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All-22 Review: Early miscues ruin an otherwise strong showing from the Titans offense

Penalties, turnovers, and questionable coaching decisions continue to haunt the Titans.

Tennessee Titans v Carolina Panthers Photo by Jacob Kupferman/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.

The Titans offense wasn’t outright awful against Carolina.

I know that sounds counter-intuitive given the fact that they were shutout — again — in the first half and ultimately lost the game, but it’s true. The Titans gained 431 total yards (a season high), and no, they weren’t all a product of garbage time.

The Panthers have an excellent defense, ranked 5th in DVOA heading into this game (though they’ve since dropped to 9th as a result of their performance against the Titans). They lead the NFL in sacks per game with 4.2, meaning that sacking Ryan Tannehill 4 times in this game actually represents a below average performance for this group. They’re also third in the league in turnovers forced per game with 2.4 on average.

However, they have struggled in run defense. They ranked last in run defense DVOA coming into this game and they rank last coming out of it as well. They were coming off a week where they had allowed the 49ers to trample all over them to the tune of 232 yards rushing.

The Titans failed to test that run defense early, choosing instead to come out aggressive an throw the ball down the field. Most weeks, that’s a game plan that fans would love to see from a franchise that is far too conservative on offense, but on the week when the opponent is dead last against the run? Maybe the good old-fashioned slam Henry into the line 25 times approach would’ve been OK.

That’s the frustration with this offense at the end of the day for a lot of fans. Being an team that changes its approach week to week to take advantage of an opponent’s weaknesses is great, but it seems like the Titans are completely overthinking it. I don’t know if it’s a “well, they’re going to expect us to try to run on them so let’s pass” thing or what, but the nonsense needs to end. It’s OK to test your opponent’s most glaring weak spot early and see if they’ve got it fixed. Other teams do it to the Titans all the time.

One shift that we saw in this game that is interesting moving forward is the personnel usage. The Titans were in 11-personnel on 86% of snaps in this game per Sharp Football Stats, easily their highest rate of the season. Their previous high was 61% in Jacksonville in Week 3. Again, that’s not simply a result of playing from behind either. The Titans were in 11-personnel on 86% of their first half snaps and 86% of their second half snaps. Whether that was a change in mindset that will carry over moving forward or just a game plan specific adjustment for the Panthers remains to be seen, but it’s something that bears watching this week.

So let’s jump into the tape and see what went wrong and what went right for the Titans in this game.

The first four drives of the game ruined what was otherwise a strong offensive performance

The Titans got off to a very auspicious start offensively on the first play of the game. They come out in 12-personnel and motion Corey Davis tight to the end of the line. The formation brings 9 of the 11 Panthers defenders into the box. The call is a play action shot to Tajae Sharpe.

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Love the playcall. Hate the personnel usage. Out of the five wide receivers currently on the Titans active roster, Sharpe is the last one that should be having 9-routes dialed up for him. The end result here is fine — Sharpe draws a defensive pass interference call by trying to fight back to the ball — but this could have been an even bigger play if the Titans run this route with Corey Davis, A.J. Brown, or Kalif Raymond.

Either way, the call puts the Titans in business right away. A 3 yard run for Derrick Henry sets up 2nd and 7 at the Panthers 31-yard line. Again, the playcall is aggressive. Arthur Smith dials up a little high-low crossers look.

However, the pass protection busts before the play can develop. As you can see in the clip below, A.J. Brown is coming wide open over the middle of the field. That’s where Ryan Tannehill wants to go with this ball, but Dontari Poe splits Jamil Douglas and Rodger Saffold to get quick pressure. I’m not sure what Saffold is doing here. He appears to be looking outside to help Taylor Lewan, but Lewan is getting a chip from Dion Lewis, and a good one at that. Saffold should be aware that Lewan has help pre-snap, but it doesn’t seem like he was expecting that.

The other issue here is Tannehill. He has Dion Lewis open as a check down underneath. Again, this is 2nd and 7. Taking a 3 or 4 yard gain isn’t a bad result here. As soon as he saw big number 95 bearing down on him, he should have dumped this off to Lewis.

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That sets up this 3rd and 14. This is a terrible scenario for any offense, but the Titans at least have a chance to get back into field goal range here to take an early lead. The playcall is a familiar one for Titans fans. It’s a sticks route. Expecting zone, three receivers run to soft spots at the sticks and turn around while the tight end and running back chip and release into the flats as check down options.

Adam Humphries finds a soft spot between two defenders and Tannehill puts a good throw on him, but it looks like Humphries doens’t know exactly where he is on the field. You can see it best from the end zone angle. He kind of just falls to the side as soon as he catches it. If he catches and wheels around to lunge forward, he probably picks up the first down here. Instead, he drops short and sets up 4th and 1.

Mike Vrabel’s decision not to go for it on 4th and 1 here is Problem #1. Yes, it’s a make-able field goal, but 4th and 1’s deep in plus territory are almost always “go” situations. The Titans choose the field goal option and Ryan Succop misses wide left to cap frustrating drive number one.

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So drive one you have a DPI, a Henry run, a sack, and a completion that comes up one yard short of the sticks before the missed kick.

Onto frustrating drive number two. Again, it seems to start well. A neutral zone infraction on the Panthers sets up a 1st and 5 and the Titans run Henry for a big 13-yard gain out near midfield. Only problem is that it gets called back for holding on Lewan. He’s blocking Luke Kuechly here and the extra frustrating thing about this play is that it seems like the hold — or at least the part that likely drew the flag — was completely unnecessary. Lewan makes a good block initially, but just can’t resist giving that little extra tug on Kuechly’s left shoulder as he tries to peel away and chase Henry, wasting an absolutely fantastic block from Saffold here.

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That call sets up 1st and 15 for the Titans. A setback, but still a manageable situation. They try to find Anthony Firkser over the middle, but Tannehill’s throw is off the mark. To make matters worse, Lewan gets called for a facemask as Efe Obada has him beat on the edge.

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After a 15 yard run from Dion Lewis on 1st and 25, the Titans are back to a manageable situation again. The offensive line gives up pressure, but Tannehill stands in and is able to find Humphries open underneath. Humphries scampers down the sideline and manages to pick up the first down. Except this time, Nate Davis gets flagged for a facemask penalty. I still haven’t seen a good angle of this one, but it does look like Poe’s helmet is turned at an unnatural angle during his rush. The offensive line’s inability to deal with stunts and games remains a major issue, but their inability to avoid penalties is an even bigger issue.

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After dropping back to 2nd and 23, the Titans would fail to pick up the first down — though they did get within 3 yards — and punted to end the second series.

The third series starts well too. The very first play is a nifty tunnel screen design off a play action fake. Look at the Panthers linebackers here. They’re all flowing to the fake, leaving A.J. Brown, Taylor Lewan, and one Panthers corner in the vicinity when Brown catches the ball. Brown gets a little ahead of Rodger Saffold’s block here, but it’s a very nice 23 yard opener that was well-schemed and well-executed.

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The two teams trade penalties and Dion Lewis has a 7 yard run over the next three snaps to set up a 2nd and 3 in Panthers territory when disaster strikes this drive. Lewis has the ball ripped out of his arms as he’s trying to run through a tackle and Carolina recovers.

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The fourth drive sees the Titans open with a 1 yard run for Henry before they go to a play action pass to A.J. Brown that bounces off his hands and gets picked off.

A few things here... I like the design of the play, but Kuechly doesn’t really buy the fake. He takes one step forward, but keeps his eyes on Tannehill, eventually following them right into the throwing lane where he jumps and tips the pass. That deflection makes the catch pretty difficult for Brown, though it still hits him in the hands.

The other thing is that AJB gets called for offensive pass interference here. He does push at the top of his route to create the separation — and DeAndre Hopkins does this or worse on almost every snap — but he needs to get a little more subtle about it. Refs are clearly watching him closely on these types of routes.

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The fifth drive of the first half starts out with another play action design, and again, this one is open. Jonnu Smith slips behind the linebackers and is wide open. Tannehill hits him right in the hands, but he bobbles it away for an incompletion on 1st and 10. A Tannehill scramble for 2 yards and a throw to A.J. Brown that looked like it could have been called for pass interference on the defense on 3rd and 8 led to a three and out on this drive.

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The final drive of the first half saw the Titans drive once again. Getting the ball at their own 25 with less than a minute remaining saw them in full hurry up mode. Tannehill strung together some nice throws, this escape and sidearm toss to Humphries being the highlight.

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The drive broke down at the edge of field goal range after the Titans had used their final timeout. First, there was this throw to Dion Lewis on 1st and 10 with 21 seconds left. If you look downfield you can see Corey Davis come open on a deep dig route in the middle of the field, but Tannehill is making a quick read on the sidelines here. Remember, no timeouts and only 21 seconds so a completion to Davis might have ended the half. Lewis actually loses 2 yards on this catch though.

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That problem is compounded on the next snap when Tannehill does one of the two things that you absolutely cannot do in this situation. He takes a sack. Granted, the pressure gets on him pretty quick here as the Titans offensive line loses a man on a stunt — again — but Firkser is open on the crosser underneath quickly. This ball has to come out quickly or be thrown at Firkser’s feet once pressure is felt. Instead, the sack pushes the Titans field goal attempt back from 49 yards to 56 yards and Succop leaves it short.

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Honestly, I didn’t totally hate the first half plan from the Titans on second watch. Yes, they could have gotten Henry involved more and they should probably scrap the idea of having a “Dion Lewis series” altogether, but if players don’t commit dumb penalties, drop easily catchable passes, and put the ball on the ground, this is likely a pretty productive first half for the Titans offense. I understand that all of that comes back to coaching on some level, but players need to make plays at some point too and the Titans failed to do that in this first half.

A few things I didn’t like from the second half

Let’s move on to the second half and quickly hit on a few things that I did like and a few things I didn’t like about the Titans offense.

Let’s start with this ridiculous sack. This is the first play of the second offensive drive of the second half. The lack of awareness from Jamil Douglas here is startling. Just count the numbers on each side of the ball. Given that the Titans were running play action here, Douglas has to know that he’s responsible for Shaq Thompson if he comes. Instead, he immediately goes to help Davis on his right and leaves Thompson with a clear shot at his quarterback. It’s unfortunate too because A.J. Brown was coming wide open on the quick slant at the top of the screen.

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Again, why is Tajae Sharpe running 9-routes? This time he doesn’t get bailed out by the refs as the corner easily cuts him off from the ball.

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Here is the second Tannehill interception. The first one wasn’t on him, but this one was. Panthers safety Tre Boston is reading him all the way and steps right in front of Kalif Raymond for the interception. Tannehill looks like he’s expecting Boston to be wider towards the sideline, but there is really no excuse for this throw. Just a bad decision.

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After two back to back great games, Jonnu Smith turned in a stinker against the Panthers, at least in the passing game. He dropped the pass over the middle that helped short circuit one of the first half drives, then he came back and added this mistake later in the game.

This is a misread by Smith. When running crossing routes, receivers are instructed to sit down against zone coverage and run through against man. The Panthers are clearly in zone here, but Smith keeps running, right into additional coverage. Tannehill is, rightfully, expecting him to sit down between defenders and throws the ball to that spot.

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The two point try after the Titans scored to make it 30-20 was another missed opportunity. With 2:49 left on the clock and all three timeouts available, they were still realistically in this game if they convert here. I’m not totally sure what makes Tannehill wait so long to throw this ball. Humphries isn’t wide open, but there is space available to fit it in before the pressure gets there. However, Tannehill waits until the defender is right on him, forcing an inaccurate throw that gives Humphries no chance to make the play.

Corey Davis is wide open in the back of the end zone, but he’s behind Tannehill and doesn’t have room to keep running outside because Sharpe’s corner route dies on the vine and he just gets stuck there.

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A few things I did like from the second half

So let’s finish positive, because frankly, we need a little positivity heading into this weekend.

The Titans did a lot right in the second half, as their 20 points after halftime would indicate, and it wasn’t all against prevent defense. The very first drive, of course, saw Arthur Smith violently correct course after giving Henry just two first half carries. The Titans came out with five straight runs with their big back, starting with some one back power.

Nate Davis pulls across and kicks out the linebacker while Lewan and Saffold work a beautiful combination block. Outstanding finish by Saffold here. Jonnu Smith does a great job locking out the end.

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One of the few plays the Titans offense consistently executes well from week to week at this point is crack toss. Part of the reason for that is the effectiveness of Corey Davis blocking down on defensive ends as he does brilliantly here. That allows Jack Conklin to get outside and lead block on the edge. Getting Henry a full head of steam with a lead blocker is always a good thing and this play does that.

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The touchdown run at the end of that job is a result of great blocking on the right side of the line. Davis, Conklin, and MyCole Pruitt completely cave in the right side of the Panthers defense, allowing Henry to get in a seam and bully his way into the end zone.

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The Titans dialed up several deep shots in this game, and thankfully, not all of them were for Sharpe. Here, Tannehill finds A.J. Brown on the 9-route with a beautifully thrown ball over his receiver’s outside shoulder. Perfect placement on this pass and great concentration by Brown to haul it in.

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The Titans went right back to Brown again on the opposite side on the very next play. Brown doesn’t get big separation, but he’s on top and he manages to leave some space between him and the sideline for Tannehill to fit the ball into. The throw is nearly perfect, glancing just off Brown’s fingertips in the front corner of the end zone. Multiple deep shots to Brown should be a weekly occurrence for this team.

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The very next play is the screen pass to Henry for a touchdown. This is another great design. A quick play action followed by a fake tunnel screen before coming back to Henry.

The Titans catch the Panthers blitzing and Tannehill does a great job of slipping a little sidearm flick around the safety coming off the edge while Jamil Douglas and Nate Davis slip out and lead the way for Henry. Davis does a particularly good job blocking down field and Henry takes care of the rest, making a couple guys miss on his way to the end zone. Henry’s inability to catch passes has been frustrating at times during his career, but when he does get the ball corralled, he’s extremely dangerous.

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Finally, we have another deep ball. This one is intended for Corey Davis who absolutely roasts the Panthers secondary with a stutter-go. Tannehill has to navigate some pressure in the pocket and that likely costs the Titans a touchdown here. He still regathers and gets the ball off, but Davis is out of range and Tannehill’s throw falls short. Davis does a nice job working back through contact to draw the flag.

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At the end of the day, a tipped ball, a fumble that bounced the wrong way, and a couple bad penalties by the offensive line in the first half ruined what otherwise was a really strong day against a good defense for the Titans. The missed field goals didn’t help either.

All that is little consolation for fans though. The fact of the matter is that this is a 4-5 team that needs to get red hot and get a lot of help to have a chance of turning this season into what they had hoped it would be. The offense must clean up the mistakes if they want to have any hope of hanging with the Chiefs on Sunday.