Behind a volatile start to the season from the Titans offense, the team now sits at 2-3 at the bottom of the AFC South.
Coming off their first loss to the Colts in 1,060 days, many tough questions face Tennessee.
While the commanding Week 4 win over Cincinnati masked the pain from shocking performances against the Saints and Browns, there are some obvious flaws.
In particular, the unconvincing shift in offensive identity is what signals the alarm bells.
The Titans run play percentage has been top 5 in the league each season since 2017. Through the first 5 games of 2023, they sit outside the top 10 at a rate of 43.9%.
Henry's 114 touches through the first 5 weeks of 2022 compares to just 85 so far in 2023. This is a product of the poor offensive line, lack of running success early in games, and the emergence of Tyjae Spears.
Spears has looked explosive in his 41 touches so far this season. While he provides a nice change of pace and has made some impressively athletic plays, Henry's underuse is an issue.
Taking a look at Derrick Henry's run charts in the 2022 Week 7 win over the Colts vs last week's loss, the tighter spread and lack of rushes stands out. While game script can usage of the run game, each game thus far as allowed for a steady stream of Derrick Henry.
The Titans remain run-first but less-so than recent seasons. While the Titans are a staggering 44-21 when Derrick Henry gets 15+ carries, they are becoming a less Henry-centric team.
In an ideal world, this variation would be a good thing. In fact, the Titans offense has looked its best when the play action is a central feature:
With 35 play action plays so far this season that make up 28% of Ryan Tannehill's total passing yards, this is undoubtedly something that should continue.
When comparing the 2022 Titans offense to the first 5 games of 2023, this implementation of play action is among the most significant changes.
Supporting Tannehill's success in the play action game is his 9.4 intended yards per pass which ranks him 2nd in the league. As was showcased in Indianapolis, Tannehill is looking downfield more often, connecting with DeAndre Hopkins, Treylon Burks, and Chris Moore so far this season.
These are not plays we saw very often in 2022. Since trading AJ Brown, the Titans have struggled with generating the big, home-run plays.
The Titans offense will really start to perform when there is a balance of the consistent and dominant run game with play action and deep shots.
That is one of the reasons the Colts loss was so frustrating: the pass game, when involving Hopkins downfield, was highly successful but the run game was never properly established.
Certain drives against the Chargers and Colts showcased a good balance but really, the last time we saw that consistently was 2021 with Arthur Smith as the play caller.
While this inconsistency between run and pass and odd down-specific decision making represents a lack of identity, there is plenty of time for things to change.
After Tennessee was the only team in the league last season not to score 28 or more points last season, it is understandable that offensive morale is low.
There is no misstating: the Titans are typically not a very 'fun' football team to watch.
However, there are some reasons for optimism, too:
The offensive line can take a step forward
2022 starting RT Nicholas Petite-Frere is qualified to return from his betting suspension. While he was inactive in Week 5, his presence could be quite helpful going forward. RT Chris Hubbard has had a great start to the season, totaling a 91% pass block win rate which ranks him 17th among all tackles.
Still, Petite-Frere could allow Tennessee to shift around the line, namely LT Andre Dillard, who recieved a $29m deal with Tennessee in the offseason and has been a key contributor to the 17 sacks Tannehill has faced so far this season. On Wednesday, Mike Vrabel said he was not ready to put Petite-Frere into a starting role but I would expect that to happen at some point this season.
Hand in hand with the improvement of the offensive line is increased efficiency for Derrick Henry. While there will not be a huge change in total volume, Derrick Henry is averaging just 1.8 yards per attempt before contact, the 6th worst among starting running backs.
All things considered, his 3.8 yards per attempt is impressive and when paired with his limited yards before contact, signals room for growth.
Terylon Burks and Chig Okonkwo can return to 2022 form
The absence of Treylon Burks has made no difference to the team's passing game and while likely misleading, it has actually improved. Burks along with Chig Okonwko, have had drop problems so far this season.
They have not yet played a game that is representative of their ability and after being big contributors in 2022, have taken a big step back through 5 weeks. If Kelly is able to get them involved adequately, their speed and versatility can add a dimension to the offense.
Kelly and the offense can improve redzone efficiency
While much of the disrespect was justified, there is no denying that Todd Downing's offense was very efficient in the redzone. In 2022, the Titans scored a touchdown on 64% of redzone trips compared to just 35% so far this season, the 2nd greatest drop-off in the NFL. In the two away games, this rate sits at just 11%.
A great kicker gives you the confidence to take the 3 points but the lack of success on early downs has made Tennessee far too reliant on Nick Folk. His 36 points on the season is equal to all of the points scored by Tennessee's skill position players. Even if they were just an average redzone offense, that could add some much needed points and put the team over the top in games such as the Week 1 loss in New Orleans.
Tim Kelly has indeed shown signs of promise. As he continues to adjust to being an NFL playcaller, incorporates play action further, and goes in with a more concrete gameplan, we could see some meaningful improvement.
While the team has not yet played 'complimentary football' as Mike Vrabel says, where the offense and defense work in tandem and make eachother better, an enhanced identity could make the Titans a far more consistent football team.
Also, the division will not demand flawless football:
The AFC South is off to a hot start but the reality is, come the end of the season, a .500 record would keep Tennessee in contention. They are not going to tank, they are not going to move on from Ryan Tannehill, and Tennessee is not going to spiral downward and finish last in the AFC South.
While the offense has lacked identity and the defense has not been as reliant as anticipated, stretches of inconsistency is nothing new for Mike Vrabel's Titans.
With the Titans game in London this weekend, read here about what other countries think of the NFL.