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2020 AFC South Season Preview: The Tennessee Titans

The AFC South season preview continues with the Tennessee Titans. What starts here ruins the world.

Divisional Round - Tennessee Titans v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

In week 17 the Houston Texans rested their starters against the Tennessee Titans, well, everyone except for Tashaun Gipson, after clinching the division against Tampa the week before. Bill O’Brien unlatched the golden gate and opened the runway for Derrick Henry’s rushing title, and most importantly, a Titans postseason berth. At the time, what was thought to be a cute and meaningless thing, ended up becoming postseason CHAOS.

The Titans continued to play their own archaic supernal brand of establish the run, play action, bully ball, against the Patriots and Ravens. Utilize play action to take shots downfield. Make the most of opportunities by always scoring touchdowns in the redzone. Give the ball to Derrick Henry a lot. Give the ball to Derrick Henry some more. Win games with a Ryan Tannehill passing chart like this.

And like this.

The precious self ordained Chiefs-Ravens, Patrick Mahomes v. Lamar Jackson, the future of the NFL is now, AFC Championship game, ended in misery and ruined hopes, while the Logan’s Roadhouse was razed and pillaged, the patrons cavorting around the inferno hollering some garbled sacred phrase. It was a blue jean Saturday night for the ages. Until, you know, they had to play Mahomes themselves.

Last season the Titans were the exception to almost every new offensive rule in the NFL. They were better running at heavy boxes. They were better under center. They rarely blitzed and routinely played six defensive backs. They established the run and threw play action passes off that. They were a shock to the bland monotheistical shotgun quick passing offenses that have taken over the NFL the previous decade.

The league is littered with teams, and with quarterbacks, who find some plane of reality that hasn’t been tapped into yet, that quickly dissipates the following season, like spilled whisky on the back bumper. There was Case Keenum’s magical ride in Minnesota. There was the Jaguars all-time great pass defense that almost rolled Blake Bortles to the peak. The 2018 Chargers finally won a one-possession game. The And of course, there was Nick Foles, who discovered that football is pretty easy if you simply just complete every pass.

As beautiful and special as 2019 was for the Titans, football is a mercurial game, and the only thing that provides stable year to year performance is great quarterback play. The Titans believe they finally found this in Ryan Tannehill after giving him a four-year $118 million deal this offseason.

Tannehill finally crafted his mandala in Tennessee after years of failing to find it in Miami. Jon Robinson traded a sixth round pick as a break in case Marcus Mariota continues to suck. It took five and a half games for head coach Mike Vrabel to shatter the glass with his bare hands and savor the carmine color staining the shrapnel.

In Mariota’s first six starts he generated 16.3 points a game, including a 43 point week one win over Cleveland, that was created by a Derrick Henry screen pass, and a Baker Mayfield fourth quarter meltdown. Against Denver he completed 7 of his 18 attempts for 63 yards, threw 2 interceptions, and was sacked 3 times. After his second interception, the type of downfield heave Ryan Tannehill would consistently complete, Vrabel had seen enough.

Tannehill strolled in after this angelic attempt. He completed 13 of his 16 passes for 144 yards, threw 1 interception, and was sacked 4 times. The Titans didn’t score. Two redzone trips collapsed on fourth down. They stumbled to 2-4 following a 16-0 loss to the Joe Flacco version of the Denver Broncos.

From that point on everything changed. Tennessee scored a miraculous 23 points against the Chargers, a game they won because of a forced fumble at the goal line by Wesley Woodyard with a minimum game tying field goal in sight. The offense scored 31.1 points a game with Tannehill starting, an improvement of 15 points over Mariota. Tennessee ran their way to a 9-4 record with him as the starter.

The same offense that failed last year with Mariota, was well designed with Tannehill. It was crisp and congruent, pure and square. Everything made sense.

First year offensive coordinator Arthur Smith discovered the NFL’s ark of the covenant. Play action is good. Use it. And if you think the defensive has caught on, they still haven’t. According to Football Outsiders, the Titans used play action 30% of the time, and on those throws, Tannehill averaged 11.1 yards an attempt, and had a DVOA of 67.2%, flicking and clicking a yellow fuzzy pixelated BUT into the leaderboard.

Tannehill was third with an average depth of target at 10.1 yards. Most of these deep attempts came off of play action.

Like this play.

And like this play.

And even under center he made some brain scrambling throws like this.

Play action and Derrick Henry created an uroboros effect. The dragon eating its own tail. A symbol of unconsciousness. Sensation and intuition overriding thoughts and feeling. Everything looked the same. Big plays could come out of the most conservative formations. The endzone wasn’t safe against 22 personnel. It created one v. one looks on the outside for A.J. Brown. And, in a strange way, it helped out Derrick Henry. He averaged 3.68 yards a carry and scored 4 touchdowns with Mariota starting, and 5.75 yards a carry and scored 14 touchdowns with Tannehill starting.

Despite facing heavy boxes on 35.31% of his rushing attempts, Henry still averaged 5.11 yards an attempt, scored 16 touchdowns, and had a DVOA of 6.7%. He’s the final boss of a sidescrolling arcade fighting game that soaks up $12 of your mother’s quarters, more than he is a running back.

Most of his success last season came in Tennessee’s outside zone rushing attack. It took Rodger Saffold a few weeks to get rolling, but once he did, he and Taylor Lewan consistently cratered the left side, picked off second level defenders, and created elementary reads for Henry. When running left Henry averaged 5.4 yards a carry on 151 attempts, scored 9 touchdowns, and picked up 39 first downs. Go dog go. See Henry run.

The Titans didn’t run outside zone in a tasteless way either. There were some fun wrinkles here, especially when they ran to the weakside of the formation, giving Henry more space to run. The type of play that can only be run behind a great offensive line that can make these individual blocks.

Tennessee lost one member of their starting five. Jack Conklin didn’t have his fifth year option picked up, and signed with Cleveland this offseason. Despite selecting Isaiah Wilson in the first round, Dennis Kelly is the expected starter. He played with Nate Davis last season, who had an underrated rookie season as long as you don’t take PFF scores as gospel. Kelly is an acceptable right tackle. Wilson is heavy, and a little slow footed, leaving him susceptible to inside rush moves, and the transition to this scheme may take a little bit of time for the 350 pound behemoth. He should be able to fill in if there are any injuries at guard or tackle.

Even when the blocking wasn’t incredible, Henry manufactured positive yards on his own. Last season he broke 69 tackles, and averaged 3.19 yards after contact, the fourth most in the league. Sure, the stiff arms are cool, the shoulder bashes that turn defenders into a pink mist make your hands cramp from all the rewinding, but his best tackle breaking mechanism are the subtle leg lifts that send tacklers sliding back down into the swales of the underworld.

Henry did have 303 carries in the regular season and another 83 in the postseason. A work load like this usually leads to an ineffective following season. The only running backs who have been able to maintain this high volume are Ezekiel Elliot, Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson, and LeSean McCoy. If anyone can continue to take on 300 plus carries it’s Henry, who is made from granite instead of mortal clay. The addition of Darrynton Evans should alleviate some of this pain. The third round pick is a pure outside zone run runner who will contribute in the passing game right away.

These runs crowded the line of scrimmage and created space for the passing game. Tannehill’s ability to throw under center, and unleash nuclear play action passes, helped Henry in the run game. It started where it ended as Tennessee bombarded its way through the 2019 season.

The difficult part in projecting the 2020 Titans is how far and away better Tannehill was last season than he has ever been before. Sure, there were flashes in Miami, moments of sublime wonder, but he never did anything like this. He set career highs in completion percentage (70.3% compared to 67.1%), net yards per pass (8.03 compared to 6.55), adjusted yards an attempt (10.2 compared to 7.3), DYAR (773 compared to 630), and DVOA (28% compared to 4.1%).

His previous best season came in 2014, five years ago, and the only winning team he led was the 2016 Dolphins. Tannehill went 6-2 in one score games before partially tearing his ACL, an injury that took him out of the 2017 season. Matt Moore took over. The Dolphins won more close games. Antonio Brown canned them in the Wildcard Round.

Tannehill is an atypical quarterback though. He started off as wide receiver in college—take a drink. Was drafted at age 24. He lost an integral season of development. The best offense he played for included Laremy Tunsil at left guard, Jay Ajayi at running back, and Jarvis Landry averaging an incredible 12.1 yards a reception. The nerds taught us that quarterbacks tend to peak at age 31. Maybe Tannehill is one of those rare wonders who just needed some time and someone who really loved him to finally figure it out.

There is a path for the Titans to maintain last year’s fringe top five offensive performance, and it goes back to taking advantage of the offensive rules established this decade. Throwing the ball is good, and so is running against light boxes. As great as Henry is, no matter how fast his legs move, he still isn’t as fast as the ball, and his rush attempts aren’t as effective as the average Philip Rivers pass attempt.

The Titans struggled passing out of spread sets. The designs were beige. It was a lot of quick curls. Crossing routes that ran across zone coverage. Nothing open. Tannehill would hold onto the ball and take some nasty sacks. Tennessee had a DVOA of 4.2% in the shotgun, and it was 19.2% when the quarterback was under center.

That could change this season. Adam Humphries will be healthy from the get go, everyone should be thankful Tennessee outbid New England for his services, and he proved his value last season on third down, catching 9 of his 11 attempts for 7 first downs. Juke routes against against lower defenders, create easy completions.

Plus, Arthur Smith has probably spent his summer at his Papa’s FedEx crafting up new ways to ship out his receivers from spread formations. Hopefully he can get Corey Davis more downfield touches too, instead of mainly using him as a rub to open up A.J. Brown and in the intermediate passing game. All of this would lead two high shells, six man fronts, and easier spots for Henry to run the ball through, even though it’s not like he needs it.

Tannehill relied on Brown in his first start against Los Angeles, and by the end of the season, Brown was carrying Tennessee’s passing game. He had 52 catches for 1,051 yards, 8 touchdowns, and averaged 8.9 yards after the catch. He’s one of three receivers last decade to have less than 55 receptions and more than 1,000 receiving yards. This may sound blasphemous, but Brown has a lot of Andre Johnson in him. The body types are similar.

The ability to beat man coverage on an island is similar.

The ability to find holes in zone coverage are similar.

He’s already a number one wide receiver, and he’ll only continue to get better.

The Titans in general live, laugh, love to break tackles. These actions aren’t reserved for Henry. Brown broke 20. Davis broke 17. Jonnu Smith broke 17—he’s going to be so good this year as their starting tight end. The Titans were second in the league in broken tackles. All three were barbarians who turned simple crossing patterns into 30 yard gains. These type of routes, broken tackles, and ensuing yards after the catch, should also be fabricated out of more spread attempts.

This is very important. Regression wise, the only malignant lump, doomed to make Tennessee suffer, is their redzone touchdown rate. Last season the Titans had a touchdown rate of 75.6% overall. And it was 86.7% with Tannehill. Including the postseason, the Titans scored 33 touchdowns, kicked 2 field goals (one in the AFCG unfortunately), and had 3 turnovers with Tannehill starting.

Crack one open. Take a deep huff of it. Splinter your lungs. Here’s every redzone touchdown from Tannehill’s Titans in 2019.

Smith found every way possible to score in the redzone. He microdosed in the regular season, and saved the crystallized exotic methmouth glass pipe he found in Mike Mularkey’s old drawer for the postseason. Derrick Henry jump pass, Ryan Tannehill keeping on an option run, Jonnu Smith one handed catch god mode, a passing touchdown to Dennis Kelly after the chip block, sure, all of it crossed the plane of the endzone.

Last decade the average redzone touchdown rate was 56.6%, and field goals were kicked 30.7% of the time. In the redzone the Titans existed in a different dimension, living on a different turtle’s back than the one we reside upon, and operated in a different set of classical physics that dictate the spin and movement of the football.

Even after all of this, if Tannehill maintains his deep passing ability, if the outside zone blocking is murderous, if Brown continues to grow into a league best receiver, if the shotgun passing game improves, if Henry continues to break defenses over his quadriceps, the Titans are still probably going to have a worse scoring offense in 2020. The +80% redzone touchdown rate isn’t going to continue. Don’t be a doofus. Sew this knowledge into the fabric of your heart. When the Titans score less points this year, you’ll know why.

Defensively, the Titans finally broke through against the run. Their run defense became a top ten unit, mainly because Rashaan Evans is the type of linebacker who can control a front all on his own. Tennessee had a run defense DVOA of -12.6% (9th), and allowed only 4.0 yards a carry (7th). The pass defense was still the same. Lackluster. Below average.

Pro Football Focus has fabricated the idea that pass coverage is more important than pass rush. The Titans are the antithesis to this statement, if this statement is true. Despite having a really good secondary the past two seasons, the Titans have finished 21st and 22nd in pass defense DVOA.

Tennessee has to find some pass rush somewhere. They ranked 26th in pressure rate in 2018 and 30th in 2019. They haven’t rushed the passer well since Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo stormed the edges. Vic Beasley, a frustrating player who never developed, is here to replace Cameron Wake. Last season he accrued 8 sacks, 4 hits, and 25 hurries. Nearly all of his rushes are wide speed rushes. A competent counter move has always alluded him. He doesn’t have a plan once tackles get their hands on him. Just about all of his sacks look the same.

On the other side is Harold Landry, who had a similar, yet slightly better 2019 season than Beasley, and was the only real source of pass rush in Tennessee. He had 9 sacks, 6 hits, and 39 hurries. When it all comes together on the edge it’s obscene.

If Landy becomes a complete rusher, and makes the leap to provide consistent pressure, it will go a long way towards the Titans stumbling their way into an average rush.

Jeffery Simmons will replace Jurrell Casey’s plumber’s crack after he was traded to Denver for a seventh round pick. Simmons was a monster after joining the team midseason. The run defense won’t falter with him taking over for Casey since DaQuan Jones is still here, and as a pass rusher, he’s made from the same cloth as Casey.

Tennessee would have been better off with both though. The decision to trade him for a typically meaningless pick was bizarre. The only sound reasoning is if the deal was made to create cap space, but not to sign someone like Everson Griffen, or Markus Golden, but to go and get you know who—Jadeveon Clowney.

As of right now, Clowney is still loafing around free agency, after turning down a viable offer from the Browns. Tennessee has $22 million in cap space right now, and doesn’t face any important free agent decisions in 2021. Clowney has enjoyed playing for Vrabel before, and already knows this defense. He can play hand down defensive end on run downs, as well as stampede as a stand up blitzer, and on passing downs, he can rush inside and outside, and make life easier for Landry, and Beasley. It’s despicable the things Clowney and Simmons could accomplish. Don’t get it twisted. Clowney is a great player. All sack numbers do is lie and deceive you.

Football would be more fun with Clowney in Tennessee. It can add some lighter fluid to the corroded Coleman grill that is the Texans-Titans rivalry, a rivalry with nearly zero important games played between the two teams, whose anger and vitriol stems from ancient days when a bad man with a deranged mushed squirrel gracing the top of his head decided to move his team from one city to the other. Clowney in Tennessee would not only make the Titans better, but make the division more enjoyable, and what is this (?), it’s nothing more than entertainment anyways to enrich one’s life anyways.

It will be interesting to see what this defense looks like with Mike Vrabel as the defensive coordinator, after naming himself to this role following Dean Pees’s retirement. Mr. Pees didn’t blitz much. He played a lot of six defensive back sets. He rarely rushed more than four, and last season, he rushed three almost 20% of the time, the league’s third highest rate. It will be almost impossible for Vrabel to not be more aggressive than Pees was.

The only glimpse into this upcoming horizon was back in 2017 when Vrabel was the defensive coordinator of the Texans. Houston lost A.J. Bouye that offseason, and J.J. Watt played five games and had zero sacks before hanging out on the injured reserve. Houston dropped from 9th to 23rd in DVOA and from 4th to 30th in net yards per pass attempt. Unlike Romeo Crennel, who had been able to navigate a defense without Watt, Vrabel was unable to. That season he blitzed five and six at a higher rate than most of the league, and more than Pees ever did. But it was a bad defense, coming onto the field after an even worse offense, and three years is a lifetime ago by NFL standards.

Tennessee does have a bevy of defensive backs if they want to continue Pees’s tradition of versatile coverages and six defensive back sets. Despite losing Logan Ryan (1,114 snaps), who is still a free agent, Leshaun Sims (336 snaps), and Tramaine Brock (761 snaps) last offseason, they signed Jonathan Joseph, have Tye Smith who can take on more playing time, and drafted Kristian Fulton in the second round.

The Fulton pick is crucial. He slid down the draft because of his athletic profile. Yet, he was a great press corner at LSU and was able to corral those eclectic first round wide receivers in his match ups against them. It’s remarkable to watch a corner who actually knows how to press in college, a flash of light, a shopping cart with four working wheels at the end of the world. He has the ability to play the ball against taller receivers, and the upper body strength to stand his ground. He’s the only real press corner Tennessee has. He can play either nickle or outside. With him, Adoree’ Jackson, and Malcolm Butler at corner, and Kenny Vaccaro and Kevin Byard at safety, Tennessee will have the chance to play more man coverage so they can rush five or six more often if that’s what they intend to do.

No one knows what it will mean with Vrabel calling the defense. His one year endeavor was a failure, which of course, led to him obtaining his current job. In his first year as a head coach he seemed well suited as a leader of men, managing his team for the week, making correct in game decisions, and even used Bill Belichick’s own loophole against him in the Wildcard Round, sending him to a furious infantile tizzy. It remains to be seen if he has the brain flexibility to design a competent defense, call plays, and carry out all the other tasks a head coach has to during game time.

On the onset of every season, the Titans find themselves in a maddening situation. This year is no different. Even after coming off an AFC Championship Game run the Titans are as confounding as ever. Is Ryan Tannehill the next Nick Foles? Can Henry maintain a 300 carry workload? Will the play action passing game remain as effective? Will Brown morph into one of the league’s best receivers? Can a Nate Davis-Ryan Kelly combination pick up where Davis and Conklin left off? Has Arthur Smith added additional layers to this offense to create lighter boxes? Will the pass defense get past mediocre? Who is going to rush the passer? Is Mike Vrabel able to call a defense and LEAD his men?

The Titans always go 9-7. With a talented roster pondering this many questions, why should this year be any different?