Sitting in 1st place in the AFC South and 3rd in the AFC overall, the Titans are having a respectable but unconvincing season. One of the biggest weak points has been QB Ryan Tannehill and his regression following two impressive seasons.
While the Titans are 8-4, offensive output has declined, the team has struggled greatly with injuries, and they have lost 2 straight games. I am not worried about the season but the Titans do not look the same as they did just a few weeks ago.
A big question is whether the Titans are struggling or is just Ryan Tannehill? To answer that, lets look at the stats:
31 (1.8 avg)
24 (1.4 avg)
33 (2.75 avg), most in NFL
Last 3 Super Bowl Winning Quarterbacks:
2020: Tom Brady
2019: Patrick Mahomes
2018: Nick Foles
21 (1.3 avg)
17 (1.2 avg)
9 (1.8 avg)
After an incredible final 12 games in 2019 and a strong 2020 season, Ryan Tannehill is having his worst season in Tennessee by a significant margin. Sure, the number look even worse when compared to recent Super Bowl winners, but the numbers are just below league average.
Of all the changes from the 2020 to 2021 season, the biggest thing dragging on Tannehill is the change of Offensive Coordinator. In Arthur Smith's 2 seasons as Offensive Coordinator, the Titans were a top 3 rushing and top 10 scoring offense. Now, Todd Downing has a different strategy which involves less play action but more passing players per game. The team has also appeared to be less creative, partly due to the growing list of injured players but mainly due to coaching.
A very telling stat, Ryan Tannehill led the league in passing in play action scenarios last season with 1541 yards on 158 attempts. This season, however, he has just 789 yards on 85 attempts. The Titans had the 5th highest play action percentage with 31% last season compared to just 20% this season.
Another important thing to consider is Tannehill's accuracy. He ranks 14th in the league in what Pro Football Reference considers 'poor throws' with 63 and has thrown 77.6% of his passes on target which ranks 13th. Tannehill has been poor but the stats do not look quite as bad as the eye test.
Despite Offensive Line struggles, Tannehill has been hurried just 16 times (34th in the league), has an average of 2.3 seconds in the pocket (24th), and has been pressured on just 21.6% of dropbacks (24th). Despite this, he has still been knocked down 46 times (3rd most).
Another important stat, Tannehill has the 8th lowest DVOA in the league (higher is better). Essentially, DVOA evaluates every play against a league-average baseline and takes into account things such as down and distance, field position, and more to determine whether the play was good or bad. You can read more about it here.
A major factor this season has been the Titans lengthy injury list with 18 currently on Injured Reserve. The Titans 'big three' of Derrick Henry, Julio Jones, and A.J. Brown have all found themselves on IR. The most significant of these losses has undoubtedly been Derrick Henry:
Tannehill with Henry
Tannehill without Henry
24 (3 avg)
9 (2.3 avg)
Tannehill was off to a subpar season prior to Derrick Henry's Week 8 injury but since then, he has struggled further.
This chart shows Tannehill's completion percentage on the Y Axis and Target Depth on the X Axis. The drastic dip in mid-range throws and extreme increase with long balls is very interesting. Much of that high percentage on long throws is because of Receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. These are just some interesting charts to better understand Tannehill's passing tendencies and successes.
To me, the eye test on Tannehill does not indicate hesitancy or a lack of confidence but rather poor planning and execution. He has thrown more interceptable passes in the past few weeks than I can remember seeing and many passes, such as the 1st half pass to Chester Rogers on Sunday, are simply off target.
Additionally, the playcalling has done no favors to Tannehill. There have been too few play action plays, screens, or creative passing plays. Tannehill is also working with a very inexperienced group of receivers who may not always run routes up to standard.
Despite Henry's injury, the Titans still have a stable run game. Over the last 3 games, they are averaging 146.3 rushing yards per game, most coming from D'Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard. This is another data point as even with a run game, Tannehill is struggling.
You can interpret the stats how you'd like and they are truly not as bad as expected. However, as Booger McFarland said on NFL Primetime, Tannehill must improve his game if the Titans want to be contenders this season.
Tannehill can certainly improve as the season goes on, even without his top targets. Having them back would certainly help but even then, they are not targeted nearly enough. Ideally, as the run game improves, like against New England, Tannehill would be under less pressure; that did not exactly yield good results on Sunday. I do think that Tannehill will only get better this season but only because the last 3 games have been so substandard.
Still, I remain optimistic on the team's prospects for this season. The key behind the team's success this season is that they simply find a way to win. It may not be pretty or be complimentary like Coach Vrabel always preaches, but they are still dominant in the AFC South.