Most agree that quarterback is the most important position for any team in the National Football League. It may be even more critical for a team like the Titans. Having solid collective units and players, but lacking an elite calling card at any position group, Tennessee needs their quarterback to be able to rise to the occasion in big games and pivotal moments.
Enter Ryan Tannehill. Traded from Miami in the off-season for a fourth-round pick, the oft-injured quarterback was an afterthought. In week seven, he was called off the bench to take over for a struggling Marcus Mariota. Taking over an offense that was lacking cohesion and quite frankly putrid, Tannehill improbably elevated the 2-4 Titans to a 9-7 record, earning the sixth and final seed in the American Football Conference divisional bracket of the playoffs. Some of the highlight stats of his seven-game regular season tenure:
• 70.3 completion percentage, good for third among quarterbacks
• 2,742 Pass Yards
• 22 Total Touchdowns and only six Interceptions
• 117.5 Passer Rating
According to NextGen Stats, Ryan Tannehill successfully placed 19.6% of his attempts into tight windows, sixth-highest among quarterbacks. He also logged an average .6 air yards beyond the first down marker on his throws, indicating that he was not overly reliant on his skill position players to generate yards after the catch. Statistician Ben Baldwin’s DAKOTA rankings measure both completion percentage over expectation and efficiency per attempt. Ryan Tannehill was the best quarterback in the NFL by this metric. Music City Miracles’ Mike Herndon points out that after the transition to Tannehill, the Titans had the top offense in the league by weighted defense-adjusted value over average.
There is no doubt that Ryan Tannehill is a large reason the Titans made the playoffs. Offensive Coordinator Arthur Smith finding his groove, a resurgent offensive line and running game, and the emergence of A.J. Brown also helped make the push. Tannehill went on to win the 2019 NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award. At the time of this writing, it remains likely the Titans will sign Tannehill to a multi-year extension in an attempt to keep continuity at quarterback, something the team has not had for many years now. Titans fans and fantasy football players alike have the same question: Can this success be sustained going forward, or was this a case of a quarterback heating up in an unduplicatable way at just the right time?
What better way to answer the question than to enter the film room and critically watch his three playoff performances? These three games were arguably the biggest moments in the Head Coach Mike Vrabel era of the Titans and reveal a great deal of what kind of positive and negative traits underpin Ryan Tannehill’s game. This three-part series will examine every time Ryan Tannehill threw or ran the football in the Titans’ three-game playoff stretch. It will seek to determine if his 2019 season was an anomaly or whether the Titans have uncovered a rising star that can take the franchise to even greater heights.
After a Patriots field goal on their opening drive, Tannehill takes over at the Tennessee 25-yard line.
12:37- Tannehill’s first pass attempt is a completion and comes off a play-action fake, which has been his bread and butter all season. The Patriots drop six into coverage here: two linebackers, two corners, and two safeties. Notice how the corners and safeties are respecting the deep ball but conceding the shorter areas of the field. Belichick’s game plan was clearly to take away the explosive passing plays that have come off play-action fakes and force Tennessee to beat them with short passes and the running game. As we will see, the first part of his plan was executed to perfection. The second part of his plan failed, which would ultimately lead to Tennessee winning the game.
In this play, the linebacker dedicated to stopping the run hands off his responsibility for fullback Khari Blasingame and drops into coverage when he realizes neither Derrick Henry or Blasingame are carrying the ball. Jonnu Smith is blocking at the snap, but later leaks out to be the outlet option for Tannehill. With pressure coming, Tannehill checks down to Smith for a six-yard gain.
Derrick Henry racks up 12 yards on the next two carries and sets up second and six on the Tennessee 42-yard line.
10:46- From the shotgun and with trips left, the Patriots initially drop what appears to be six into coverage. Just before the snap, Kyle Van Noy comes screaming up to the line and chips Corey Davis early in his route. Tajae Sharpe runs a five-yard hitch route, which seems to have been Tannehil’s first read all along.
A good bit happens before Tannehill’s next attempt. Derrick Henry wracks up 32 more yards, a Mariota trick play nets four yards, and three penalties leave the Titans at the Patriot 17-yard line facing first and 15.
6:28- Either Ben Jones or (more likely) Nate Davis misses his assignment and Deatrich Wise Jr has a clear path to the quarterback. It is all Tannehill can do to get rid of the ball and avoid intentional grounding. There is nothing he could have done differently there.
5:44- A five-yard Henry run sets up a critical third and 10 at the 12-yard line. This is probably Tannehill’s best play of the game. The shotgun formation features A.J. Brown lined up the right. Tajae Sharpe is also to the right, but he goes into motion and ends up on the left side with Corey Davis and Anthony Firkser. The Patriots blitz six and it is picked up well. Eventually, numbers win out and Devin McCourty makes it to the quarterback, but not before the ball is away. Firkser’s double move earns him separation on Terrance Brooks and a well-placed ball by Tannehill results in the score.
14:52- After Brady and company drive down the field for a quick score, the Tennessee offense is back in action. Jonnu Smith goes into jet motion to the opposite side of the field, drawing defensive attention so that Tannehill can throw a screen pass to A.J. Brown. Stephon Gillmore is not fooled and tackles Brown quickly after a four-yard gain.
14:17- After a three-yard run by Derrick Henry on the previous play, Tajae Sharpe goes in motion. The Titans end up with Anthony Firkser, Corey Davis, and Sharpe all on the right side while A.J. Brown mans the left side. The blockers hold up and Tannehill has adequate time to deliver the football. However, Tannehill is late to identify that both Davis and Sharpe will earn enough separation to make a catch. This is the disadvantage of having a see-it-throw-it quarterback. A quarterback of this type is one who usually has to see the receiver come open before he feels comfortable making a pass attempt. This type of quarterback does not often make anticipatory throws. While see-it-throw-it quarterbacks can have NFL success, they are more easily defended than the quarterbacks who can throw the ball and correctly anticipate that their receiver will be open in a certain spot, many times before the receiver has even made their route break.
Though they do not get penetration on this play, the defensive linemen do a good job of staying in the play and getting their hands up when they realize the pass is coming out. The ball is batted down at the line by Adam Butler. Three yards short, the Titans elect to punt the ball away.
8:30- The Patriots offense stalls out and punts, giving Tannehill and company another opportunity. After a one-yard run by Derrick Henry, the Titans deploy 11 personnel on second and nine. Jonnu Smith and Corey Davis are working on the left side of the field while Tajae Sharpe is lined up right and A.J. Brown is aligned wide right. Tajae Sharpe is the first read on the play and Tannehill never takes his eye off him. As in the previous play we looked at, Tannehill has plenty of time to stand in the pocket and throw, but he places the ball to the inside shoulder of the receiver instead of the outside shoulder. The telegraphed throw and poor placement allow Jonathan Jones to easily swat the ball away. The Titans run the ball on the next play and fail to convert. Facing fourth down and nine, they punt the ball to the Patriots yet again. New England was held to a field goal and gave the ball back to the Titans one more time before the half expired.
2:00- Moments before, Henry busted a 29-yard run that set up the offense on the Patriot 49-yard line. Pre-snap, Tannehill changes the protection at the line because he recognizes the potential blitz coming from the New England defenders on the left side. After faking a handoff to Henry, Tannehill moves around in the pocket, trying to locate a receiver. Corey Davis began the play blocking on the left side, but leaks out to the middle of the field. Jonnu Smith, who will be the target on this play, runs a corner route that starts on the left side of the line but extends to the right boundary. A.J. Brown takes the deep safety out of the play by running a go route. Unfortunately, Tannehill makes an awkward off-platform throw that sends the ball sailing out of bounds just ahead of Jonnu Smith.
0:47- Fortunately for Tannehill, Derrick Henry runs for 23 yards over the next three plays. Faced with first and 10 on the 26-yard line, the Titans line up in a formation with Corey Davis, Mycole Pruitt, and Jonnu Smith on the right, AJ Brown split out left, and Derrick Henry in the backfield. Tannehill begins the play by faking a handoff to Henry, who drops into the flat. He looks in the direction of Davis, but Davis has not come out of his break yet. With Lawrence Guy closing fast, Tannehill turns and checks down to Henry. The play is well-blocked and Henry chugs all the way to the one-yard line before being tackled. He scores on a handoff on the very next play.
13:05- Derrick Henry continues to chew up yards and clock as the Titans begin the third quarter with possession. Three plays and fourteen yards later, Tannehill attempts his next pass from the Tennessee 41-yard line. It looks as if the play call was intended to be a play action fake and then hit A.J. Brown or Corey Davis on a deep shot. Neither Brown nor Davis ever gain enough separation that Tannehill feels comfortable releasing the ball. Four seconds elapse between the snap and when pressure comes from Lawrence Guy. Tannehill checks down to Mycole Pruitt, who stayed shallow. Dont’a Hightower makes a solid tackle and there is no gain on the play.
11:35- Derrick Henry gains a yard on the next play, setting up third and nine. With Henry once again in the backfield, the Titans motion Anthony Firkser from left to right, where he lines up very close to Tajae Shape. A.J. Brown is split out wide right and Corey Davis is the lone receiver aligned wide left. The Patriots rush five and it is about three seconds from when the ball is snapped to when Dont’a Hightower stunts, gets past Roger Saffold, and has his arm on Tannehill. Under duress, Tannehill throws the ball to Anthony Firkser, but it is out of reach. Firkser claims Terrence Brooks held, but with no flag forthcoming, the Titans are forced to punt.
7:19- The Patriots do not get very far before punting it back to Tennessee. Henry loses three yards on first down before Tannehill and company attempt another pass. The Titans get aggressive and end up with an empty set when Jonnu Smith motions to the right of the formation. Once again, Tannehill makes a throw under pressure. Tajae Sharpe is the target and the ball is incomplete, but Jonathan Jones made contact with Sharpe before the ball arrived. The penalty nets the Titans 18 yards and the first down.
6:35- Henry rolls for another four yards before the next play. This play was a grave mistake by Tannehill that very well could have changed the complexion of the game had the ball bounced differently. From a 12-personnel look, Tannehill once again uses play action. As he is dropping back, pressure arrives from both the left and the right in the form of Kyle Van Noy and John Simon. Tannehill sees the hit coming, but does a poor job of securing the football. It pops loose because he is holding it away from his body. Luckily, Tannehill is able to fall on the bouncing ball for the recovery. It is unlikely he could have avoided the sack, but the near fumble is 100% on him.
5:50- Facing third and twelve, the Titans once again get aggressive with their play calling and it nearly pays off. Tannehill has time and a clean pocket to throw an on-platform pass. He nearly completes it on an accurate pass to Corey Davis deep down the field, but J.C. Jackson is able to stick with fighting for the ball and knocks it away as they fall together to the ground. The Titans once again punt a play later.
1:13- Another Patriots drive stalls out and the Titans regain the football deep in their own territory. Two plays of Derrick Henry runs leave a third and one to convert. There is really not much to see on this play. It is a designed sneak and the Titans win the battle in the trenches, as they have been doing most of the evening in running situations. Tannehill picks up three yards and the first down.
15:00- Derrick Henry gains nothing on the preceding play. Facing second and 10, Tannehill and the offense line up with A.J. Brown flanking the left side of the formation. Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith are out to the right. The handoff is faked to Henry and Tannehill rolls right… which unfortunately lands him on the side where two free rushers are coming. Panicking, Tannehill delivers a very poorly thrown football that was intended for Corey Davis, but is well short of him and hangs in the air for a long time. It is an easy interception for Duron Harmon.
11:35- Fortunately for the Titans, the Patriots cannot seem to sustain a drive either. After two Derrick Henry runs for five yards, the Titans must gain five yards to convert. Dion Lewis comes into the game in this obvious passing situation. Anthony Firkser, Tajae Sharpe, and Corey Davis align bunched together on the right while A.J. Brown lines up to the left. Not finding anything open, Tannehill is forced to eventually check down to Lewis, who squirts free from a stumbling Jamie Collins Sr. Both Stephon Gilmore and Lewis are shaken up on the play, but Gilmore’s loss is the bigger one for the Patriots.
9:29- After grinding for eight more yards on two plays, the Titans give Derrick Henry a break by faking to him and allowing Tannehill to take it around the left end for a three-yard pickup and first down conversion. It is a very nice play design by Arthur Smith to stretch out the defense with his alignment of the wide receivers. This will allow Tannehill to use his feet to win a one-on-one battle with a defender.
7:20- Henry and Lewis (who has returned from injury) gain seventeen yards on the next two rushing plays. Facing second and five, Tannehill once again uses his feet. From a 12-personnel set, Anthony Firkser and Jonnu Smith line up on the left and give the appearance that they will be blocking. At the snap, Firkser and Smith run routes to the left while A.J. Brown and Corey Davis run routes on the right side. Tannehill scans the field, but misses the fact that Corey Davis is wide open at one point in the play and probably would have earned a first down if Tannehill had thrown it to him. Fortunately, there is enough space for Tannehill to scramble and get five yards.
6:39- Tannehill makes another big mistake that could have cost the Titans the game. When the ball is snapped, he mishandles it, causing a fumble. Fortunately, Derrick Henry pounces on his miscue before Kyle Van Noy can. The Titans will still have to punt.
3:04- Due to a big drop by Julian Edelman and an incompletion to Phillip Dorsett, the Titans are back in business and can effectively close the game out with a few first downs. Henry gains two yards, setting up second and eight from the Tennessee 15. Tannehill connects with Corey Davis on a hitch route for eight yards, but the play is negated by an illegal formation penalty on Tennessee.
2:54- Derrick Henry gains five yards, setting up a pivotal third down and nine for the Titans. Anthony Firkser is the motion man on the play, an 11-personnel package that overloads the left side of the field with three receiving threats and forces Terrance Brooks to cover the much larger Firkser by himself. Brooks gives Firkser too much cushion and allows him to make the catch well past the line to gain. The offensive line keeps Tannehill clean long enough to deliver a well-placed ball. Henry gains 15 yards on the next four plays, chewing up valuable time before Tennessee punts the ball to the Patriots one last time. Tom Brady throws an interception to Logan Ryan that seals the win for the Titans.
Final Tannehill statline: 8/15 for 72 yards passing. 1 passing touchdown, 1 interception. 4 rushes for 11 yards. 2 fumbles, none lost.
Performance grade for Tannehill: C
Rationale: While Tannehill did make some big throws at critical moments, he also missed a few that would have taken much of the suspense out of this close game. He fumbled twice in ways that ended drives and both were avoidable. He threw an interception that was the result of panicking under pressure and forcing a throw that should not have been made. Make no mistake, this was a very good and disciplined unit he played against, and one that had a specific game plan to limit the explosive deep passing that the Titans had grown so accustomed to during the regular season. However, that is the level of competition you will typically face in the playoffs. Tannehill did not lose the game, but he did not elevate his team to win the game either. Derrick Henry, the Titans defense, and a Patriots offense that failed to execute at critical moments deserve more credit for the Tennessee victory than does Tannehill.
In the next installment, we will examine Tannehill’s performance against the Baltimore Ravens.
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