not sure why one of those wasn’t a comeback — There is a chance that at least one, maybe two with the safety, extra defender would have ended up involved.

Tannehill ends up leaking out of the pocket which puts him in harm’s way and results in a sack-fumble that Rodger Saffold does well to recover for his quarterback. For all the positive things that should be said about Tannehill’s Titans debut, one negative in his game over the years has been this tendency to put the ball on the ground. His 54 career fumbles rank fourth in the NFL since he entered the league in 2012. That popped up here.

The Titans made a smart call on 3rd and 14. Rather than attempting one of the slow-developing vertical passing concepts with three or four routes beyond the sticks while backed up in their own end, Arthur Smith dialed up a look that we saw under Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie: the downfield screen.

NFL Game Pass

This looks like a downfield passing concept, but it’s really just a screen. Darius Jennings and Anthony Firkser — the two players split out wide left — and Dion Lewis are all running out to block for Jonnu Smith who comes across the field underneath.

Smith gets effective blocks from Jennings and Firkser, but most of this is great individual effort by the young tight end. He slips out of Drue Tranquill’s tackle and then plows through Rayshawn Jenkins before rumbling 35 yards for a first down.

Corey Davis and A.J. Brown have gotten a lot of deserved praise for their run after catch ability, but I could be convinced that Smith is actually the most dynamic pass catcher with the ball in his hands. Out of his 161 receiving yards this season, 120 of them have come after the catch.

We’ve mentioned trust and velocity and confidence and accuracy as traits that Tannehill showed that helped the passing offense in this game, but timing is another aspect that seemed improved as demonstrated on this 2nd and 15 later in the same drive.

NFL Game Pass

Despite only having limited reps with the first team offense, Tannehill often appeared to be in perfect sync with his receivers. Here, he starts his read left, but quickly works back to Humphries’ whip route. The timing of the route with the read is bang on, allowing Tannehill to hit his receiver in stride as he’s coming out of his break and give him a chance to maximize his yards after the catch.

That play set up this 3rd and 6.

NFL Game Pass

Again, this sack isn’t on the offensive line. They give Tannehill plenty of time to get through multiple reads. Unfortunately, again, the coverage is all over the routes the Titans receivers are running and the Chargers eventually close in on Tannehill, forcing a punt.

After backing the Chargers up and forcing a three and out, the Titans got the ball back with great field position on the next drive. Two Derrick Henry runs produced a 1st and 10 at the LA 40 yard line for this snap.

NFL Game Pass

It’s the one turnover of the game for the Titans offense and there is a lot to unpack here.

First, Jonnu Smith gets beat badly by second year linebacker Uchenna Nwosu. Smith’s blocking has been much much better in 2019, but this was not his best work. That’s the primary problem here as Nwosu hits Tannehill’s arm during his release causing the ball to float up in the air and eventually landing in Roderic Teamer’s arms.

However, Teamer may have been on his way to an interception even if Nwosu doesn’t get home. He’s the defender lined up over Firkser — essentially the slot receiver on this play — as the Titans are running the same dragon concept we saw above. This time Teamer recognizes it though and you can see him bailing on Firkser to try and undercut Brown’s route even before the ball is released. Maybe Brown is able to body him off the ball, but it looks like the Chargers defense was all over this concept the second time around.

A good sudden change stop from the defense got the ball back for Tannehill and the offense responded with their best drive of the game.

NFL Game Pass

This 2nd and 10 strike to Tajae Sharpe on the deep out shows off Tannehill’s arm strength, accuracy, and timing. The view from end zone angle really shows what a beauty of a throw this was.

After a short run by Derrick Henry, the Titans got to 2nd and 9 for this play.

NFL Game Pass

Again, outstanding arm strength and accuracy on this throw to Humphries, but the subtle step up to avoid a good rush from Joey Bosa — who was a menace in this game — while keeping his timing and rhythm with the route is very nice. Tannehill’s footwork here to quickly shuffle up in the pocket while also gearing up to make the throw on time is excellent.

A few plays later, the Titans get to this play on a play action boot look with Tannehill.

NFL Game Pass

It is fair to question whether Tannehill was trying to hit Firkser or Smith here given how close this ball comes to Smith’s out-stretched hand before hitting his teammate for a big gain. For what it’s worth, Tannehill says he was trying to hit Firkser and given his accuracy on other throws throughout the day, I tend to believe him, though his head does appear to be looking closer to Smith’s general area as he gets ready to throw.

Either way, the result is a big gain for the Titans to put them on the edge of the red zone.

After a 4 yard run by Henry followed by a false start and an incomplete pass forced by a great Bosa rush against Taylor Lewan, the Titans faced a tough 3rd and 11.

NFL Game Pass

Again, going back to the All-22 I wrote about the Broncos game last week, one of my big complaints about Arthur Smith was an unwillingness to run layered routes on 3rd down, especially 3rd and long situations. That changed to some degree in this game and this is an example.

Rather than having all five of his eligible receivers run routes past the sticks on 3rd and 11, he brings Humphries and Davis underneath on quick in-cuts with Jonnu Smith running a corner route over the top. The middle linebacker follows Smith and leaves the middle of the field wide open for Humphries who makes the catch and gets up field for an easy conversion.

It wasn’t all great from Arthur Smith in this game, but I thought he was better in certain spots and this was one of them.

After a short loss on 1st down, the Titans faced a 2nd and goal from the 10.

NFL Game Pass

Tannehill wasn’t 100% right with his reads in this game, but he was decisive and that payed off for him more often than not. Here, he misses a chance at a touchdown to Corey Davis —who comes wide open on the corner route — but ends up hitting Jonnu Smith with a fantastic throw into another tight window.

The ball is placed where only Smith can get it, and again, Smith rewards him with a great diving catch. Obviously, you’d prefer for him to take the easy touchdown here, but if you’re going to throw the wrong read, at least throw it with conviction and that’s what Tannehill does here.

Smith, again, had a fantastic game despite the blown block that resulted in Tannehill’s interception. He really seems to be coming into his own this year, and if I’m Mike Vrabel and Arthur Smith, I’m trying to find more ways to get him involved.

That leads us to Tannehill’s second touchdown toss of the game on a crucial 3rd and goal situation.

NFL Game Pass

This is a combination of poor coverage from the Chargers and a great read/throw from Tannehill. The defender that is supposed to be covering the area that Sharpe is eventually found wide open in gets caught cheating towards the flat route and the Titans make him pay. Excellent throw to clear a lot of underneath traffic while still giving Sharpe a chance to make the catch and get both feet down in the back of the end zone.

The Titans second scoring drive of the second half started with something many fans were hoping to see all offseason: Rodger Saffold and Taylor Lewan crushing guys in the run game.

NFL Game Pass

We have seen some positive steps from the talented duo on the left side of the Titans line over the last couple weeks. On this run from Henry, those two combine to completely cave in the left side of the Chargers front.

Another example of “wrong read-right throw” came on the Titans final scoring drive while facing a 3rd and 1 on their own 35 yard line.

NFL Game Pass

Needing just one yard, Tannehill probably should have taken the underneath route to Humphries that comes open early. Sure, there is a linebacker coming down to cut him off, but with Tannehill’s arm strength, he would have had no problem fitting the ball in to his slot receiver there.

Instead, Tannehill attacks his third read, squeezing the ball in through a tiny window to a crossing Corey Davis who then turns on the jets and picks up 38 yards. It’s a phenomenal throw and a great catch by Davis to maintain his concentration with Hayward on his back and a defender crossing his face.

After that big gain, the Titans leaned on Henry the rest of the way to the end zone, culminating in this 2nd and 7 touchdown run.

NFL Game Pass

There is a lot to love about this touchdown. First, I really like the design. The Titans get both Saffold and Lewan on the move, taking advantage of their athleticism. Saffold puts a linebacker on his back at the 5 yard line while Lewan is able to get in the way of the pursuit well enough to get Henry an angle.

Outside, both Jonnu Smith and A.J. Brown get good blocks to seal a lane, but possibly the most impressive block on this entire play goes to Corey Davis. Davis crashes down and pins Joey Bosa inside. Just fantastic execution from the entire group and Henry runs through another arm tackle and weaves his way to paydirt to give the Titans a 23-10 lead.

After a way-too-quick Chargers touchdown cut the lead to 23-20, the Titans offense took over with 5:09 remaining in the game, looking to seal the win. A short completion to Brown and a short Henry run left them with 3rd and 5 right away.

NFL Game Pass

The Titans dial up a little rub route designed to help free up A.J. Brown on the slant and execute it perfectly. Davis does a good job of getting in the way, but not drawing the flag while Brown runs a crisp route and Tannehill puts an accurate pass on him for the conversion.

Two plays later the Titans are facing 3rd and 7 and Tannehill looks for Brown again.

NFL Game Pass

Brown beats Hayward — one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL — on the slant and Tannehill puts a good throw on him despite some disturbance in the pocket (Bosa again). This is very nearly a game clinching touchdown. If Hayward doesn’t do just enough to trip Brown up as he’s diving to try and make a play on the ball, Brown is off to the races and likely puts the Titans up 30-20 with just over three minutes remaining.

Instead, Brown goes down just short of the line to gain, setting up the now-infamous QB sneak on 4th and inches (maybe just 4th and inch).

NFL Game Pass

The All-22 angle actually gives a great shot down the line to gain, but unfortunately, Bosa again blocks the view of where the ball actually ends up. Whether or not he got the first down could be debated until the end of time, but there is no real visual evidence that shows it one way or another and I’m 100% certain the refs were not going to overturn the spot on a challenge based on the angles available to view the play.

The execution by the Titans here isn’t great. I see the hole that Tannehill thought he was shooting for from the end zone angle, but he goes in too high. If he shoots in low and essentially rides Ben Jones’ back he almost certainly gets the first down with ease.

While we are here, I’ll offer my two cents on the decision by Vrabel to not challenge the spot. I think it’s the right call. Based on all the video evidence available, any adjustment of the spot would have been purely speculative and if we know one thing about NFL replay review, it’s that they err on the side of not overturning calls unless there is stone cold proof that the call on the field was wrong.

Even if you want to say that the spot was bad — and it was — the NFL rule book clearly states that a challenge is only deemed successful if the spot change results in a new set of downs:

A challenge is successful only if the ruling of whether a new series was awarded is changed, regardless of whether the ball was moved closer to the line to gain.

The Titans would have had to have the referees agree that he not only had a bad spot, but that the spot should have resulted in a first down to avoid losing their timeout. The timeout could have been important too. The Chargers were set to get the ball on their own 49 yard line with 2:35 left to play and no timeouts. That means that if the Titans were to get the ball back after a game-tying field goal or go-ahead touchdown, they would have very little time to work with and an extra timeout would be extremely valuable. Obviously, keeping the ball would be more valuable — it would all but end the game here — but the odds of an overturn based on what evidence we have is infinitesimal. In my opinion, the timeout had more value than a speculative challenge that you have no hope of winning.

Overall, this game represented a massive step forward for the Titans offense. If you want to discount things due to opponent, that’s fine, but it’s good to see this group perform well against any defense at this point. Just take a look at some of these stats:

  • Season high 7.6 plays per drive (previous high was 6.8 against Jacksonville)
  • Season high 50.4 yards per drive (previous high was 33.2 against Atlanta)
  • Season high 50% scoring rate on drives (previous high was 46.2% against Cleveland)
  • Three of their six longest drives of the season came in this game (75 yards, 86 yards, 90 yards) despite the fact that they had fewer drives in this game than any other

There are other factors beyond just the quarterback that helped in this game to be sure. Taylor Lewan and Rodger Saffold finally looked like the dynamic duo on the left side that we all hoped they’d be heading into this season. Great individual efforts on plays by guys like Corey Davis, A.J. Brown, and Jonnu Smith helped make Tannehill’s tight throws pay off.

However, it is pretty clear that Tannehill provided the spark that Mike Vrabel wanted in this game. His confidence, decisiveness, zip, and accuracy helped unlock a talented receiving corps and give the Titans their first game with 400 yards of total offense in 2019.

Yes, it’s just one game and we will need to see Tannehill prove that this type of performance is repeatable and that the tight window throws aren’t suddenly going to turn into interceptions, but it’s hard to dream up a more encouraging start for the new quarterback than this one. I am optimistic that this boost will be sustainable too. No, I don’t think he’s going to throw for 300-plus yards and nearly 80% completion rate every game, but even going back to preseason — I know, I know — Tannehill has looked sharp in this offense.

Is it possible that Adam Gase is just a horrible head coach who derailed a promising start to Tannehill’s career in Miami? For all the blame that Titans fans have placed on their franchise for ruining Marcus Mariota, it’s not exactly like Tannehill was on easy street with the Dolphins the past six years. You also have the injury issues of the past few years to look at for him. It’s honestly eerie how much Tannehill and Mariota have in common. Just like many still believe Mariota can succeed with a fresh start in an offense that better fits him elsewhere, couldn’t Tannehill’s fresh start and better offensive fit be here in Tennessee? Obviously, it’s too early to tell, but after Sunday, I’m pretty interested to find out.