All-22 Review – Todd Downing leads an offensive renaissance

Over the past few weeks, the Titans have been incrementally getting better on offense. This built to a crescendo in the first half against Kansas City where the Titans scored 27 unanswered points. The team’s performance in the first half was arguably the best in franchise history.

The defense has gotten plenty of focus over the course of the week. And, deservedly so. Of the two units, the defense had the most impressive day considering the quarterback and opponent. I felt like Downing needed some credit, though. What he’s helped engineer over the past three weeks has been magnificent, and a real turnaround from the start of the year.

Year/WksPoints ScoredPassing TDsRushing TDs
2020492 (3rd)33 (8th)26 (2nd)
2021 Wks 1-495 (14th)5 (20th)5 (9th)
2021 Wks 5-798 (3rd)3 (19th)8 (1st)

Offense is king in this league. I’m a broken record with this, but it bears repeating. If you want to make it deep in the playoffs, history shows that generally it is done with an elite offense, and then a defense with a good front four that can create pressure in the championship games.

The point here being that the early season offense wasn’t going to be enough, no matter how good the defense became. The offense had to get better, and that’s exactly what they’ve done. There’s a mix of things happening here. Let’s start with a fundamental change.

A revitalized play action and screen game

Year/WksPA %PA Y/AScreen %Screen Y/A
202036.4%9.76.4%4.0
2021 Wks 1-425.6%10.79.1%7.4
2021 Wks 5-735.3%10.011.8%6.3

The numbers above speak for themselves. Play action has been fundamental to this offense when it has been at its best. Perhaps the most drastic example of this was the Cardinals game when the Titans only ran 7% of their passing plays out of play action. However, it is not just as simple as running more play action. It is also how they’ve been running it – a drum I was banging after the Jets game. They’re beginning to work the intermediate-middle of the field where the linebackers are in run pass conflict. You can see the polarity of what this does when comparing Week 4 to Week 7.

Week 4

Week 7

Notice the difference in concentration of passes both in the intermediate middle of the field. This showed up on tape.

This is the bread and butter, and I’d argue – even in its simplicity – it might be one of the most difficult plays in the NFL to defend. Titans fake outside zone, which puts that playside linebacker in immediate run pass conflict. In this play, he’s playing man, but the concept works all the same against zone. The LB gets downhill and opens the window for the throw to AJ Brown.

Same thing here. Again, bang play action. Titans fake split zone (a nice wrinkle given the handful of times the backside defender has caused problems this year on PA). LBs 54 and 50 work downhill initially to fill their gap, and then sink into their zones. This creates the window to AJ again.

Different look here, and the LBs don’t play as well. Still, the theme is similar. Working the middle of the field with a seam route.

Last one here is a simple little stick route by Julio that allows him to feel spacing against a totally mismatched linebacker.

The theme here is important. Stressing the middle of the defense which is responsible with getting downhill against Derrick Henry every single play. Offensive playcalling at its core is about putting defenders in impossible conflict. Downing has really improved in this aspect over the past three weeks with the play action game. Getting back to what works, even if it is simple.

What is new is a complimentary screen game. As noted in the chart at the top of the section, this is a departure from the Art Smith offense. Some of this is purely a reaction to losing skill players at wide receiver, but even against KC we saw a creative, well designed set of screen plays.

Swing play to Henry here. Not a traditional screen with blockers in front, but if the safety carries NWI here this is a potential touchdown.

Huge play on 3rd down and long to McNichols here. This is the second drive of the game; one that culminates in a touchdown. However, if not for this well timed and executed screen play, the drive stalls early.

Finally, this beautifully designed play action off a duo run fake. This play puts #56 in a world of conflict. A low risk play that has home run potential with Henry’s skill set.

While the screen game is one of the more noticeable changes, the other thing that’s jumped out are the schematic changes in the run game.

Run Game Multiplicity

YearZoneGap
202066%29%
202153%42%
PFF.com based off Ben Jones snaps

The Titans are still an outside zone team. They overwhelmingly run outside zone the most, and that continues to show. However, they are mixing in a lot more wrinkles than they did under Smith or LaFleur.

Outside zone. The core play of the Titans offense. This has not changed. What has changed are the plays the compliment it with.

The major one here is duo. The thread above captures the basics of that play. It is a play that the Titans have had around the past few years. Anecdotally, it feels like the number of duo plays is increasing this year. That said, I was pretty knee deep in defensive study last year, so that could just be some recency bias. Nonetheless, this has become an important play for this team.

Beyond this, and inside zone (which – unusually – the team didn’t appear to run at all against Arizona), the Titans mix in a variety of run plays week to week.

Some one back power.

The nearly unstoppable zone read play in the redzone.

H Back counter.

And, finally, fullback counter.

Probably the only thing missing that I’d like to see more of is lead draw, because I think that can create some nasty problems at the second level if run correctly. But, this run game has been so much fun to watch week to week because you’re bound to see a little of everything in the gap run game.

While it is fun to study, it’s also worth noting that this type of multiplicity creates challenges in defensive gameplanning. Especially with a play like duo, if your game plan is to squeeze down gaps against outside zone to shut it down, you run the risk of getting gashed in duo with Henry wide open to the backside.

Improved play among playmakers

Just two plays here, but this one is simple. The playmaking has gotten better. Ryan Tannehill has been incredible the past two games. His 1st half against KC might be his best half ever in Tennessee, and the 2nd half against Buffalo is in the mix.

And, maybe as important as anything above, the offensive line is starting to click again, especially in pass protection. In week 7, the Titans ranked 5th over all in pass blocking efficiency per PFF, their highest ranking of any week yet this year.

Add to all this the fact that Downing is making all this work with a revolving door at nearly every position other than QB and running back. Injuries are a persistent problem recently, yet this team has found ways to create offensive production. Perhaps the most exciting thing of all is that the offense appears to still be growing. After all, they still haven’t put together consecutive 4 quarters of consistent offensive output in a single game. Give Downing more time down the stretch to grow as a play caller, and let players get healthy (mainly Julio). There’s a good chance this offense could be even better in January.

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