So far in the 2021 season, the Tennessee Titans’ offense has fallen short of expectations.
Offensive line play has been poor, leading to more sacks and less room for Derrick Henry to run through. Injuries have killed the skill position group, notably to the Titans’ most decorated receivers in A.J. Brown and Julio Jones, along with Darrynton Evans and Anthony Firkser, two skill players the team was set to count on a lot this year.
It’s just been a bit of a disjointed mess at times from week to week.
Now this unit has still found a multitude of ways to move the ball down the field.
But they’ve done so in an inefficient manner, one that you could argue is unsustainable for the entirety of this 17 game rollercoaster of a season. That lack of efficiency is concerning for two reasons. One, the Titans’ entire offense prides itself on remaining as efficient as possible.
It all starts with the run game.
Positive run plays on early downs to make second and third down easier, while then allowing the passing game to feed off that and make the necessary plays to keep drives alive.
Look back at the Titans’ 2020 season and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.
The second reason goes back to sustainability and how this level of rollercoaster play won’t pan out for the team in the long run. Unlike their historic 2020 season, the Titans’ 2021 offense has failed to recapture that form that made things look almost too easy week after week. This had led to challenging second/third down and distance situations, which then led to unimpressive results on the field.
These stressful situations makes managing down and distance scenarios extremely difficult, especially considering the negative factors that are currently impacting this unit, all of which we’ll get to later on.
With that in mind, I wanted to chart some numbers that’d hopefully explain why efficiency has become such a pain for the Titans’ offense this year, and why some contributing factors haven’t made things any easier. What specific factors have made this offense teetering on the edge of inefficiency? We’ll get to that in a second, but before that, let’s compare the Titans’ first five offensive performances from last season to this season’s.
2020 vs. 2021
We all know the week to week offensive performance the Titans consistently put out last season.
They were very selective with their playcalling, attentive to detail regarding the smallest ounces of detail, and mixed their competitiveness and professionalism perfectly. All those points I just alluded to combined to make a well oiled, frightening offensive attack that opposing defenses seemingly had trouble keeping up with more times than not.
But the one aspect that really kept this offense on schedule, one that’s probably more important than the other ones I just explained, is their success with the run game on early downs.
I charted the first five games of last season just to compare to the first five games of this season, along with their rush performance on first and second down, plus their distance ranging from one to ten yards.
Early down run performance is the main subject of it all, plus the usual starting distance of ten yards on first down and so forth. Successful plays in this metric are run plays of four or more yards, but some of the four yard runs can be charted as failures, either due to the situation when the play was made or other miscellaneous factors that aren’t present at the moment.
As you can see, the Titans were slightly above average in the early down and distance run department. With a play success rate of 57%, it’s easy to understand why the offense was consistently putting points on the board in short, yet explosive spurts of play.
However, the run game had a handy partner that always found a way to keep defenses guessing on early downs as well.
Arthur Smith was great at mixing up different concepts on early downs in the passing game, whether it was the quick passing game in traditional drop back passing situations — specifically the five wide formations Smith loved to use in the short passing game to set himself up for better scenarios on later downs — , or the usual play action concepts that the Titans exceled at using.
That’s why their early down play success rate in the passing game was an impressive 64%.
But if you flip the script to this season, the Titans just haven’t found that same success offensively,
Their early down run play success rate? 45%
That means the Titans are usually failing to rush for over 4 yards on first and second down more often than not. That number wouldn’t be so bad if the passing game found a way to pick up some of the slack. But that’s the thing, that facet of the offense hasn’t been able to hold their own consistently either.
Yes, this offense sits in the top five of the league in total first downs with 114, penalties excluded. But they sit second in the league in total plays ran with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers standing as the only team with more plays ran. All these numbers without a conclusion might be confusing, so let me set it straight.
This team isn’t getting the job done on early downs, both in the run game and in the passing game. If the run game can’t get going early, then the passing game is forced to combat difficult second/third and long situations that any offense will have trouble defeating if they’re forced against them too often, even a high powered offense like Kansas City’s of Tampa Bay’s.
Plus, you add in the fact that this offense is running a lot of plays, you’re met with a potential scenario down the line that’ll send this offense into unfavorable territory. There has to be more chunk plays, both from the line of scrimmage and down the field in the explosive category, for this offense to stay afloat and be able to stay on schedule throughout drives.
Not only that, there has to be a more aggressive effort made towards winning on first and second down for third and even fourth down won’t be so difficult. I think that’s one of the issues that’s really plagued this unit so far, and one I think is probably the one that should be addressed first when it comes to reversing this trend of inefficiency.
Pains of a New Playcaller
One of the main reasons this inefficiency has become a problem is the offensive coordinator situation.
Not particularly how bad the play calling has been from that specific spot on the staff, but how new everything is overall. Todd Downing was promoted from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator in the offseason, mainly to keep the idea of continuity flowing within an offense that went through so much change.
So far through five games, Downing hasn’t been bad, in fact he’s been good. That I can confidently assure you. But he’s ran into some trouble in terms of tendencies and factors around him wrecking whatever plans he has as a play caller.
Let’s look over some tendencies first.
Todd Downing has elected to run the ball on 60% of the team’s offensive snaps in first and long (8-10 yards) situations so far this season. With an overall run success rate of 50%, and a total offensive play success rate of 55%, it’s clear the issues with Downing haven’t come on first down for the most part.
But it’s second down where the problems begin.
In 2020, Arthur Smith passed the ball on 53% of the team’s offensive snaps when they ran into second and medium (4-7 yards) situations.
In 2021, Downing has rushed the ball 61%(!) of the total snaps within the exact same down and distance situation.
To simplify, Todd Downing has ran the ball entirely way too much in these situations, leading to disadvantageous third and long scenarios that have led to absolutely nowhere.
The Titans are 20th in the league in third down conversion percentage, and their successful play rate in third and long scenarios (8-10 yards) ranks 27th in the entire league.
This means when this offense gets into stressful third and long scenarios, they’re finding minimal success. Which eludes to the inefficiency I mentioned earlier, this stat is a perfect example why any team — specifically the Titans — should want to avoid these types of situations.
You’re more predictable in these sports, which gives opposing defenses a chance to sit back and cross off the limited amount of plays you can run. You’re obviously going to end up passing the ball, unless you have absolutely zero confidence in your offense at all.
But if you do have that confidence and end up wanting to throw the football, defenses can pin their ears back and rush the passer, something the Titans just haven’t been able to handle so far this year. Just look at their league leading 20 sacks allowed for reference.
Downing has to do a better job at staying on schedule and putting this offense in better positions to succeed on later downs. I know the offensive line has struggled to protect Tannehill, but the predictability of your play calling overall has been a branch contributor of that.
Employ a quick passing game, get your playmakers in space and make opposing defenses think twice about their next move, just something to change your tendencies up and allow your unit to present itself as an unpredictable threat on the key early downs.
Now we’re only five weeks in, so this period is likely all an adjustment one for Downing and his surroundings. Add the fact that he’s having to manage the touches Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, and Julio Jones, plus Julio Jones being out for two of the team’s five games this year, it’s easy to temper your expectations and realize why he’s been out of a sorts a little bit.
But Downing should be able to realize some of the mistakes he’s been making tendency wise, and how those mistakes have hurt this team so far. I’m sure he’ll figure it out, but the trends early on haven’t been positive at all.
This isn’t an article that’s trashing Downing and the job he’s done so far, in fact it’s far from that.
Like I’ve said before, I believe Downing has been good this year. He hasn’t strayed away from the run game and the passing game has found a way to move the sticks at an above average rate. But when it comes to being unpredictable in terms of play calling tendencies? He hasn’t done enough. When it comes to force feeding his all-star back, allowing defenses to key in on him and make him a nonfactor? He hasn’t done enough.
I give Downing the benefit of the doubt for the most part because the offensive line has been so underwhelming.
But there has to be some sort of switch up tendency wise, or this offense won’t be where it needs to be during the most important part of the season.
It’s still only week five though, so some of these numbers and such might mean absolutely nothing come week 12 and so on. However, we’re at a point in the season where trends begin to set in for every team around the league. And for the Titans, these trends I’ve watched develop on the offensive side of the ball haven’t been encouraging for the long haul.
All stats via sharpfootballstats.com