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Ryan Tannehill’s impact on the Titans playoff run can’t be measured in passing yards

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If you only started paying attention to the Titans in the playoffs, you’re likely missing the story on Ryan Tannehill.

Divisional Round - Tennessee Titans v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Ryan Tannehill is the first NFL quarterback to throw for less than 100 yards in consecutive playoff wins since Terry Bradshaw in 1974.”

How many times have you heard that stat recited this week? If you’re like me, you’re probably getting sick of hearing about it. Don’t get me wrong... it’s an interesting stat, but it’s generally used as a platform for various talking heads who just learned that the Titans existed two weeks ago to spout off about how the Titans are one-dimensional and can’t win without a ridiculous performance from rushing champ Derrick Henry.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Yes, Henry has been the centerpiece of the Titans offense in these playoff wins, but the extreme run-pass ratios in New England and Baltimore do not reflect the offense that Tennessee used to climb out of their 2-4 grave and qualify for postseason football.

The absurd 71:29 run-pass mix that Arthur Smith has dialed up in the playoffs is more a function of how the Patriots chose to defend the Titans offense and the flow of the game against the Ravens. New England sat in a two-high safety look all game with the intent of taking away the Titans explosive play action passing game. Bill Belichick dared the Tennessee offense to stay patient with the run and they did.

The Ravens game was a bit different. The Titans came out balanced in the first half with exactly 12 run calls and exactly 12 pass calls. Playing the entire second half with the lead — most of it with a multiple score lead — Tennessee took the air out of the ball and leaned on Henry, throwing just four times in the second half.

So, yes, the Titans have leaned on the run game and their dominant running back over the last two weeks, but mistaking them for a team that is doing so because they can’t pass is a mistake. If you haven’t been paying attention to this team until two weeks ago — looking at you national media and Chiefs fans — you might have missed what Tannehill did after taking over the starting gig in Week 7, so here’s a refresher:

  • Led the NFL in passer rating (117.5) and yards per attempt (9.6)
  • His yards per attempt were a full yard better than the next closest quarterback
  • He became just the third quarterback in NFL history to complete over 70% of his passes and average over 9 yards per attempt, joining Sammy Baugh and Joe Montana
  • His stats during his ten starts — excluding his second half work against the Broncos — 188 of 270 for 2,598 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions projects to a 16-game pace of 301 for 432 for 4,157 yards, 35 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions
  • He also added another 4 rushing touchdowns in his ten starts
  • His 26 combined passing and rushing touchdowns were outpaced by just Lamar Jackson’s 30 from Week 7 through Week 17
  • He’s turned the Titans into the NFL’s best red zone offense, scoring touchdowns on an incredible 31 of 35 (88.6%) trips inside the 20 yard line — Green Bay, the league’s second best red zone offense in 2019, has scored touchdowns on 66.0% of their trips (Tennessee scored on 61.5% of their red zone trips prior to Tannehill’s insertion in the lineup)

The Titans are sitting at home watching these playoffs, if not for Tannehill. Instead, they’ve gone on the road and left a dynasty and the NFL’s best regular season team to pick up the pieces of their championship dreams behind them.

Tannehill was rarely asked to be a volume passer — the former Dolphin attempted more than 30 passes just three times in his twelve starts including the postseason — but he’s consistently made the most of what he’s been asked to do as the stats above make clear. While the two playoff starts have been his two lowest volume games of the season, he’s continued to play good football, especially in big spots.

NFL Game Pass

While he’s accumulated just 72 yards and 88 yards, respectively, against the Patriots and Ravens, he’s also either thrown or run for four of the Titans six offensive touchdowns in those two games.

Tannehill’s impact isn’t limited to what can be measured by passing stats though. He’s also responsible for making checks and getting the Titans in the right play at the line of scrimmage, as most quarterbacks are. You’ll frequently see him at the line of scrimmage changing the call — or the direction of the run — based on the defensive alignment. The vast majority of those checks in the past two weeks have been to run plays.

NFL Game Pass

Those adjustments don’t go down in the box score anywhere, but they contribute to making this Titans rushing attack hum. This isn’t unique to Tannehill by any means, but it’s worth bringing up in an era where box score scouting seems to be the standard for some big media personalities.

Tannehill has also emerged as a leader on this offense. After taking over the starting job, he firmly asserted himself and his expectations for the offense, as this piece from John Glennon of The Athletic described well.

“I like how (Tannehill) tells us what he wants,” Brown said. “He’s a general. He demands stuff, and if you’re not there, he’s not going to throw you the ball. But you do what you’re told, you get rewarded.”

Added tight end Jonnu Smith: “He tells us where he wants to be, tells us to just always make sure we’re all on the same page. If anything seems gray, we’re going to get it fixed. He’s just very vocal, in the meetings and on the field.”

Tannehill’s demeanor and performance since taking over as the Titans starter brings a certain level of confidence to the Tennessee offense. Whether the quarterback is passing for 72 yards or 472 yards, the most important thing is that the offense is executing and can count on him to convert those tough third and long situations, protect the ball, and get it in the end zone when the chances present themselves. That’s exactly what Tannehill has done the last two games.

The Titans still have yet to be held under 20 points since Tannehill took the controls and averaged 30.4 points per game over the final ten weeks of the regular season. The high flying Chiefs that nobody thinks Tennessee can keep up with? They averaged 27.9 over that same stretch.

For all the improvement of the Chiefs defense over the back half of the 2019 season, they don’t have the secondary that the Patriots and Ravens had. If they choose to focus on shutting down Derrick Henry and dare Ryan Tannehill to win the game for Tennessee, they may be surprised by the result, but I won’t be.