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.
The midseason turnaround of the Titans offense has been violent enough to give fans whiplash. After six weeks, Tennessee was averaging just 16.3 points per game — despite a 43 point outburst in the season opener — and ranked 29th in Football Outsider’s Offensive DVOA. The season was taking the shape that Titans fans have become very familiar with over the past 15 years... good defense, bad offense, mediocre results.
Mike Vrabel turned to Ryan Tannehill to provide a spark, and after five weeks, it’s fair to say he’s provided that. The Titans have averaged 29.4 points per game under Tannehill, the 3rd best figure in the NFL over that time span. They’ve also climbed all the way up to 13th in the league in Offensive DVOA for the full season. If you isolate just the performance since Tannehill took over, the Titans offense ranks as the second best in the league behind Baltimore in DVOA.
The Titans offense hit a new peak this week against Jacksonville, piling up a season-high 471 yards to go along with their second highest scoring output with 42 points. They set a franchise record for offensive efficiency gaining an average of 9.1 yards per offensive snap in a performance that ranks 29th among all NFL games played in the Super Bowl era.
The tape — unsurprisingly — shows dominance in all aspects. The Titans mauled the Jaguars front with their suddenly steamrolling offensive line, countered the run game with a beautiful array of play action passes and screens, sprinkled in some athletic plays from a hyper-efficient quarterback, and of course, got a sterling performance from their best offensive player, Derrick Henry.
It was clear that Arthur Smith came into this game with a plan to take advantage of an overly-aggressive Jaguars defense. He used play action on a season-high 63.6% of Tannehill’s pass attempts and his quarterback went 10 of 10 for 218 yards and two touchdowns on plays using a run fake in addition to using his legs to run for two more scores off play action looks.
So let’s jump into the tape and take a look at arguably the best offensive performance in Titans history.
Derrick Henry and the offensive line are in perfect sync now
The Titans offensive line began to truly take off as a run blocking group against Carolina, but they have continued to gain steam in the two games since. The performance against the Jaguars was the best yet.
The outside zone lead has been a staple play for the Titans this year and it was heavily featured in this game. It was interesting to see rookie fullback Khari Blasingame immediately inserted into the lineup for these types of runs. Tennessee plucked him off the Vikings practice squad prior to the bye week and he took over the lion’s share of the fullback snaps from MyCole Pruitt right away. I thought he performed pretty well. Here, he does a nice job of picking up Quincy Williams at the point of attack and allowing Henry to cut off him into the second level.
The offensive line works this play beautifully as well. Watch Rodger Saffold and Ben Jones take the nose tackle and inside linebacker and block them five yards downfield. Nate Davis and Jack Conklin do an outstanding job of walling off the backside pursuit. Henry makes the most of it with a good read, great footwork, and a shrug off of an arm tackle attempt.
Here’s another zone lead. This time the Titans go right — a rarity in this game — but Henry is able to cut it back thanks to outstanding work on the backside from Lewan and Saffold along with Jonnu Smith. Any time you can take the nose tackle and block him ten yards downfield — as Saffold does here — you should get a good result on the play. Henry’s ability to keep his legs churning even with bodies all over the ground is impressive.
Then, of course, you have the 74-yard touchdown run. There are plenty of examples of plays that the offensive line dominated in this game, but this is a play where the credit should belong almost exclusively to Henry. Taven Bryan (No. 90) makes a nice move to beat Rodger Saffold inside here — usually an inside move from a 3-tech against an outside zone call would be picked up by the center, but Ben Jones has to deal with Myles Jack (No. 44) due to his proximity to the line of scrimmage — but Henry shrugs off Bryan’s tackle attempt in the backfield and then hits the jets, erasing angles with his speed and handing out stiff arms like we’ve seen from him so many times now.
His second touchdown run was a combination effort from Henry and the left side of the offensive line. Lewan and Saffold completely collapse half of the Jaguars defense — I have no idea what Yannick Ngakoue (No. 91) is doing here — and Henry’s lateral quickness gets him to the corner before he uses his power to bowl over a couple Jaguars standing between him and the end zone.
While criticism of Lewan has been warranted this season, he showed in this game why he’s so valuable. You’ll probably notice that the vast majority of these chunk runs are coming to the left side and that is no accident. Lewan and Saffold have been dominating these last couple weeks and showing exactly the kind of play that Titans fans expected to see when Saffold signed this offseason. Here, Lewan does a great job of reaching Ngakoue’s outside shoulder and giving Henry the corner. Good effort from Jonnu Smith and A.J. Brown with their blocks downfield as well.
While Saffold and Lewan remain the most dominant blockers on the Titans front, credit should also be given to center Ben Jones who is having his best season as a pro in 2019. You’ll often see him climbing to the second level and cutting inside linebackers to the ground as he does here. He’s gotten very good at this technique over the last year and a half and it can’t be overstated how important this block is to the effectiveness of the outside zone. It takes the player that is often the best tackler on the defense completely out of the play — hard to make a tackle when you’re on the ground — and has the added benefit of creating a roadblock for the pursuit from the backside as Myles Jack struggles to deal with here.
Jones is currently PFF’s second highest graded center for 2019 and it’s plays like this that are earning him high marks. His contract extension signed just before the start of the season is beginning to look like a bargain with cap hits of $6.25M in 2020 and $7.25M in 2021.
More domination here from Saffold. This time, he takes the nose tackle and moves him all the way from one hash to the other, leaving a huge space for Henry to work his way through.
One more beautiful zone lead for the road... just look at the movement that Saffold gets against the nose tackle. Watch Ben Jones take Myles Jack and block him into the end zone. It really is a beautiful thing when these guys get rolling like this.
The Titans offensive line is really coming into it’s own over the past few weeks and that’s great news for an attack that is built around Derrick Henry.
Ryan Tannehill’s incredibly efficient day
Complementing Henry and the offensive line was Ryan Tannehill and the Titans passing attack. The offense used play action consistently to take advantage of the aggressive Jaguars selling out to stop Henry.
Take a look at the very first offensive snap of the game. The Titans fake the zone lead going left and the Jags entire front seven bite... hard. Watch Calais Campbell on this play. He’s still chasing Henry down the line well after Tannehill has pulled the ball back.
Tannehill could have easily hit a wide open Davis here, but with nothing but green in front of him, he decides to take the safer option and run with it himself, picking up an easy 20 yards on the first play of the drive.
Tannehill did an excellent job getting the Titans into the right plays at the line of scrimmage in this game. Watch him pre-snap here. The Titans come to the line and see 10 of 11 Jaguars defenders within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage between the numbers so Tannehill changes the call and directs traffic, getting the offense lined up for a play action pass.
He finds Brown on the shallow cross — check out the beautiful release he puts on A.J. Bouye at the line of scrimmage to get free — and hits him for a 19 yard pick up.
The Titans killed Jacksonville with boot action all day on Sunday as they took advantage of the threat that Henry poses with cutbacks against that outside zone run. Here, Arthur Smith adds another wrinkle that helps sell the fake though.
Instead of peeling the “Y” tight end — Jonnu Smith in this case — back to run the flat portion of the flood concept, they use the fullback, MyCole Pruitt, and that’s the key to making this play work. Jaguars safety Ronnie Harrison is in man coverage and his responsibility is Smith. Once Smith blocks down, Harrison follows to join the run pursuit. The Jaguars inside linebackers are responsible for Pruitt and Henry here, but with all the traffic in front of them, they don’t see Pruitt sneaking out the back door. By the time Harrison realizes that he’s been had, it’s too late. Tannehill hits the short toss to Pruitt — he could have also hit Brown who is wide open again here — and gets an easy 20 yard pickup.
Tannehill had some easy throws, but he also made some really high level plays. This is one of them. It’s 2nd and 9 and the Jaguars are able to get some pressure through Abry Jones getting leverage on Ben Jones. However, Tannehill calmly slides up in the pocket and finds a tightly covered Adam Humphries for an 8 yard pickup, setting up a 3rd and 1 conversion a play later.
This throw is tougher than it looks. He’s moving in the pocket, doesn’t have time to set his feet, and needs an accurate ball to give Humphries a chance.
Humphries had a pretty quiet day in the box score with just 3 catches for 20 yards, but each of those catches were critical, drive sustaining pickups. Here, he runs a fantastic route to by some space against Jack again on a 3rd and 4.
However, the real play is made by Tannehill. The Jaguars bring a T-E twist on the right side and Campbell gets free, but Tannehill stands in the pocket and delivers a strike while taking a big hit to convert the third down and keep the drive alive.
We showed a play earlier where Tannehill got the Titans into a good play at the line of scrimmage. Here’s another one. Watch him carefully pre-snap. The Jaguars initially line up with a defender over Corey Davis in the slot, but walk that player up to the line, pushing 8 into the box. Tannehill motions to Davis — watch his left hand just after the fullback shifts — and throws the quick screen for an easy 5 yard gain on first down.
Here’s another play action crossing route. The Titans ate Jacksonville up with these throughout the game. Davis comes across in motion and the Jaguars have backup safety Andrew Wingard lined up across from him... big advantage for Davis. The play action sucks the linebackers up towards the line of scrimmage and Tannehill hits Davis in the window behind them as he easily beats Wingard’s coverage.
On the very next play, the Titans went back to the play action well once again. This time they put Tannehill on the move with a bootleg and it initially looks like A.J. Brown is going to be wide open. However, both of Jacksonville’s inside linebackers peel back and look for the crosser as soon as they recognize play action. Tannehill smartly realizes that nobody is left to pick him up and flashes some real speed before his daring leap into the end zone.
More play action crossing routes. This time it’s Brown. He comes wide open as the Jaguars fail to pass off his coverage and Tannehill makes them pay with a strike that gives Brown a chance to break a tackle and pick up extra yards down the sideline.
Let’s take a quick look at Dennis Kelly’s touchdown catch. I love the design here first of all. Derrick Henry is so good around the goal line that defenses absolutely have to gear up for stopping him. With Kelly in the game as a third tackle you’d obviously be expecting a run behind him to be the call. However, Kelly fakes the block and then slips into the end zone, giving Tannehill a nice big target to hit with an easy throw. Kelly makes the catch look pretty easy here too.
Back to the play action crossers. Again, the formula is the same. Play action draws the linebackers up, A.J. Brown beats Bouye, and Tannehill drops the pass right in stride to give Brown a chance to run.
This isn’t rocket science, but it’s highly effective offensive football. If your linebackers don’t commit quickly against the outside zone, they’re going to get picked off by climbing linemen. They really don’t have a choice but to bite on the action when they see it. This play — and the numerous variations of it that the Titans use — is really tough to defend from a MOFC (Middle Of Field Closed) look regardless of whether it’s Cover 1 or Cover 3 because your rules as a corner in those coverages dictate that you funnel the receiver back towards your help from the post safety. You don’t want to get beat outside. However, if you give up the inside and you have two players threatening that post safety, the safety has to choose... does he cut the crosser and leave his corner one-on-one with the deep post or does he stay over the top and leave his other corner to fend off the crosser. The Jaguars consistently chose to keep their safety deep to defend against the deep strike to Davis which left Brown to eat their lunch all day on crossers. The Titans success with the running game dictates that Cover 1 or Cover 3 be used most of the time on early downs to avoid being outnumbered in the box.
TLDR: When the Titans run game is humming, this play is real nightmare for defenses to deal with.
While we’re here... Brown is having a tremendous rookie season and his 70% snap share in this game was his highest of the season outside of the game that Corey Davis missed. He seems to make at least one defender miss after the catch almost every time he catches the ball, and as this play demonstrates, he has more than enough speed to be a homerun threat. He’s going to be a star in this league for a long time.
This next play is a great usage of offensive talent by Arthur Smith. We’ve seen it once before against the Panthers and it was back again this week. The play action toss gets the linebackers moving a little bit and gives time for Lewan and Saffold to sneak out the backside to lead block for Brown. Lewan and Saffold are excellent athletes in space and Brown is one of the best after the catch receivers in the league. Beautiful design and fit to personnel here.
Here is the final Titans touchdown of the night. It’s another play action boot, and once again, Tannehill shows off some serious wheels to beat the defense to the corner and get in the end zone.
One more play action boot. This time the crosser is Kalif Raymond and Tannehill hits him with a perfect throw while rolling to his left. This is a tough throw to make, but Tannehill makes it look easy.
A cheap shot and some near misses
I want to show the shot from Ngakoue on Lewan here because it is absolutely a dirty hit. It has nothing to do with the fact that he hit Lewan — he has every right to do that as the play was still going — but it has everything to do with how he hit him. He saw Lewan with his ribs exposed and no chance to defend himself and he lined him up for a kill shot. If he’s trying to slow the momentum of the pile or stop Lewan from getting a push, that’s fine, but going out of your way to launch yourself into a player’s ribs with intent to injure is crossing a line to me.
Of course the very next play he got rewarded with a strip sack and fumble recovery because life isn’t fair. The question of why the Titans didn’t just run the ball with Henry here on 1st and goal with a cold backup tackle in the game is a fair one. It looks to me like Tannehill was looking to hit Pruitt in the flat on this play, though Smith is coming open on the corner route later.
Unfortunately, Ngakoue gets a great jump and beats Kelly quickly to knock the ball out of Tannehill’s hands and force the only red zone trip without a touchdown for the Titans since Week 6.
Tannehill’s ball security has been an issue, but there isn’t a ton he could have done here. It’s a great play by Ngakoue and a missed block by Kelly.
The Titans nearly scored on that drive a few plays later with this screen pass to Henry. Jonnu Smith got called for the hold here — and it was a valid call — but the blocking from Jones and Saffold is excellent here, and as usual, Henry’s ability to make defenders miss in open space remains outstanding.
This qualifies as a near miss — the Titans would score on the next play so it didn’t matter too much — but I wanted to give credit to Henry for what was an excellent pass under pressure on this halfback pass play. He put the ball up where Smith could have had a chance to make a play if he didn’t get interfered with.
Finally, let’s take a look at just how close that bomb to Corey Davis was. First, great job by Tannehill to step up in the pocket and avoid the rush from Josh Allen off the right edge (and a good job by Jones, Saffold, and Nate Davis to give him a strong pocket to step up into). The route from Davis is very good as well. He wins a clean release off the line and then does a good job of creating late separation through some hand fighting going on with the corner downfield. By the time the ball arrives, Davis is a good three yards clear of the defense.
The throw is really close... closer than I thought on first watch. If this connects, the numbers for Tannehill and the offense would have been even more ridiculous, but they’ll just have to settle for the most efficient offensive performance in franchise history I guess.
So when is this all going to come crashing down? That’s kind of the natural question that pops into the minds of most Titans fans based on past experience, but I don’t know that I see anything going on here that is wholly unsustainable. Sure, Derrick Henry isn’t going to hit a 60-plus yard touchdown run every week, but he’s ripping off enough 8 to 12 yard type runs that his production would be very good even without those big plays.
Ryan Tannehill isn’t going to throw for 9.2 yards per attempt all season, but his accuracy and decision making have yet to waver in five games. In fact, he seems to be more in control of this offense now than he was in outstanding performances against the Chargers and Chiefs. That makes sense too, given that this was his first time in this offense — or any offense even remotely similar for that matter — and he spent most of the first six weeks running the scout team. You’d expect his command to increase and it has.
I’ll be interested to see how they perform on the road, in a divisional matchup, against a tough, well-coached defense this week, but there is nothing fluky about what has gone on here over the past month and a half. This is a remarkably talented offense with a playcaller that appears to be figuring things out as he gets some experience under his belt.
With players like Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, Corey Davis, and Jonnu Smith manning the skill positions, Tennessee’s suddenly explosive offense — the Titans lead the NFL in both explosive run rate and explosive pass rate since Week 7 per Sharp Football Stats — is capable of scoring from anywhere on the field on a wide variety of plays from simple outside zone runs to deep shots off the Yankee concept to tight end screens. Add a quarterback with the arm talent to distribute the ball effectively and the confidence to push it down the field and voila... you’ve got one of the league’s most effective offenses.
Happy Thanksgiving Titans fans!