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.
No one said it would be easy.
This was the Patriots, in Foxborough, with Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and the best defense in the NFL. The entire league was 3-20 in this situation since 2001 heading into this game. The Colts, with Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck, couldn’t get the job done in four tries.
Say what you want about the 2019 version of the Patriots and their shortcomings, but this was still Brady, it was still Belichick, and it was still a 12-4 team that finished the season with the second best point differential in the NFL. This was a massive accomplishment for the Titans as a franchise and it was a great way to kick off the 2020s.
We will get to the outstanding performance from the Tennessee defense in the next couple days, but today we are going to look at the Titans offense and how they responded to a unique approach from a very well-coached and talented Patriots defense.
The final results here are fascinating on their own. The Titans didn’t pile up a ton of yards — they finished with just 292 total yards, the second lowest of the “Tannehill era” — and the chunk plays that we have come to expect from this offense weren’t there. Tennessee only had seven plays go for more than 10 yards in this game, with the longest being a 29 yard run by Derrick Henry.
However, from a success rate standpoint, they were excellent. A “success” is defined as picking up at least 40% of the yards to gain on first down, 60% on second down, and 100% on third down. For example, if it’s 1st and 10, a gain of 4 yards or more would be marked as a successful play. If it’s 2nd and 10, you’d need 6 yards. The Titans were successful on 54% of their total offensive snaps, the second best rate among the eight teams that played on wildcard weekend. That success rate would have been tops in the NFL compared to the best season long marks.
Football Outsiders DVOA metric — you can read more about what it is here — also rated the Titans as having the second best offensive performance of the weekend.
That being said... at the end of the day, the Titans offense only produced 14 points in this game. That’s not terrible considering the opponent — only five teams scored more than 14 against New England in 2019 — but it’s also not a particularly stellar outing for a Tennessee offense that was red hot coming into this game.
So let’s dig into the Titans offensive performance and how the Patriots chose to defend the Tennessee attack.
What happened to the Titans passing attack?
Ryan Tannehill’s final stat line — 8 of 15 for 72 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception — was obviously not great, but the performance overall wasn’t as bad as those numbers make it look.
Things started out pretty well for Tannehill early. He went 3 for 4 for 27 yards and a touchdown on the opening drive. The throw to Firkser for the score was one of his very best.
It’s 3rd and 10 just outside the Patriots 10-yard line and Arthur Smith dials up four verticals. Pre-snap, Tajae Sharpe motions across the formation and Jonathan Jones follows him, giving Tannehill a hint that this is likely man coverage. Based on the alignment of the defensive backs, he knows that there are two “free” defenders off the line of scrimmage that could drop into coverage or blitz. Safeties Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon both come on the blitz which tells Tannehill immediately that he’s got a zero blitz coming with straight up man-to-man coverage in the secondary, no robbers to worry about.
The bunch formation with a switch release between Corey Davis and Anthony Firkser means that Firkser gets a free run at backup safety Terrence Brooks who had just entered the game for an injured Patrick Chung. Brooks has no choice but to play off and try to mirror Firkser at the top of his route. Firkser bends his route out just a bit to give his quarterback some extra room and then snaps his break as soon as Brooks opens his hips to the sidelines.
After getting some help from a very nice blitz pickup from Dion Lewis, Tannehill does an outstanding job of standing in with a free rusher coming into his lap and delivering a perfect ball for his tight end to snag for the touchdown. Beautiful design, recognition, and execution all around.
The Titans had several near misses in the passing game Saturday night. You don’t get extra points for almost making plays, but I think it’s at least somewhat encouraging that they weren’t just completely lost in this part of the game.
The first thing I want you to notice about this next clip is the positioning of the Patriots safeties pre-snap. New England sat in a two-high safety look for the majority of this game, a rare approach for Titans opponents because it prevents the defense from being able to get an extra defender in the box to stop the run.
Belichick is well known for taking away what he perceives to be his opponent’s biggest offensive threat. Well, based on how he played the Titans offense, he viewed the biggest threat as A.J. Brown and the play action passing game... not Derrick Henry.
The play design here should be familiar at this point. The Titans have run this play action tunnel screen to Brown several times this season, usually with great results. Arthur Smith’s design works here — he gets Brown with the ball one-on-one against Stephon Gilmore — but the rookie doesn’t break the tackle and gets stopped for just 4 yards. Most of the time this is a 10 to 15 yard pickup, but Gilmore is a great player who makes a great play here.
After a Henry run for 4 yards, the Titans faced 3rd and 3 on this snap. The Patriots do some pretty nifty rotation of coverage here, but Tannehill finds Tajae Sharpe in a hole between zones. Corey Davis is also open, but Sharpe is free enough that I have no issue with Tannehill taking the shorter throw here. The Titans catch a bad break as former Vanderbilt star Adam Butler gets his hands up in the throwing lane and bats the pass down to force a punt.
A 2nd and 9 snap on the next drive shows where the Titans miss Adam Humphries a little bit. Tennessee spreads New England out with 11-personnel and the Patriots rotate down from a two high safety look to man-free with a blitz. Tannehill tries to fit the ball in to Tajae Sharpe, but the lack of separation allows Jonathan Jones to make a great play to break the pass up. Humphries is a tougher cover in the slot thanks to his short area quickness and he’s particular good on these pivot routes like Sharpe runs here.
Here’s an example of Stephon Gilmore being in Tannehill’s head a little bit. This is great design from Arthur Smith. It’s a familiar concept for Titans fans — Yankee, which you can read more about here — but he gets to it from an unconventional alignment.
Tennessee motions Corey Davis in tight to the formation, setting him in a spot that you would usually expect to see an H-back. This is something they do from time to time on run calls due to Davis’ prowess as a blocker and that’s exactly what Smith wants New England to think. They run play action and have Jonnu Smith sneak out from an inline tight end position to run the crosser while A.J. Brown runs the deep post from the opposite side.
The Titans get the single high safety look that they want against this combination, but when the safety drops down to cut Smith’s crosser, leaving Gilmore one-on-one with Brown deep, Tannehill hesitates to pull the trigger and ends up effectively throwing the ball away out of bounds to avoid the sack.
Against pretty much any other corner, Tannehill cuts loose the bomb to Brown and doesn’t think twice about it, but with a Defensive Player of the Year candidate back there, he chooses to play it safe. Personally, I would have rather seen him test Gilmore here. Brown is a monster at the catch point and the worst case scenario here is an interception that puts the Patriots back at their own goal line.
Ultimately, it worked out fine for the Titans as Derrick Henry would end up scoring the go ahead touchdown just five plays later, but I don’t think you’ll see Tannehill pass this kind of opportunity up again moving forward.
There are times when a play doesn’t work and you simply have to tip your cap to the other team. That’s the case on this 1st and 10 snap. The Patriots are sitting back with two deep safeties pre-snap (again), but rotate into some form of Cover 3.
Tannehill turns around after the play fake and is immediately locked in on Davis, who is running a deep comeback. The only problem is that Davis’ route is clearly going to take him right back into cornerback J.C. Jackson who is playing with outside leverage. Brown is running a post on the backside and has some space, but with a deep post safety reading Tannehill’s eyes and pressure beginning to bear down, the quarterback chooses to check it down and keep the team away from a sack or interception.
It seems pretty likely that the Titans were expecting — or hoping for — a different coverage look than the one they got here. Sometimes the defense ends up in the right call for the play you have dialed up and I think that was likely the case here.
Another near miss. This time there is no confusion. Tannehill picks up yet another post-snap rotation by the Pats secondary and finds Firkser on the deep corner route. It’s a perfect throw, but this time Brooks is able to make a play to break up the 3rd and 8 attempt.
The closer replay shows that Brooks broke up this pass by grabbing Firkser’s right arm and holding it down to prevent him from making the catch. This is pass interference, but given the way referees have dealt with PI reviews this season, there was almost zero chance this would have gotten overturned on the challenge. Tough break for the Titans.
The lone sack allowed in this game was a case of unfortunate timing. The Titans were in a max protect look with just Davis and Brown running long developing routes downfield. Tannehill is looking to go to Davis working against J.C. Jackson instead of trying Brown against Gilmore (the Titans clearly had very little interest in challenging Gilmore throughout this game). Davis absolutely roasts Jackson on a route that gets sold as an out-and-up before converting to a deep comeback.
Unfortunately, the protection breaks down and Tannehill doesn’t have time to deliver the throw here. Two players miss their blocks on the edge. The first is tight end Jonnu Smith who is matched up with John Simon. He’s got MyCole Pruitt’s help to the inside so he really has no business getting beat outside like this on the pass rush. If you look closely, it looks like he might have gotten his foot tangled up with Pruitt’s.
On the other side Jack Conklin gets beat by a great spin move from Kyle Van Noy after the Titans right tackle thwarted his quick attempt at an inside move at the snap.
Van Noy and Simon meet at Tannehill and Van Noy is able to rake the ball free. Luckily for Tennessee, Tannehill manages to recover and avoid disaster.
A lot of these max protect, long developing route concepts have been among the Titans most successful plays this season, but when the protection breaks down on one of these, you’re putting the quarterback in an impossible spot. Better blocking and this is an easy 15 to 20 yard pickup for Davis.
The sack above leads to a 3rd and 11 situation and this play shows the level of respect that the Patriots had for A.J. Brown in this game. They drop a safety down to bracket Brown in coverage, leaving one single high safety with man coverage everywhere else.
Tannehill chooses to attack with a deep shot to Corey Davis matched up against J.C. Jackson. The throw is absolutely perfect, but the coverage is really great too and Jackson ends up fighting through Davis’ hands just enough to knock it away late.
This shot shows just how close this was to being a big play. Davis actually does an excellent job of winning the hand-fight with Jackson and climbing on top of the defender. Jackson is just able to get that left hand in and get enough of the ball to jar it loose from Davis’ grip. It would have been a phenomenal catch if he’d been able to hang on.
While we’re here, Jackson is one of the more underrated cover men in the NFL. Gilmore gets all the pub, but Jackson’s numbers have actually been even more ridiculous than his All-Pro counterpart. According to PFF charting, he’s allowed just 31 completions on 63 targets into his coverage (49.2%) for 328 yards (5.2 YPA), 1 touchdown, and 5 interceptions for a passer rating allowed of just 37.0, the lowest mark in the entire NFL. Another undrafted gem that the Patriots have found at cornerback.
Now let’s take a look at that terrible interception. It was 2nd and 10 and this was the first play of the 4th quarter with the Titans still clinging to a 14-13 lead. The Titans are running a play that they’ve had a lot of success with in recent weeks. It’s a play action Smash-7 look that they’ve got set with Jonnu Smith split out wide right and Corey Davis running the “7” route from the slot.
Recently, the Titans have found success hitting the crosser from the backside of this concept — in this case A.J. Brown — thanks to over-pursuit of the run fake by the defense. Outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy does an excellent job of staying home here and that really is the first thing that blows this play up for the Titans. He does not crash down the line of scrimmage in pursuit of Henry. Instead, he stays home and triggers right into Tannehill’s face as soon as he sees the quarterback pull the ball back from his running back’s belly.
If Van Noy doesn’t stay disciplined and allows Tannehill to gain the edge, the quarterback likely would have found Brown streaking wide open into space, and we know how that usually ends.
I honestly can’t tell if Tannehill meant to actually throw this ball away and just didn’t get enough on it or if he was trying to throw it up to let Davis go make a play. Either way, it was an ill-advised risk given the game situation and the numbers disadvantage his receiver was up against with both Jackson and Harmon in the area.
The Titans quarterback would make up for it — at least partially — with a pair of big 3rd down conversions later in the game though. This one — a 3rd and 5 with 11:29 remaining — once again saw the Patriots bracketing Brown and choosing to play man-free elsewhere. With tight coverage downfield, Tannehill does an excellent job of moving within the pocket and then finding Dion Lewis releasing late into the flat for the first down. This is just an 8 yard completion, but it’s a pretty big deal as the Titans would ultimately eat another six minutes of clock on this drive as well as completely flipping field position.
Finally, we have Tannehill’s final pass attempt of the game and it was another huge one. It’s 3rd and 8 with the Titans at their own 15 yard line with 2:54 remaining and New England still has two timeouts left. Punting back to the Patriots in this spot would have been big, big trouble.
Arthur Smith dials up a perfect play call here. The Patriots go with man coverage underneath with two safeties set deep. The Titans come out with 11-personnel and trips left with Davis, Firkser, and Sharpe split out from the sidelines in. This is a clear out for Firkser all the way with Davis and Sharpe both taking their defenders inside and out of the picture for Firkser’s deep out.
Firkser beats Brooks again — as he did on the touchdown — and Tannehill puts a perfect pass on him to pick up the huge conversion, allowing the Titans to take the clock all the way down to 25 seconds, force the Patriots to use their final two timeouts, and push the ball out to midfield for Brett Kern’s fantastic punt that effectively sealed the game for Tennessee.
It wasn’t a banner day for the Titans passing offense, but the tape is far kinder to Tannehill than the box score was. The Patriots clearly came into this matchup with an intentional focus on taking away Tennessee’s red hot play action passing game, particularly A.J. Brown. Arthur Smith took what New England gave him and that was Derrick Henry and the rushing attack.
The interception was terrible from Tannehill and his dropped snap on a 3rd down on the edge of field goal range was bad too, but I didn’t have a big problem with the rest of his snaps. In fact, I thought he was really very accurate on the few attempts that he did get.
The offensive line and Derrick Henry dominated on the ground
With the Patriots focusing on the play action passing attack throughout the game, that left the Titans running game to run wild and they did just that to the tune of 201 yards on 40 carries.
Here, you can see some of the looks that enticed the Titans to continue pounding the ball on the ground in this game. Tennessee has 13-personnel in the game here with tight end Jonnu Smith lined up tight to the left tackle and tight ends MyCole Pruitt and Anthony Firkser tight to right tackle. That’s 8 blockers for the Titans. The Patriots align in a straight 3-4 up front with both safeties back. Only 7 defenders in the box.
That’s the NFL equivalent of begging for an offense to run the football and the Titans did just that. Nate Davis, Ben Jones, and Rodger Saffold all get good blocks here, as does Taylor Lewan, and Henry follows them for a relatively easy 8 yard gain.
Here’s another 7-man box from New England, and once again, the Titans run outside zone right at it. Taylor Lewan bullies defensive end Deatrich Wise 10 yards downfield and Henry makes linebacker Elandon Roberts miss in the hole for a 10 yard gain.
The Titans ground game is outside zone based, but they’ll mix in some inside zone as well as some gap concepts. This is an inside zone look and you can see some of the combination blocks that this Tennessee offensive line has started to get clicking over the back half of the season. Nate Davis and Jack Conklin execute a perfect combo on Wise and Roberts while Ben Jones and Rodger Saffold double Danny Shelton before Jones scrapes off to pick up Dont’a Hightower. Henry reads it all perfectly and weaves through for 7 on 2nd and 6.
This might be the Titans block of the year here. Watch Rodger Saffold absolutely obliterate linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley here. There are also a few other great blocks here. Ben Jones executes a fantastic reach block on Lawrence Guy while Jonnu Smith, MyCole Pruitt, and Taylor Lewan all put their guys on the ground. If Nate Davis doesn’t trip over Tannehill’s foot as he tries to engage Danny Shelton, this run might have gone the distance. Absolutely dominant blocking on the left side by the Titans.
Henry’s longest run of the game was this 29-yarder off an excellent reach block from Nate Davis and a nice seal from Jack Conklin and MyCole Pruitt. The blocking is good here, but watch Henry’s feet on this run. He gallops through the hole to keep his feet clear of Davis and Pruitt, but still manages to make J.C. Jackson completely whiff on his tackle attempt.
Henry is excellent when it comes to making guys miss who try to tackle his legs. It makes sense to some degree. Henry has always been much, much bigger and stronger than opponents so he’s got over 20 years worth of experience with players trying to tackle him low and has obviously developed some instincts for how to deal with that approach.
More mauling by the Titans offensive line here. This time the Patriots actually do walk up an 8th defender in the box, but it doesn’t matter because of the work by the big boys up front. Taylor Lewan crushes Hightower, Jones helps Saffold pancake Lawrence Guy, and Davis shows off some athleticism as he climbs to block Jamie Collins on the second level. Just look at the size of the pocket that is created between Jones and Davis here. Henry, again, makes the right read and finishes with power.
Henry and the offensive line were also responsible for the longest pass play of the game for Tennessee. Another familiar design, this play action throwback screen has been a staple of the Titans offense all season. Henry scored on this play from 75 yards in Week 1 and it’s been used once or twice a game since.
This one is set up well as the safeties and linebackers quickly retreat downfield after seeing that it’s a play fake. That gives the offensive line space to get angles and build a wall down the left sideline. Henry gets a great block from Saffold on the edge that eliminates two Pats defenders and then gets really nice work from Jones and Smith downfield, taking the screen all the way down to the 1 yard line and setting up his touchdown plunge on the next play. A 75-yard touchdown drive in the two-minute drill with all 75 yards coming from the running back is pretty amazing.
Here’s more of the same from the run game. Again, the Patriots are playing with two high safeties and daring the Titans to run the football. Tennessee obliges and the offensive line creates plenty of room for Henry to get up to speed.
I wanted to clip this play from the sideline angle instead of the end zone for a couple reasons. One is that you can see the push that the offensive line gets here. The entire line of scrimmage shifts at the snap of the ball, particularly behind Saffold who bullies Hightower at the point of attack.
The other reason is that you can see Henry’s acceleration towards the line as he turns it up field. When given a head of steam like this he’s a monster to deal with.
Finally, we’ll end this section with some great individual effort from Henry. This play came as the Titans were trying to chew some clock in the 4th quarter. Danny Shelton actually does a great job of defeating the block from Nate Davis — helped by a crashing defensive end who picked off the right guard — but Henry makes a great lateral cut to bounce it outside and then just steamrolls J.C. Jackson on the edge for a gain of 15 and a new set of downs.
The Mariota Package
The Titans have used Marcus Mariota in a couple packaged plays in the last couple weeks and that seems to be something they might build on as we continue into the playoffs. Against the Texans, Mariota had two snaps, handing the ball off once and then throwing this play action crosser to A.J. Brown. This is not an RPO — look at the offensive line, they’re clearly pass blocking here — it’s just a straight play action pass.
In the Patriots game, Arthur Smith got a little more exotic with this package. The Titans came out in a full house backfield look with Mariota in the pistol, Dion Lewis as the tailback, and tight ends Jonnu Smith and MyCole Pruitt flanking him on either side. Mariota fakes the dive to Lewis and then pulls it to boot out left where both Smith and Pruitt have leaked out into routes. Pruitt has a flat route while Smith has released vertically up the seam. The Patriots only have one linebacker to defend the two tight ends, but because of the direction of the boot and the pressure coming from Van Noy, who didn’t fully bite on the play fake, Mariota really can’t get the ball to Smith despite the fact that Smith is wide open. He ends up hitting Pruitt in the flat for a short gain instead.
I’d like to see this play flipped, with Mariota rolling right and putting him in a more natural throwing position to hit Smith up the seam, but it’s a nice concept and there are a lot of wrinkles the Titans could throw at teams from these packages.
It will be interesting to see if we get another Mariota play or two against Baltimore on Saturday night.
The Patriots strategy for stopping the Titans offense was unique. Few teams have left a 7-man box for Derrick Henry to feast on as often as New England did. Given how the game played out, I wonder if we won’t see that approach more often moving forward though. Yes, Henry mauled them up front, but Tennessee only averaged 4.8 yards per play, the 6th lowest total of the 2019 season and the first sub-5.0 performance since Week 8. They also produced just 14 points on offense, the lowest total since being shut out by the Broncos in Week 6, prior to Tannehill’s insertion in the starting lineup.
It’s fair to point out that not every team will be able to cover like New England does with their elite secondary, but the Titans offense truly thrives when they can get you off balance, mixing both Henry and the play action passing game with Brown and Davis and Smith getting the ball in open space with room to work after the catch. If you have to take away one threat, taking away the explosive passing game that averaged 9.6 yards per attempt after Tannehill took over seems like the right choice to me.
So will the Ravens follow that blueprint or will they commit extra defenders to the box to stop the Titans big running back? That will be a fascinating story line to follow Saturday night.