Over the course of 17 games, the Tennessee Titans’ offense has found itself often struggling to put decent drives together, as opposed to consistent success and busybody work piling up the numbers on the scoreboard.
But their disappointing performance has its valid excuses.
From an absurd amount of injuries to key contributors, to a quarterback being asked to carry way too many things on his shoulders, it’s apparent what problems have plagued the offense this year and how detrimental they’ve been to this unit’s ability to sustain rhythm.
However, another issue — aside from the obvious overwhelming ones — has maintained its status quo as a thorn in the Titans’ side, even before the injuries became a serious nuisance.
The lack of explosive plays offensively, specifically in the passing game.
A trip down memory lane
Last year, the Titans’ offense a juggernaut…for the most part.
From the immense amount of physicality and will that led to success on the ground, to the elegant and flamboyant explosive plays through the air, this particular unit had it all.
Elite red zone efficiency, short yardage efficiency, efficiency in the play action passing game, you name it. It’s why then offensive coordinator Arthur Smith received so much attention during last offseason’s coaching carousel, and why he received his eventual job with the Atlanta Falcons.
It wasn’t all perfect though, since not specific unit is going to blaze through a season without flaws and mistakes. There were some clunky slow starts, and a frustrating, sudden drop in success offensively in the team’s playoff loss against the Baltimore Ravens.
But for the most part, this offense found itself on the right end of results and productivity in 2020.
If you’re reading this and rightfully asking yourself if the look back at 2020 is necessary, I understand. But for context purposes, a look back at 2020 aids the advancement of this specific discussion regarding the sudden downfall in explosive plays offensively.
Let’s take a better look at the numbers to get a sense of the discussion at hand.
A look at the numbers
To get a better idea on the drop off of explosive plays this season for the Titans, we have to look back at the 2020 season, just so we can have a different set of data to use for comparison.
During the illustrious 2020 season for the Titans offense, explosive plays were usually a norm. Whether it was Derrick Henry busting through the line of scrimmage en route to long touchdown runs, or play action passing plays — short or deep down the field — that left defenses with another headache manage, the explosive element of this offense was prevalent and stood as a threat each time this unit took the field.
To get a better idea of how potent this offense was, we can take a look at a stat that charts how explosive a specific offense is/was, both on the ground and through the air.
Warren Sharp, who has an excellent website that compiles a number of different reliable advanced stats, has an “explosive play” stat that describes each team’s offensive explosiveness each season. He classifies these plays into three separate categories.
Explosive run rate, explosive pass rate, and explosive play rate overall.
Here, we can see the obvious, the Titans’ running game last season had no problem with generating explosive plays on the ground.
With Derrick Henry rushing for over 2,000 yards, and averaging an impressive 5.4 yards per carry, it’s no surprise that Tennessee ranked inside the top four when it came to explosive plays in the run game.
This year, the Titans’ explosive run rate declined a bit, but it was still enough to rank inside the top six among the rest of the league. The same can be said for the amount of explosive run plays, which also declined in 2021, but still managed to hover around the top of the league overall.
That says a lot about the performance from the plethora of backs the Titans used during the time Henry was on the pine. D’Onta Foreman, Dontrell Hilliard, Jeremy McNichols, and even Adrian Peterson during his short stint in Tennessee (although his contributions weren’t nearly as much as the other three backs that received carries during this period in time).
Based on the data we’ve seen, the run game hasn’t lost a step from 2020 to 2021 in terms of big plays. That’s helped this offense maintain its identity, while also opening a small window of opportunity for success with play action whenever the opportunity arose.
The problem here in 2021, has been how bad the Titans have been at churning out big plays in the passing game.
The Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, New Orleans Saints, and the New York Giants.
These four teams had something in common with the Titans throughout the regular season, and I’m not alluding to success on the field and in the win column. These teams all have putrid, and I mean putrid explosive passing attacks.
Granted that the Titans — and even the Saints — faced an astounding figure of unavoidable injuries to key spots like receiver. But it’s never in the Titans’ best interest to be huddled together with some of the more messier teams in the league, especially in a key stat like big plays through the air.
And although the team’s big play passing attack wasn’t an elite quality weapon in 2020, there was still just enough efficiency and effectiveness from that area to help counterattack the dangerous run game the offense possessed.
Again, the Titans dealt with an unthinkable amount of oddities and irregularities that led to this set of poor numbers. But they’re still poor numbers, and they need to be improved upon. The odds of them improving to eye opening numbers is unlikely, and that’s fine since the chances of that scenario occurring is already doubtful at best.
They just need to be skewed a little bit more towards a positive note, with the results on the field reflecting the improvement in numbers as well.
How does this impact the future?
You can bet top dollar that Todd Downing, Ryan Tannehill, and the rest of the main cast of offensive characters are plotting every day on how to make this offense more explosive.
That thought might seem far fetched — mainly because this offense showed a lack of ability to consistently produce these explosive plays in the regular season — but there’s reason to believe the big play element could somehow return once the Titans’ playoff run begins.
For one, the Titans should have their full arsenal of weapons available to play in the postseason. A.J. Brown has been back and healthy since the team’s Thursday night game against the San Francisco 49ers, Julio Jones looked healthy on Sunday, probably the healthiest he’s looked since early on in the season, and Derrick Henry is set to return after a lengthy rehab due to his hotly debated foot injury.
Plus, if you watched the team’s game on Sunday, you saw Todd Downing dial up a few shot plays to access the deeper parts of the field. Now just because these positive factors are all there, doesn’t mean the end result with remain as advantageous as it looks on paper.
This offense still has a problem protecting the passer, not just on shot plays that require fabulous protection, but even on specific plays in 2nd, 3rd and medium situations.
Not only that, Tannehill himself has struggled to accurately throw the football down the field this season. Some of that is due to poor pass protection and the lack of a true, consistent deep threat for much of the regular season.
But a portion of the downfield passing struggles lie solely with Tannehill and his inability to push the football further down the field.
The problems aren’t connected to Tannehill and the offensive line either. We still don’t know how Henry will look once he returns for the divisional round. Will he look like the same old Henry? The star back that can rip off a long touchdown run with the snap of a finger, or even grind down defenses with his subtle, yet punishing running style?
Or will he look limited in skill due to the foot injury hampering him from exposing his true talent?
You can even switch your attention over to Julio Jones, and whether or not he’ll be able to stay healthy, while also questioning if he can even stand as the Titans’ “deep threat guy”.
The bottom line is this, the Titans’ offense has an embarrassment of riches in terms of variables for additional offensive success this postseason. Some of these are bad variables, some of them are good and would be advantageous, it’s just the luck of the draw at this point regarding which way the variables will tilt.
But if there’s one thing you can be confident in expressing, specifically about these highly intriguing variables, is the fact that the Titans need them to tilt towards the positive side if they want to make a deep playoff run. When the going gets tough against top quality opponents, you’ll need a handful of big plays here and there.
And with the state of the AFC being so shallow, unpredictable, and even somewhat underwhelming, the big play element has to exist in order to cover for any abnormalities that might emerge.
This unit has the tools to pop off like an expensive firework in July, the question is will the execution follow to create the perfect big play scenario.
That remains to be seen, but the Titans will need that perfect combination to come together, whether they’re prepared for it or not.
All stats are via sharpfootballstats.com