All-22 Review – What AJ Brown’s performance vs SF taught us about the Titans offense

The game against the 49ers was uneven offensively, at best. The 1st half might have been the worst half for this offense all year. And, while the 2nd half wasn’t perfect, it’s the first time the offense has scored 20+ points in a half since early November (vs. LAR).

During this game, AJ Brown went off. In the first half against San Francisco, AJ Brown was targeted 7 times for 5 receptions, 24 yards, and 0 TDs. He finished the game with 16 targets for 11 receptions, 145 yards, and 1 TD. For those keeping score at home, that’s 9 targets for 6 receptions, 121 yards, and a touchdown in the second half.

So, why the polarity? And what can we learn from these targets? It’s not perfect, but within these targets leave important clues for this staff moving forward.

AJ Brown is the lifeblood of this offense

This is the major take home for this staff. It has to be. Just like Derrick Henry, you may be able to contain him for a period of time, but – given enough volume – AJ Brown is eventually going to punish opposing defenses. A good signal is the first play of the second half.

This play does not go how the team would like. AJ needs to catch this ball, even if it’s not perfect. Still, it’s back to the bread and butter that made the offense so potent in 2020. Short/intermediate play action that puts second level defenders in conflict. But, it’s not all warm fuzzies here.

The Titans need to run bang play action to death

The play above isn’t pure bang play action. My use of the term is the following – hard play action where Ryan Tannehill immediately targets a crossing receiver after turning his back on play action.

Perfect example here. The Titans ran this in the 4th quarter against San Francisco. Look how the second level defenders (36 and 54) are influenced by the run. As Tannehill turns from the play action, AJ gets out of his break and the ball is cut loose. A bang, bang play that goes for 18 yards.

This was a major component of the Titans offense in 2020. I’ve written at length about the need for more of it this year here, and here. Yes, losing Henry matters, but this still has to be a huge part offensively.

In fact, if I had just one elevator pitch to Todd Downing it would be this –

Run outside zone. Run duo. Run bang play action off both concepts. Spam this combination over and over. Art Smith’s excellence was not over engineering things to death. It was making things easy for the offense and executing to perfection. Simple for the offense doesn’t mean simple for the defense. This offense is starved for explosives, and this is the lowest risk/highest reward play in the playbook.

To this point…

Keep it simple

This is halfway through the 4th quarter. It’s 2nd & 6, so a good spot for a shot play, but this is completely unnecessary. Just reduce it to it’s basic components:

  • The best passer is not throwing the ball
  • The best receiver is not in the route distribution
  • The second best receiver (Julio) is on the bench
  • The targeted receiver has 2 catches for 8 yards on the season

I think Todd Downing gets entirely too much criticism, but this play reeks of trying to be the smartest guy in the room. Put your best players in the highest leverage situations to do what they do best. This does not need to be any more complicated than that.

The play after this one, McMath – the same player who’s featured above – doesn’t run the correct depth on his pick route and runs into AJ Brown. Tannehill is left without a target on 3rd and 6. He takes a sack in his own territory. Ball is punted to the 49ers who then go on to score and tie the game. As is often the case in the NFL, it can come down to just a handful of plays. A more traditional call here could easily have lead to a sustained drive to end the game.

The screen game is broken

Well, maybe not totally broken, but given how unsuccessful the screens have been lately – and combining the lack of bang play action – has been frustrating to say the least.

A few takeaways here:

  • Awful execution on the screen. There’s nowhere for Hilliard to go.
  • Tannehill has to learn to eat this play. Throw it in the dirt and move on.
  • Look at AJ in the slot. Look at how the linebackers are influenced. A throw to Brown is like stealing.

For me, all roads lead back to bang play action. If this were a democratic play calling environment, I’d be a single issue voter. Will the play caller run play action over the middle at least 5 times a game? Sign me up.

Players matter

Everything above aside, scheme only matters so much. Put your players in advantageous situations, yes. But, they still have to execute.

Nothing embodies this more than the sequence above. I think every other receiver on the team other than maybe Julio (and that’s a big maybe at this point) loses this route that AJ runs. It’s too physical. But, he shakes it off and wins on the crosser. And, then there’s Tannehill escaping pressure and making a big time throw across his body.

Then, there’s the deep skinny post to AJ on the very next play. He’s unlikely to test this window with anyone other than AJ, and Brown is likely the only receiver that completes this play.

And the play that lead to this sequence?

3rd and 23. There are just seconds left in the 3rd quarter. The team lines up to try to draw the 49ers offsides. They succeed and Tannehill takes the free play as an opportunity to throw it up to AJ Brown in single coverage. He does a masterful job of waiting until the last second to out position his defender and take the ball. Plays like this you can see that he was once a talented centerfielder in baseball. The guy is just a natural athlete.

I love the Titans taking a free opportunity here. It’s no risk, but it is the players, not the scheme, that make this all happen.

Overwhelmingly, this is the take home from watching this last game. Yes, Todd Downing has to be better. Run more play action over the middle. Keep it simple. But, it’s the players that matter. And, those players are getting healthy.

The chart above is from weeks 2-8. This seems like an eternity ago, now. Yet, fans need to be reminded that very little has changed schematically. Todd Downing was still making mistakes (and doing some brilliant things along side it). The staff is the same. The difference is the players. AJ Brown is back. The expectation is Lewan and Saffold should be back soon.

Then, of course, there’s Derrick Henry. A force multiplier that can elevate this offense further. The hope is he’ll be back by week 17. If these things hold true, this offensive elements are still in place to be an elite unit down the stretch. I do think that landing a first round bye may be even more important for this team than others. An extra week of live reps for Henry could be huge. Game shape is one thing. Game speed is another, and the more that can be simulated the better.

With the way this defense continues to play down the stretch, this team can still be a contender. The offense is still very much capable once the whole bunch returns. Like all post season teams, everything will have to go just right, but the 2nd half against San Francisco should at least give some hope that a major post season run remains possible for this team.

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