This was both a tough and strange game for the Tennessee Titans offense. They set season lows in first downs (15), total yards (292), and rushing yards (82). Half their drives ended in three-and-outs.
The first half was particularly rough as Tennessee entered the break with just 81 total yards of offense from four drives and 75 of those yards came on a 12-play touchdown drive that benefited from a miraculous third down Adam Humphries catch and a Ryan Tannehill fumble they managed to fall on in the red zone.
However, another long A.J. Brown touchdown — his NFL-leading 6th score of at least 40 yards since the start of 2019 — breathed new life into the slumbering Tennessee offense. The Titans racked up 200 yards of offense over their final five drives of the game.
It was a strangely feast-or-famine performance from the offense when you look at the game as a whole. Tennessee produced drives of -6, 75, 5, 7, -6, 75, 6, -3, 70, and 52 yards in the game. Essentially, if they got one first down, they were rolling down the field from there.
Part of the problem with the famine drives was where they started. Three of the five three-and-out drives started inside the Titans own 20 yard line, which seemed to cause offensive coordinator Arthur Smith to go conservative with his playcalling to avoid a disastrous turnover against a hungry Pittsburgh pass rush.
It wasn’t a performance on the level of what we saw against the Texans a week ago, but considering the opponent, it was a solid B- type day for the Titans offense. They put up 24 points against one of the best defenses in the NFL and avoided turnovers.
I want to start our tape review at the end of the game though, taking a look at two key plays from that final series that ended with a missed Stephen Gostkowski kick.
Near misses on the final drive
After a 21-yard completion to A.J. Brown to convert a huge 3rd and 12 on the previous down, the Titans had a 1st and 10 at the Steelers 25-yard line with exactly 1:00 to go. Down 27-24, it certainly felt like Tennessee was going to get a chance to win this game and would very likely end up in overtime if they couldn’t get it done.
However, the next play completely changes the complexion of the final series. Pressure comes from the right side, forcing Ryan Tannehill to throw the ball away and take an intentional grounding. There is a lot to get into with this play, so let’s start with what the Titans wanted to do here.
Tannehill has a 9-route to A.J. Brown to his left and that’s really where he wants to go with this ball. Brown is matched up against Steelers cornerback Justin Layne, a depth player who had played just three defensive snaps heading into this game. This is a huge mismatch in Tennessee’s favor.
Tannehill looks there initially, but the safety lingers in the area and Layne does a good job of squeezing Brown inside so the quarterback moves on.
Tannehill then wants to work backside where he has double slants with Anthony Firkser and Corey Davis. Davis is open, but as Tannehill turns back to the right, he has a free rusher bearing down on him.
How did that rusher get free? The Steelers run an ET twist with T.J. Watt shooting inside the B gap while defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt loops around the outside.
Watt has spent much of the day beating Kelly on his inside hand — more on that later — so rather than passing Watt off to Nate Davis and picking up the looping Tuitt, Kelly panics a little bit and drives into Watt, ultimately knocking him down, but in the process he crashes into Davis, freeing Tuitt.
Here, you can see Tuitt has a wide open lane towards Tannehill and this is the moment that the quarterback has to make a decision. His feet are still pointed towards A.J. Brown, but you can see his eyes are in the process of working back towards the double slants. Firkser is well-covered and we know Davis is open, but Tannehill isn’t going to have time to get his feet around and make the accurate throw.
Let me also point to something that I found interesting here. Jeremy McNichols is supposed to chip T.J. Watt and then release downfield. As soon as he sees Watt head inside, he goes ahead and leaves the protection, which contributes to Tuitt being completely unobstructed (though McNichols likely isn’t doing a whole lot to slow down the 303-pound Tuitt even if he stays in).
I also wonder if McNichols doesn’t run the wrong route here. After looking to chip, he releases downfield (and gets blatantly held as the still shot below shows), but that puts four Titans pass catches all within about a 10-yard square. I have to think that McNichols was intended to release into the flat, pulling his defender out of the throwing lane to Firkser and Davis, and critically in this case, giving Tannehill a safe space not in the middle of the field to dump it in the event of pressure.
Tannehill eventually throws it away and takes the grounding penalty, which was better than taking a sack (the time that would have run off post-sack would have been far more than the 10-second runoff attached to the penalty) or throwing a blind ball into the middle of the field, but was still a killer result on 1st and 10. I have to think that if McNichols is in the flat, like he probably should have been, that this ball is thrown at his feet and the Titans have 2nd and 10 with 50 seconds remaining instead of 2nd and 20 with 40 seconds remaining.
After a 7-yard completion to Corey Davis that puts them back in field goal range, the Titans get one more shot at keeping their hopes of winning the game in regulation alive. They decide to take a shot at the end zone, running a four verticals concept and giving Tannehill a chance to shop matchups at the line of scrimmage.
You can see below that Pittsburgh is giving a healthy amount of respect to A.J. Brown as the corner is giving a big cushion. That pushes Tannehill to look at Corey Davis (at the top of the screen) versus veteran corner Joe Haden.
The Steelers rotate out of their two-high safety look and Tannehill does a nice job of sending the single-high safety away from Davis with his eyes.
I’m fairly certain that Tannehill had Davis as his target in his mind here all along because if he had seen Anthony Firkser working up the seam, Firk has a step or two on his defender, and while the safety is closer to him, there is a window to fit a ball in if Tannehill rips it right away.
However, the choice to target Davis wasn’t a bad one. The Titans wide receiver does get on top of Haden and there is a window available, Tannehill just misses it by about a yard. The snapshot below shows how close this was to being another dramatic Titans win in Nissan Stadium.
It’s a good reminder about how small the margin between victory and defeat really is in the NFL.
Dennis Kelly struggles against T.J. Watt
Let’s get this part out of the way. Dennis Kelly had a rough game against T.J. Watt. That doesn’t make him a bad player. Watt is an All-Pro for a reason. He’s made better tackles than Kelly look like amateurs over the past few years.
However, some of the plays when Kelly did get beat were particularly painful because of the opportunities that they wiped off the board. Take this outside zone run with Derrick Henry for example. The Titans are running it to the weak side of the formation and have a numbers advantage there. Kelly is trying to reach block Watt (which means he’s aiming at his outside shoulder and trying to pin him inside) while Nate Davis combo blocks Tuitt with Ben Jones before working up to linebacker Vince Williams (98).