If you had to put blame for the Titans loss to the New York Jets on one unit, it would probably be the defense. The Jets offense scored more touchdowns against the Titans (3) than they had in all three weeks prior combined (2). Still, if you read these very often last year, it should come as no surprise that I have no faith in this defensive staff, even with clearly better talent. And, beyond that point, offense is what matters in this league.
Four weeks into the season, here’s how the offense stacks up compared to 2020.
|2020 Rank||2021 Rank|
|Points per Game||4th||16th|
|Passing Net Yards/Attempt||6th||27th|
So, while the defense remains an issue, it was also an issue all last year on the way to an 11-5 record. The reason for this is that the lifeblood of this team over the past two years has been the offense. And, if the team has any hope of getting on track, the offense is going to have to improve.
Play action passing was once the core of this offense
What really made this offense hum in 2020 was the nasty mix of being required to defend Derrick Henry downhill while at the same time not getting gashed by crossers over the middle. It was this simplicity that made Art Smith into the coach of the Atlanta Falcons. While there’s obviously more to it than that, his willingness to recognize this conflict and relentlessly attack it is one of the major things that made the offense what it was last year.
The real benefit of play action are these intermediate defenders. They have run and pass responsibilities, which puts them in constant conflict. However, the same is not true of perimeter and secondary defenders (with some exceptions like a box safety, cover 2 corner, or quarters safeties). Generally, these outside and deep players aren’t primary defenders in the run game.
So, for an offense like Tennessee’s (or most offenses, really), working the middle of the field off play action is where the meat of the throws should be. And, herein lies the problem. Overwhelmingly, the current Titans play action game is not working the middle of the field. It’s certainly not an offensive staple like it was last year; something that needs to change. Moreover, year over year play action passing is down in general. In 2020, 36% of Tannehill’s dropbacks were play action passes (1st in the league among qualifying passers). This year? 25%, good for 20th in the NFL.
Two plays above perfectly illustrate this. There’s no reinventing the wheel here, but what made the offense so special last year was the way the pass and run game were married together. Especially in the first throw above, note how the play action influences the linebacker just enough to open the window to the crosser. These type of bang play action throws became a calling card for Art Smith and this offense.
Play Action Passing in 2021
The play action game is still a part of the offense, but it is utilized in a fundamentally different way.
You’re getting a lot more things like the play above. The linebackers are influenced, but there’s no quick throw and nothing challenges the LB conflict.
They also ran this a couple of times against New York. Basically a levels/flood concept which creates hi-lo conflict on the flat defender (#30 here). Certainly nothing wrong with this play, and it has its place.
However, it can also get you this type of result as well when run as a boot leg (which is traditional out of this type of route structure). Thing is, with all of these, they are totally fine to be mixed in. But, the problem is there were only two play action passes the entire NYJ game with intermediate crossing routes out of a traditional dropback.
Here’s the first of them. This is the Art Smith special. Bang play action. A quick hitting slant immediately after the fake. Notice the influence on #44 and how it opens the window between him and the middle linebacker. An easy read for Tannehill, and a clean catch for the receiver.
Similar concept here. Again, notice the influence on the playside linebacker. That initial fake opens the window.
This has to happen more. Ryan Tannehill has proved to be a great passer since he’s left Miami. Given the tools to make quick, precise decisions inside of structure, he can perform among the best. But, anyone who’s honest about it should recognize that he’s likely not quite in that top tier that’s going to carry the team on his own in a traditional dropback passing game. None of this is a shot at Tannehill. Very few quarterbacks can carry a team without clear schematic assistance. And, even those that make it work tend to need to create additional plays out of structure to make up for it.
Certainly the offensive woes aren’t as simple as throwing the ball over the middle of play action. And, I don’t want to represent that it should be reduced to something so basic. The skill position players outside of running back need to get healthy and more stable. The pass protection must become more reliable and consistent against stunts and games up front. Still, I would argue that working more of this type of play action into the offense helps these issues to an extent.
The potential is there for Tennessee to be a high octane offense. However, this team needs to find that horsepower that carried the team last year. There’s more than one way to run an offense, but the results from 2020 suggest that way was superior. Perhaps a wholesale shift isn’t in order, but Todd Downing would be wise to look to last season for answers to his offensive woes.