There are very few nits to pick with the Titans offensive performance on Tuesday night. Tennessee had nine total possessions and turned six of them into touchdowns. The other three ended in punts that gave the Bills the ball inside their own 10-yard line.
Yes, the offense got short fields to work with frequently thanks to three turnovers and one long punt return by Kalif Raymond, but they cashed all four of those opportunities in for six, returning to their ruthlessly efficient red zone ways after a rare off game in Minnesota.
Those short fields — and the low number of total drives — reduced some of the offensive output from a yardage standpoint, but you can only gain the yards that are between you and the end zone, and at the end of the day, the game is about scoring points, not gaining yards.
Sure, you’d like to see Derrick Henry break loose — he finished with 57 yards on 19 carries — but as we’ve discussed in this space many times now… the Titans would love for teams to stack the box against Henry every game and leave the middle of the field wide open for Ryan Tannehill to pick them apart with crossers.
I fully believe the explosive runs will come. In his career, Derrick Henry has 114 runs of 10 or more yards. Here is the breakdown of those runs by month:
- September: 25 (9.2% of carries)
- October: 17 (8.8% of carries)
- November: 26 (17.9% of carries)
- December: 44 (15.7% of carries)
- January: 2 (13.3% of carries)
This isn’t an accident or coincidence. As the year wears on and the toll of a 16-game NFL season taxes the legs of defenses, the Titans preferred outside zone scheme gets more effective. Backside defenders are a step slower in pursuit and those cutback lanes that were filled in September and narrow in October become wider in the colder months.
So we should have patience with Derrick Henry and the Titans rushing attack for the next few games. Their time to shine is coming and there is no reason — based on both the tape and history — not to expect the chunk plays to take off during the stretch run.
In the meantime, Henry’s reputation and stature in the league continues to alter game plans and give the Titans opportunities to flex their fantastic play action passing attack. Below, we’ll get into some of the plays that made Tuesday night so successful for the Tennessee offense as well as some of the missed opportunities.
Titans pass protection continues to shine
Through four games in 2020, the Titans have given up just 3 sacks. Through the first four games of last season, they had allowed 17. Obviously, there are a lot of different circumstances when you compare the two seasons.
First, Taylor Lewan was suspended for the first four games in 2019, leaving Dennis Kelly to man the left tackle spot. Kelly is playing this year as well, but at right tackle, a spot that he’s always been better suited towards.
And yes, there is a significant difference when asking a player who primarily plays on one side of the line to switch to the opposite end. The best way I’ve heard it described is to think about how you eat steak. Unless you’re a psychopath, you probably use the same hand to work the knife each time. Imagine trying to cut your steak with your opposite hand. You could probably do it, but it wouldn’t be nearly as efficient. Now imagine trying to cut your steak with your opposite hand while Myles Garrett is charging towards you… okay, so the analogy kind of breaks down there, but you get the point.
The Titans also started Jamil Douglas at right guard for the first three games before beginning to work in Nate Davis in Week 4. At left guard, Rodger Saffold struggled as he adapted to the Titans offense and playing between Kelly and center Ben Jones for the first time.
You also had Marcus Mariota behind center. We don’t have to relitigate that entire discussion, but Mariota often brought sacks upon himself by being tentative and hesitant to deliver the ball. He was also — despite his incredible athleticism — terrible at escaping sacks in the pocket.
In 2020, the Titans have a more settled offensive line with returning starters at four of the five spots and the lone “newcomer” to the lineup being Kelly, who is now the starter at right tackle, his more natural position. Davis’ rookie growing pains are behind him and Saffold is back to playing at the borderline Pro Bowl level that the team expected when they paid him big money in the 2019 offseason.
Additionally, Ryan Tannehill — who, like Mariota, has had problems with taking too many sacks for most of his career — is showing great improvement in his pocket awareness and knowing where he can dump the ball safely when pressure arrives and he doesn’t have options downfield.
He’s also getting the ball out of his hands quicker, averaging 2.49 seconds from snap to throw in 2020 according to PFF data compared 2.76 seconds in 2019. That may not sound like a big difference, but it moves Tannehill from the 2nd slowest average time to attempt last season to the 12th fastest in the league this year.
But the stats can only show us so much, so let’s take a look at some specific pass protection scenarios from Tuesday night and how the Titans were able to keep Ryan Tannehill clean.
We start with a first-down play action call that results in the Titans pass protection having to adjust on the fly and in unison.
They open in 12-personnel with Jonnu Smith split out in the slot to the bottom of the formation. The Bills counter with a “big nickel” package that features three safeties — the two deep of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer and third safety Dean Marlowe who starts out lined up over Smith in the slot.
Based on alignment, this coverage could be a few things, but the guess would be some sort of man coverage.