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Diving Into Another Historically Efficient Day for the Titans Offense

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Tennessee Titans v Oakland Raiders Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Titans pulled away from the Oakland Raiders in the second half of last week’s game to finish with a dominating 42-21 victory.

Mike touched on some of the incredible offensive production in his Winners and Losers article earlier this week that I’m just going to quote for emphasis:

The Titans broke the franchise record for yards per offensive play for the second time in three weeks today with a 552 yard offensive avalanche in Oakland. The Titans 9.36 yards per play against the Raiders ranks as the 17th most efficient offensive performance in the NFL since 1970. That gives the 2019 Titans 2 of the 30 most efficient offensive performances in modern NFL history in the past three weeks.

The Titans have scored 30+ points in four straight games, but the most impressive statistic is their league-leading “points per minute of possession” since Tannehill became the starter. This eliminates the defensive touchdowns from the equation and shows how effective the Titans offense alone has been since Week 7.

Ryan Tannehill is on a hot streak the likes of which the NFL has rarely seen before. His last four games have put him in mostly uncharted territory.

Tannehill is arguably playing the best football of any quarterback in the NFL at this point in the season. He is executing the Titans offense at a ridiculously effective level.

I’d love to keep gushing about Ryan Tannehill, so I will. But first, it’s time to dive into the numbers-beyond-the-numbers from the Titans’ Week 14 win over Oakland.

Here’s the Week 13 Efficiency Report in case you missed it.

Drive Success Rate

Drive success rate” (DSR) refers to the percentage of 4-down series resulting in either a first down or a touchdown. Here’s the Titans’ success rates for the week compared to season-long averages:

Drive Success Rate (W14)

Time Drive Success Rate Would Currently Rank:
Time Drive Success Rate Would Currently Rank:
Weeks 7-13 Avg 71.9% 13th
Week 14 89.7% 1st
Weeks 1-6 Avg 65.1% 29th
Ranking data courtesy FootballOutsiders.

Against the Raiders, the Titans were successful on 26 of 29 down series, an astronomically high rate. The Titans moved the ball at will on the Raiders defense with a combination of long strung-out drives and quick big-play strikes. On third downs, the Titans were 8/11, one of which came late in the second half with Dion Lewis operating as the primary back once the game was well in hand.

Art Smith kept the defense guessing with an array of zone runs, counter hand-offs, and outside tosses mixed with well-timed play-action shots, and the result was by far the Titans’ most successful offensive day of the season.

Yards Per Drive

I quoted Mike above with the Titans franchise-record-setting yards-per-play figures, now we’ll look at the Titans’ average yards gained on each drive for Week 14 compared to season-long averages:

Yards Per Drive (W14)

Time Yards Per Drive Would Currently Rank:
Time Yards Per Drive Would Currently Rank:
Weeks 7-13 Avg 34.6 9th
Week 14 58.8 1st
Weeks 1-6 Avg 24.88 31st
Ranking Data courtesy FootballOutsiders.

Here’s what the Titans’ individual drives looked like:

  • 54 yards, INT
  • 74 yards, touchdown
  • 91 yards, touchdown
  • 77 yards, touchdown
  • 51 yards, missed field goal
  • 4 yards, punt
  • 89 yards, touchdown
  • 84 yards, touchdown
  • 5 yards, punt
  • Final end-of-game, run-out-the-clock drive (23 yards)

So that’s 529 yards on 9 qualifying drives (time expired during the last possession, so this drive is excluded). An absolutely unbelievable day of offensive production that was not simply overinflated by the 91-yard touchdown.

The five touchdown drives of 74+ yards scored in Week 14 is two more than the Titans managed during the entire first six weeks of the season!

Three and Outs

Three-and-outs per drive is a simple stat measuring how frequently an offense takes possession and fails to convert a first down on a down series. I really don’t know how much “three-and-outs per drive” matters as a stat, because in this incredibly efficient game the Titans actually had 2 three-and-outs on their 10 possessions — a relatively high rate compared to the league averages. Just generally speaking, when a team blows another team out, towards the end of the game it’s not uncommon for the winning team to have a few three-and-outs running out the clock. So take this stat at face value and nothing more.

Three-and-Outs Per Drive (W14)

Time 3&Os/Drive Would Currently Rank:
Time 3&Os/Drive Would Currently Rank:
Weeks 7-13 Avg 0.203 17th
Week 14 0.200 16th
Weeks 1-6 Avg 0.29 29th
Ranking data courtesy FootballOutsiders.

The Titans weren’t much better in the three-and-out department on Sunday than their season averages. How you finish a drive is more important than how you start.

Negative Plays

In Week 14, Derrick Henry again only suffered one negative run. That makes 3 total in the Titans’ last 5 games. To remind you, Henry was stuffed for a negative gain on 29 carries over the first 8 weeks (an average of 3.6 negative rushes per game over that span).

NextGenStats.

Henry averaged 5.6 yards per carry in this game; 8 of his 18 carries went for 5+ yards. Of his 103 yards rushing, 99 came after contact, now up to 1,052 total yards after contact on the season according to ProFootballFocus. He faced 8+ defenders in the box on 13 of his 18 carries according to NextGenStats.

Besides Tannehill’s final kneel-down, that three-yard loss by Henry was the Titans only negative play of the day. They gave up zero sacks and only committed one offensive penalty (which did negate a touchdown, but AJ Brown bullied his way into the end zone on the next play so the 3rd-down Nate Davis hold was largely irrelevant).

This is a massive improvement from the Titans’ performance earlier in the season, when they were the league leader in negative plays and sacks allowed up until last week (they’re now second in negative non-sack plays and third in sacks allowed).

(If you combine negative plays and sacks, they are still the league leader.)

Red Zone Performance

Through 14 weeks, the Titans remain number one in red zone scoring offense, i.e., the rate of converting red zone trips to touchdowns, at 72.97% on the season.

Red Zone Performance (W14)

Time RZ TD % Would Currently Rank:
Time RZ TD % Would Currently Rank:
Weeks 7-13 Avg 88.2% 1st
Week 14 80% 1st
Weeks 1-6 Avg 53.3% 22nd
Ranking data courtesy teamrankings.com.

The Titans only non-conversion in this game was Tannehill’s tipped interception on the opening drive. After that failure, the Titans proceeded to score touchdowns on four straight red zone trips to finish 4/5 in this game.

Play Action Frequency

Let’s continue to look at the play action frequency and success rates, because I said I wanted to keep gushing over Ryan Tannehill’s statistics and this is a great chance to do so.

Play Action Frequency (W14)

Week Opponent PA % Dropbacks PA Dropbacks PA Attempts PA Completions PA TDs PA INTs PA cmp % PA Yards PA YPA PA Passer Rating
Week Opponent PA % Dropbacks PA Dropbacks PA Attempts PA Completions PA TDs PA INTs PA cmp % PA Yards PA YPA PA Passer Rating
7 LAC 28.1% 32 9 8 6 0 1 75.0% 93 11.6 73.4
8 TB 19.4% 36 7 6 3 0 0 50.0% 29 4.8 63.9
9 CAR 13.0% 46 6 5 3 0 1 60.0% 43 8.6 48.3
10 KC 28.0% 25 7 6 5 1 0 83.3% 81 13.5 158.3
12 JAX 63.6% 22 14 10 10 2 0 100.0% 218 21.8 158.3
13 IND 41.4% 29 12 9 7 1 0 77.8% 98 10.9 149.0
14 OAK 51.7% 29 15 14 11 2 0 78.6% 276.0 19.7 158.3
7-14 Avg N/A 32.0% 31.3 10.0 8.3 6.4 0.86 0.29 77.6% 119.7 14.4 115.6
Data courtesy ProFootballFocus.

Ryan Tannehill’s play action stats in his past four games have been truly off the charts. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that Derrick Henry has rushed for 599 yards on just 86 carries in those four games, but over and over again it has been proven that play action success has little to no correlation to rushing success or rushing frequency.

Ben Baldwin discussed this on Paul Kuharsky’s podcast last week. It’s a pretty fascinating conversation, if that sort of thing interests you.

Regardless of Henry’s play-action effect, since Week 10, Tannehill off play action has thrown for 671 yards (most in the NFL) on just 39 attempts (15th most in the NFL), 17.3 yards per attempt (highest in the NFL), 6 touchdowns (tied for most in the NFL), 84.6% completion percentage (2nd-highest in the NFL) and has a perfect 158.3 passer rating. He’s only played four games in that span with the Titans’ Week 11 bye.

Tannehill has also run for two touchdowns and a two-point conversion after a play-action fake.

The Titans play-action usage rate has increased dramatically in Tannehill’s last three starts. His first four games saw play-action called on just 20.8% of dropbacks. In his last three, that number has more than doubled, with play-action now being called on 51.3% of dropbacks.

For reference, Lamar Jackson currently leads the league with a 35.6% play action usage rate for the season. Marcus Mariota was at 33% usage when he was pulled from the lineup.

After the Week 12 win over the Jaguars when Arthur Smith called play action on over 63% of dropbacks, I wrote: “Will play action continue to be as effective if the usage rate stays so high? Who knows, but I’d be willing to try it and find out...”

My position hasn’t changed. If it ain’t broke, don’t stop using it... or something like that.

The good news is, Tannehill has been pretty good even without play-action.

Tannehill is averaging 8.0 yards per attempt with no play action for a passer rating of 107.8, 2nd in the league behind Matthew Stafford. He’s thrown 9 touchdowns to 3 interceptions with no play action, so don’t go thinking that the only reason for Tannehill’s superb stretch is the play-action fake or Derrick Henry’s presence. He’s been pretty good all on his own, too.

Tight Window Throws

If you’ve missed the last few editions of this article, I encourage you to read my Week 12 Efficiency Report for a quick refresher on Next Gen Stats’s “aggressiveness percentage” and “completion percentage over expectation.”

If you’ve been following along every week, you’re likely aware of my stance that a passing offense cannot sustain long-term success with an upper tier aggressiveness percentage.

Aggressiveness Percentage (W14)

Week Dropbacks Pass Attempts Aggressive Throws Aggressiveness % NFL Rank*
Week Dropbacks Pass Attempts Aggressive Throws Aggressiveness % NFL Rank*
7 32 29 7 24.1% 2nd of 27
8 36 33 11 33.3% T-2nd of 30
9 46 39 5 12.8% 16th of 28
10 25 19 6 31.6% 2nd of 26
12 22 18 3 16.7% 15th of 28
13 29 22 3 13.6% 23rd of 32
14 29.0 27.0 4.0 14.8% 16th of 32
7-14 Avg 31.3 26.7 5.6 20.9% 6th of 39
*Minimum 15 attempts for a single game, 105 attempts for the season. NextGenStats.

I’m pleased to see Tannehill’s aggressiveness percentage again in this lower range for Week 14. Keeping that number around 15% seems to be a better range than the 20+% he’s still at for the season.

I do think Tannehill’s production, at least as we’ve seen in recent weeks, is more or less sustainable. 91-yard touchdown passes don’t happen every week, but explosive plays are not necessarily fluky if the offense is actually explosive.

And this iteration of the Titans offense is as explosive as it gets.

Leading the next closest team by 3 full percentage points in explosive play rate is perhaps a bit too high to be sustainable, but it would have to fall quite a bit to even be near league average again.

Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill, with a nice boost from rookie receiver AJ Brown—who’s averaging the third-most yards after catch per reception with 9.4—and Art Smith, have this Titans offense performing as well as any in the league.

Completion Percentage Over Expectation

Ryan Tannehill lengthened his NFL lead for completion percentage over expectation with a +12.5% mark in Week 14, raising his season-average to +10%, still 3.7% points higher than the next closest player (Kirk Cousins).

3.7% is the amount separating the 2nd ranked passer from the 7th. This statistic is a result of Tannehill’s accuracy and ball placement combined with very few drops by his receivers.

I’m not sure +10% is a sustainable number over the longterm, but again, it would take a massive drop off for Tannehill to just be “good” in this area.

Tannehill’s insane CPOE is driving certain analytics people crazy trying to understand how a quarterback who has floated largely between average and above average is suddenly performing at an elite level. But Ben Baldwin continues to champion the high-level play of the Titans quarterback.

Even so, Steven Ruiz wrote a piece on Tannehill’s success for USA Today that concludes most of what Tannehill has done this season is likely just a short-term hot streak, much like Case Keenum’s 2017 stretch.

Ruiz notes that Tannehill’s deep passing numbers are unsustainable based partially on his deep passing accuracy percentage, citing these number from Dan Pizzuta of Sharp Football Analysis.

I’m not sure what this data means, but perhaps we should not expect so many Ryan Tannehill deep passes to be completed in the future... Or, perhaps it actually means the opposite. The fact that the Titans have created so many explosive passing plays despite relatively poor downfield passing accuracy could mean that the explosive pass play rate might actually go up should Tannehill’s deep passing accuracy (on a small sample size of attempts) improve going forward.

Writes Ruiz:

“I’ve always considered Tannehill an underrated quarterback, who was stuck in a bad situation in Miami. He’s solid in just about every facet of quarterback play and can look good in the right system, as we’re seeing now. But he does nothing overly well and will always be the product of what’s around him.”

That is a faulty line of thinking in my opinion. Tannehill isn’t being schemed into great plays or narrowly avoiding huge mistakes in an unsustainable way. He’s simply executing the offense at an extremely high level with good recognition, smart decision making, and excellent ball placement.

But if you think Tannehill is on an unsustainable tear, perhaps you’ll enjoy reading Ruiz’s piece linked above (and here again for convenience).

Comeback Player of the Year

Alright, last bit of gushing...

Ryan Tannehill deserves to win Comeback Player of the Year. The Around the NFL podcast mentioned it recently, and the idea is gaining steam elsewhere in media circles.

As Chris Wesseling mentions in that clip, Tannehill was left for dead by the Dolphins. The general perception heading into this season was that Tannehill had tried and failed in his time as an NFL starter and was moving on to the back-up stage of his career. My how times have changed...

His 6 wins in 7 starts for Tennessee leads the NFL in win percentage (I know, QB wins are not a stat, but with Tannehill we do have the 2-4 Titans team to compare him to). He leads the NFL in passer rating, yards per attempt (adjusted and not adjusted), he’s 1st in CPOE, 3rd in touchdown percentage, and he’s averaging 10 yards per attempt against pressure.

I could make a legitimate case for Ryan Tannehill as MVP of the league. The turnaround he helped orchestrate with this Titans offense is beyond magical.

I do think the MVP contest is down to a one-horse race and Lamar Jackson will coast across the finish line, but the fact that Tannehill is playing at an MVP level makes his Comeback Player of the Year case pretty compelling.

The other top candidate at the moment would presumably be Jimmy Garappolo. While the 49ers are playing very good football, most people would credit Garappolo no higher than fourth on the list of reasons for their success, behind the defensive line, the running game, and head coach Kyle Shanahan. But In Tennessee, we can clearly see the difference the quarterback change has made for the offense.

If Tannehill is able to continue his excellent play and lead the Titans into the playoffs, he has to be a major contender for this award. The only real barrier is the “comeback” part; it’s not exactly clear what he’s coming back from. He did miss five games last season due to injury, but those five were in the middle of the season; he already came back from that to close out last year.

James and I discussed the Titans big win over the Raiders and what it means for the team going forward, as well as Tannehill’s future in Nashville with the recent rumor that the Titans are already talking extension. You can check that out below: