The Tennessee Titans currently have the ugliest screen game in the NFL. I say “currently” because to start the year, it was one of the more innovative and efficient aspects of their offense.
Before suffering a broken foot in Week 8, Derrick Henry was on pace for 38 receptions and 327 receiving yards, both of which would have comfortably been career-highs. Todd Downing had established a cutting-edge screen game as a method of involving his most dynamic playmaker and putting his distinct stamp on Tennessee’s offense.
Since Henry’s injury, however, the Titans’ screen game has become inefficient, predictable, and difficult to watch. I know metrics like EPA can be difficult to visualize; “-0.17 EPA/ATT” means nothing to most people; so I’ve included some examples of plays resulting in a similar EPA:
- A Zach Wilson pass (-0.19 EPA/ATT)
- A run into a 9+ man box (-0.15 EPA/ATT)
- John Ross career targets (-0.17 EPA/ATT)
It would be easy to just pin this decline on Derrick Henry’s injury, and his absence has certainly had a negative impact, but the blame should be more widely distributed. I’ve identified four primary causes of Tennessee’s unproductive screen game:
- Ineffective play design
- Lack of misdirection
- Inexplicable confidence in limited playmakers
- Poor execution
The 3 types of screens Tennessee runs
The Titans primarily stick to three screen concepts, which I’ll briefly explain.
On a slip screen the offensive line allows the pass rush to get upfield, as they set up to block downfield for the running back.
On a tunnel screen one WR releases inside, and the other WRs drive defenders outside, creating an open alley.
This is the only RPO Tennessee ever runs. The Titans call a standard running concept, paired with a bubble screen alert. Before the snap, Ryan Tannehill surveys the defense and identifies the numbers advantage. If the offense has a 2-on-1 on the outside and/or the wide corner is playing off-coverage, he’ll throw the bubble screen.
These are all standard screen concepts, but their effectiveness is predicated on how they are deployed and executed.
Ineffective play design
Many of Tennessee’s screen passes have simply not been designed in a way that creates a numbers advantage or puts playmakers in favorable situations.
On this tunnel screen vs. L.A., the ball goes to the #1 WR, and the inside WRs block the #1 and #2 CBs, but the #3 CB is left unblocked; none of Tennessee’s offensive linemen move downfield to seal off the inside. The purpose of a tunnel screen is to create an alley or “tunnel” for the receiver to run through, but the blocking on this play only secures one side. Without any linemen or tight ends moving downfield, this play is designed directly into unblocked defenders.
Here’s another example from the 49ers game.
Tennessee sends Anthony Firkser in return motion, and Jimmie Ward follows him across the formation, a clear man coverage indicator. With 2 deep safeties and matching personnel across the field, San Francisco is pretty clearly running Cover 2 Man. This means that Fred Warner, PFF’s highest graded LB in 2020, is in man coverage on Jeremy McNichols, and the Titans are banking on McNichols winning that one-on-one matchup.
Lack of misdirection
Tennessee has had much more success on screen passes that include some element of misdirection, as the personnel and execution simply haven’t been good enough to run vanilla screen concepts effectively.
An easy way to accomplish this is by using play action, which doesn’t have to completely fool the defense to be effective.Doing something to divert the linebackers’ attention away from the screen pass keeps them out of the running lane and provides the blockers with easier angles.
On this play Troy Reeder bites on the run fake, while Terrell Lewis tries to recover some depth in pass coverage. Both reactions were subtle, but significant enough to prevent them from impacting the play.
The Titans have been successful pairing play action with a double screen. On this play Derrick Henry sells the slip screen to the field side, while MyCole Pruitt leaks out to the boundary behind a convoy of blockers.
Without any window dressing to distract the defense, linebackers simply read their keys and trigger once they recognize the play. Tennessee has been significantly more effective running screen passes off of play action.
Inexplicable confidence in limited playmakers
Several of the plays I’ve discussed could easily fit into this section, but there are numerous examples of perfectly adequate play design, paired with misplaced confidence in average players.
This flare screen vs. New Orleans places the ball in the hands of 36-year-old Adrian Peterson, on the short side of the field, with five defenders and three blockers in front of him. There’s nothing wrong with getting playmakers the ball in space (Derrick Henry has turned similar swing passes into touchdowns.), but asking Peterson to win the edge and drive through contact is a relatively low-percentage play design.
Here’s another screen pass from the Saints game, where again, I don’t have an issue with the play design. The exotic formation is a bit unnecessary, but on the chalkboard, Tennessee is getting the ball to a receiver, one-on-one with a defender in space.
The first issue with this play, however, is that Dez Fitzpatrick has not shown himself to be a good enough player to justify being the focal point of these plays. Receivers like A.J. Brown and Julio Jones are the kinds of playmakers you want to isolate in one-on-one situations, because chances are they’re better than the player in front of them; Fitzpatrick does not warrant the same sort of offensive focus.
The second problem is that Chester Rogers resoundingly loses his block, which brings us to the final issue with Tennessee’s screen game.
Nearly every criticism of Todd Downing should include an important qualifier: for the vast majority of the season, Tennessee has been working with practice-squad-caliber offensive personnel. This manifests itself in the form of bad pass protection, minimal downfield separation, dropped passes and fumbles, and poor execution on screens.
On this play Ben Jones is unable to secure the block on Quincy Williams, who meets Jeremy McNichols in the backfield the instant he catches the ball. Jones wasn’t helped by the play design, which did nothing to distract the linebackers and create favorable blocking angles, but execution is clearly the main culprit here.
This time it’s the pass protection that ruins the play; Tory Carter whiffs on a split block, which forces Tannehill to throw as he falls to the ground and overshoot Dontrell Hilliard. Downing does a great job using play action and a deep crossing route from the playside to create open space for Hilliard, but the players are unable to execute.
On this play Jeremy McNichols motions inside pre-snap, but by facing Tannehill the entire time, he blatantly telegraphs that he’s getting the ball. Dont’e Deayon easily reads the play and Tennessee loses three yards.
What is the solution?
The obvious conclusion is that Tennessee should abandon the vanilla, “Day-1-Install” screen game in favor of the exotic and complex variations that are clearly more efficient, but judging the value of an offense’s fundamental plays by only considering yardage or EPA results in an incomplete analysis. Playcallers have to put their basic concepts on film, even if they’re less effective, for the extensions of those plays to work. The double screen pass is effective, in part, because they’ve run the standard slip screen often enough for the opposing defense to gameplan against it. In other words, “You have to eat your vegetables before you eat your dessert.”
So if we accept that an offense needs to labor through the “basic stuff” before they can effectively run something more complex, and we also accept that Tennessee’s “basic stuff” is incredibly ineffective, the question becomes, “Is it worth it?” My answer is no.
This chart is slightly misleading, because quarterbacks are less likely to throw deep if no one’s open; if a team were to simply force the ball 20 yards downfield they wouldn’t automatically become the best offense of all time; but it’s still clear that screens and RPO’s are a relatively inefficient way of moving the ball. Unless your quarterback is severely limited in terms of arm talent or processing ability, designing an offense around the short passing game is not ideal.
It’s not worth it for Tennessee to endure three or four terrible screen passes to set up one that goes for 20 yards, because we’ve seen the Titans have an elite offense without passing the ball behind the line of scrimmage. In 2020 Tennessee ran the fewest number of screens (17), and had the 2nd ranked offense in terms of EPA/Play.
Tennessee’s screen game is broken; instead of fixing it, they should abandon it.