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All-22 Review: Ryan Tannehill is leading an offensive renaissance in Tennessee

The Titans trigger man is one of the NFL’s best stories of 2019.

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Tennessee Titans v Oakland Raiders Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/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 Ryan Tannehill Revival Tour has made it’s way onto the radar of the national media. It’s hard to turn on an NFL podcast or watch a talking head show that doesn’t feature some high praise for the Titans recent run of offensive dominance.

While there are lots of reasons for Tennessee’s 31.4 points per game since Week 7 — Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, a rapidly improving offensive line, and a budding playcaller are among the biggest — there is still one that stands out above the rest... Ryan Tannehill. It’s easy to point to Tannehill as the difference because he’s the one ingredient that was added to mix at the pivotal moment when this offense jumped from a bottom five unit to a top five unit.

The stats are pretty incredible:

  • Before Tannehill... the Titans had scored 38 points combined in four games between Week 3 and Week 6.
  • With Tannehill... the Titans have scored at least 20 points in every game and are on a current streak of four straight with 31 or more (the first time this franchise has accomplished a streak like that since 1962).
  • Before Tannehill... the Titans averaged 4.8 yards per offensive snap, 4th worst in the NFL during that time frame.
  • With Tannehill... the Titans are averaging 6.9 yards per offensive snap, best in the NFL since Week 7 by almost three-quarters of a yard per play.
  • Before Tannehill... the Titans averaged 5.5 net yards per pass attempt, 4th worst in the NFL during that time frame.
  • With Tannehill... the Titans are averaging 8.3 net yards per pass attempt, best in the NFL during that span.
  • Before Tannehill... the Titans ranked 20th in the NFL in explosive pass rate, converting a pass for 15 or more yards on 8% of their snaps per Sharp Football.
  • With Tannehill... the Titans are ranked 2nd in the league with an explosive pass rate of 15%.
  • Before Tannehill... the Titans averaged 16.4 points per game, 5th worst in the NFL.
  • With Tannehill... the Titans are averaging 31.4 points per game, 2nd best in the league.

You get the picture.

Tannehill’s emergence as the yin to Henry’s yang has put the Tennessee offense in perfect balance and it’s achieving feats that haven’t been reached by this franchise in a long, long time. The Titans have skyrocketed all the way up to 10th in points scored for the 2019 season despite averaging just 11 points per game during that ugly stretch from Week 2 to Week 6. For a franchise that hasn’t finished higher than 14th in scoring since 2003, that’s a big deal.

So how is Ryan Tannehill — a quarterback that was cast aside by a franchise just nine months ago — suddenly leading one of the most remarkable in-season turnarounds in recent memory?

Well, part of the explanation is the work that he’s doing on Monday through Saturday. As NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported last week, Tannehill has impressed the Titans staff with his work ethic, spending long hours in the facility and forging close relationships with offensive coordinator Arthur Smith and his receivers.

ESPN’s Dianna Russini added a note about Tannehill meeting with his receivers an hour before team meetings start to go over routes and make sure they’re on the same page.

This isn’t the first time that comments like these have surfaced either. John Glennon’s piece at The Athletic following the Panthers game included several quotes from teammates that talked about Tannehill holding players — particularly receivers — accountable and demanding that they be in the right spots at the right time if they want the ball.

It’s pretty clear that the former 8th overall pick has staked his claim to a leadership role in this offense both on and off the field since being given the starting job.

While we’re here, let’s not overlook the way that Tannehill handled the humbling experiences of being traded for essentially a 4th round pick by the team that drafted him and paid him to be the “QB of the future” and then being asked to serve as a backup on his new team. He toed the company line when it came to downplaying the quarterback controversy questions, repeatedly insisting that he was there to backup Marcus Mariota despite having started all 88 NFL games that he had appeared in up to that point.

Tannehill has earned some major credibility with both the fan base and the locker room for some of the physically tough plays he’s made since getting his opportunity. There was the bulldozing two-point conversion run against Kansas City, the leap into the end zone against the Jaguars, and now this de-cleating of defensive tackle Maurice Hurst after throwing an early interception in Oakland.

NFL Game Pass

However, all the tough “football guy” plays and extra meetings with wide receivers don’t mean anything without on field performance to back it up. Tannehill has provided that in volumes. He leads the NFL in yards per attempt, passer rating, and CPOE (completion percentage over expected). He’s second behind just MVP front runner Lamar Jackson in touchdowns passes per game.

The question has now shifted to how sustainable this run of elite level quarterback play can be. There have been at least three articles this week from national writers discussing Tannehill’s run and whether or not it will prove to be a fluky hot streak or proof of real, sustainable improvement. Steven Ruiz from USA Today wrote that he believes Tannehill is due for regression, Seth Walder from ESPN wrote that there are cases for both actual improvement and an unsustainable hot streak, and Ted Nguyen from The Athletic broke down the film that illustrates what has made Tannehill so hot over the last two months and states that he believes he will eventually settle in as a “Tier 2 Quarterback” in Mike Sando’s QB tiers, landing him among Matt Ryan, Carson Wentz, and Matt Stafford among others.

Nobody can truthfully say that they know for sure what the future holds for Tannehill in Tennessee, but my belief is that we are seeing a talented quarterback thrive in a system that is really tailor made for his skill set. He’s not being asked to carry an offense game in and game out like he was often tasked with in Miami. He’s simply being asked to make enough plays to complement a top five rushing attack. The offense feeds him plenty of play action passes to receivers like A.J. Brown and Corey Davis who thrive after the catch.

I don’t think Tannehill is suddenly the best quarterback in the NFL as the stats would suggest — he still has issues with taking too many sacks and ball security in the pocket — but even if his stats regress a little bit (they almost certainly will), there is still plenty of room for him to land among the class of quarterbacks that you can win with. Guys like Matt Ryan, Matt Stafford, and Kirk Cousins who aren’t necessarily going to drag an offense to the top of the league by themselves, but are good enough to make an elite offense hum when given enough horsepower around them.

The question that all of these pieces were trying to answer is whether the Titans should commit to a long term contract extension to make Tannehill their franchise quarterback after this season as the team is reportedly discussing instead of using the franchise tag to keep him in house. The franchise tag value for quarterbacks in 2020 is likely going to check in around $28-29M depending on how many deals get added to the top of the list between now and the tag deadline.

The problem with the franchise tag that doesn’t get brought up enough, especially when it comes to quarterbacks, is the fact that it’s a signal to the player and the rest of the franchise that the team is only half in with this guy. We saw the damage that ended up doing to the relationship between Kirk Cousins and the Redskins front office a few years ago and the Titans would be at risk of alienating Tannehill if they tagged him after he rode in and saved the 2019 season for them.

There is a good chance that the Titans will be able to get Tannehill to agree to a long term deal that gives him an average annual salary less than that number. Spotrac has him projected for a 3-year, $76.8M deal that would have an average annual value of $25.5M. That would slot him between Derek Carr and Matt Stafford in annual salary which seems pretty fair. How they structure that deal and how much is guaranteed money versus options and incentives is anybody’s guess and would have a big impact on how much risk they’re actually taking on by giving him a long term deal.

Letting Tannehill walk seems like it should be off the table altogether. While you could certainly quibble over whether he’s having a unsustainable hot streak or if he’s truly a changed player in this offense, it’s impossible to formulate a coherent argument for letting him leave for nothing and giving the Titans zero quarterbacks under contract for the 2020 season (besides injured practice squader, Logan Woodside).

Tannehill fits this system and is playing at a really high level. The Titans would be foolish to let him walk due to some fear that he might not continue to be the hottest quarterback in football.

With that, let’s dive in to a short version of the All-22 Review.

Ryan Tannehill’s near perfect day

Tannehill’s numbers from this game were spectacular, going 21 of 27 for 391 yards (14.5 YPA) and 3 touchdowns. The lone real blemish on his day was the interception that led to his tackle that was shown above.

The tragedy is that the play is actually pretty well set up. It’s a tunnel screen to Jonnu Smith (split out wide with Corey Davis in the slot) and the Titans have numbers. They have five blockers out front with just four Raiders defenders between Smith and the end zone. There’s a pretty good chance this is a touchdown if the pass doesn’t get batted.

NFL Game Pass

Let’s take a look at a few of the concepts that were successful for Tannehill in this game (there were plenty of them). Many came off play action, like this wheel route to fullback Khari Blasingame up the left sideline.

The design is really nice. It’s built off the Yankee concept that the Titans feature frequently in their play action package and it’s designed to get Blasingame — a 4.55 guy with some obvious ball skills — matched up one on one against a linebacker. Not only is the linebacker essentially forced to cover Blasingame without help, he’s forced to do so with the threat of a Henry run pulling him up towards the line of scrimmage.

Credit to former Titan Will Compton here for recognizing the wheel route from the fullback and actually getting in pretty good position to cover this throw, but the ball placement from Tannehill and the leaping grab by Blasingame were just better. This is a pretty great catch for anyone, let alone a rookie fullback.

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The Titans had the Raiders linebackers bamboozled all game with their array of play action passes. Here, Corey Davis gives a fake block look before crossing the middle of the field and then turning on the jets after the catch. Not a terribly tough throw here, but it’s well placed, allowing Davis to maximize his run after catch.

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This next throw, however, is very difficult. It’s the seam ball to Anthony Firkser at the end of the first half. I loved the aggression that Vrabel showed by coming out and attacking despite being in their own end with just 19 seconds left. He knew the Raiders hadn’t even come close to stopping them in the entire first half and had earned his confidence to let them go make a play.

There are three things to really love about this play.

  1. The Raiders show a single high post safety look pre-snap, but rotate into Cover 2. This throw isn’t there if they’d stayed in a single high look so that means Tannehill quickly diagnosed the post-snap coverage rotation and knew exactly where to go with the ball.
  2. Anthony Firkser’s very subtle hand on the shoulder pad shove right around midfield to create a little extra separation.
  3. The inch-perfect throw from Tannehill. It’s got the touch to drop in over the linebacker right into Firkser’s arms without him having to change course or change speeds.
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More good stuff from Blasingame who has been very impressive since being plucked off the Vikings practice squad during the bye week. Tannehill hits him in the flat off a little play action boot look. The throw isn’t difficult by any means, but again, the ball placement is ideal, allowing Blasingame to turn the corner and turn a short gain into a long one with his athleticism. He’s been fantastic and I suspect that his role in the offense is going to continue to grow.

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Here is another seam route, this time to blocking tight end MyCole Pruitt. You can very clearly see the influence that Henry carries. The play fake pulls the defender responsible for Pruitt out wide — trying to cut off a potential edge threat from the big running back — and allows the tight end to get a step on him. Tannehill’s throw is perfect again, hitting Pruitt in stride and setting him up to succeed after the catch.

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Here is the wheel route to Jonnu Smith. The Titans got pretty creative with the play action looks in this game. This is another wrinkle off a common pass concept in Arthur Smith’s playbook. It initially looks like an outside zone run before it appears to be a bootleg flood concept going the other way, but Jonnu Smith is faking a zone block and then wheeling off the fake block to head towards the end zone. Tannehill puts it up for him and let’s his tight end go get it for another touchdown.

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The Titans run game continues to click

The offensive line had a really nice game and helped Henry break 100-yards on the ground for the 4th straight game. They got started with the very first run of the game when Rodger Saffold blew up Will Compton to open up a big cutback lane for Henry.

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More good stuff from Saffold who continues to really come on late in the year. He gets great push on this run, pushing the nose tackle all the way down the line of scrimmage.

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Sometimes throwing a great block is less about making a bit impact and moving bodies than it is about creating angles. Here, Corey Davis’ block down gets just enough of the defender to get Henry into the second level and let him do the rest.

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Henry’s has become really good at finding small cracks in the defensive front and sliding through, especially for a guy his size. Here, he works off a nice combo block from Nate Davis and Jack Conklin, runs through some arm tackle attempts, and fights his way into the end zone.

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Here’s another example of finding a small gap and exploiting it. Henry gets a really nice combination block from Saffold and Lewan — who both continue to dominate on that left side — and slithers through. Once in the second level though, you can see the effect of the hamstring issue that Henry has been dealing with. A fully healthy Henry puts his foot in the ground and hits the turbo boosters as soon as he clears the hole, but here, he takes it easy, eventually picking up 24.

Maybe it was just him being cautious with the Titans in front late and a big game looming the next week, but Henry not having that extra gear in the open field would hurt this offense. Not as much as not having their big back at all, but it would hurt them nonetheless.

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It will be very interesting to see how Henry looks against the Texans on Sunday. After missing practice all week, he still claims that he’s going to play and is listed on the injury report as questionable. My guess is that he goes, but I wouldn’t expect him to be 100%. That might mean a little more Dion Lewis than we’ve seen over the last few weeks, but that’s OK if it means they can get Henry through the game and into a better place physically moving forward. As important as this game is, Week 17’s rematch looms likely to be just as critical, and of course, if the Titans do qualify for the playoffs, having a healthy Henry would be a key element to any potential run.

A.J. Brown is a budding star at wide receiver

A.J. Brown hauled in 5 catches for 153 yards and 2 touchdowns in this game, his third 100-yard game of the season, a Titans franchise record for rookies.

He also added another 13 yards rushing on this jet sweep early in the game. This is another look designed to take advantage of defenses focusing so much attention on stopping Henry. The Titans leave the end unblocked, counting on him to crash down towards the run action to Henry and he happily obliges. That gives Brown the corner with Pruitt, Lewan, and Tajae Sharpe all picking up blocks downfield for a nice gain.

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The Titans passing game really feasted on a suspect Raiders secondary all game. Here, they run a little hi-lo concept designed to put the Mike linebacker into conflict in Cover 2. He has to decide whether to drop and run with Brown’s over route or pinch down on Jonnu Smith’s stop route. He ends up trying to split the difference which leaves both guys open and Tannehill makes him pay with a strike to Brown.

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The 91-yard touchdown was a work of art on multiple fronts. First, the call itself works against expectations for a team that runs the ball well and is backed up inside their own 10. The play fake, as a result, draws a bunch of attention towards the right side of the field and just Brown, corner Daryl Worley, and safety Erik Harris on outside the left hash.

Brown makes quick work of Worley with a good release and then a swipe with his left hand to keep the corner’s hands off him as he goes vertical. Harris bites on the run fake initially and then appears to be expecting the crosser from Brown — the crosser has been Brown’s go to route in this offense for most of the season, particularly off of play action — and he squats low trying to put himself in position to make a play on it. By the time he realizes that Brown is running the post, it’s too late.

The throw from Tannehill is absolutely perfect as well. He steps into the throw in the face of pressure and hits Brown in stride while taking a hit.

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Here is an example of Brown actually running a crosser. Again, the hard bite on play action leaves the Raiders out of position and gives Brown plenty of room to operate in the middle of the field.

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Brown’s second touchdown came on 3rd and 13 after the Titans had a touchdown pass to Firkser taken off the board due to a holding penalty on Nate Davis. Knowing they’re likely to see off coverage due to the down and distance, the Titans run Brown on a quick slant under an out and up from Corey Davis that effectively acts as a screen to give Brown space underneath. From there it’s all about the rookie’s ability to make people miss after the catch.

Brown ranks 2nd in the NFL in missed tackles forced after the catch (14) behind just Chris Godwin (16) who has more than twice as many receptions. At 6’-0” and 226 pounds he really is like a running back once he gets his hands on the ball and the Titans offense has done an outstanding job recently of scheming opportunities for him to catch passes running into space.

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Here’s another example. Brown runs a simple under route with the help of a vertical route clearing space by Corey Davis. Tannehill hits him with an easy throw and lets his playmaker pick up the first down.

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Brown’s impact on the Titans offense can’t be overstated. He’s truly a do-it-all receiver combining elite run after catch ability with speed, ball tracking, and route running to create a nightmare for opposing defenses. Tennessee’s simple balance between Henry’s run threat and Brown’s penchant for burning defenses on intermediate crossing routes are the central theme of this offense. Those two threats complement each other perfectly. If linebackers bite on the run, the Titans hit Brown in the space the linebackers vacated. If they don’t commit to playing the run aggressively, Henry and the offensive line will gash them for big gains on the ground.

The Titans offense has now put up 150 points in their last four games, but what it does in the next three games will define the season. Will this be a fun, but ultimately not good enough season? Or will the 2019 Titans join the ranks of some of the best teams in franchise history by finishing strong and bringing home the first AFC South title since 2008? However this thing ends, this team has some offensive pieces to really be excited about moving forward.