Regression was supposed to bring the Titans offense back to earth this season. That is not to say the Titans were supposed to suddenly be bad in 2020, but our projections had them sitting around 14th — nowhere near the dominant unit they had been to finish out 2019. It is safe to say that regression has not come.
To this point in the season, the Titans offense ranks second in passing, third in rushing, and third overall, trailing only the Chiefs and Packers among the league’s best offenses. Tennessee’s dominant run game combined with potent play-action passing can no longer be considered some divine act of god over the stretch of a small sample size. This is just who they are now.
While it’s clear that throwing the ball effectively is what puts points on the board, it is the Titans’ rushing attack that serves as a facilitator for their passing offense. Like all Shanahan-adjacent offenses, Tennessee’s offense is based on their run game, particularly from under center. The better the Titans can run the ball and sell the run out of particular looks, the better their play-action game will be and vice-versa. It is typically easier to create the run-to-pass dynamic, though, and that is why the Titans have sought to have one of the best run games in the league.
The simplest part of Tennessee’s equation is talent. Scheme is important and we will get to that in a bit, but at the end of the day, your Jimmies have to be better than their Joes. Tennessee’s offensive line almost always has the advantage in that regard. Through 12 weeks, Tennessee’s offensive line has produced the second-best adjusted line yards in the league (4.93), just barely trailing Minnesota (4.99). Seldom have they been bested on a talent-vs.-talent level this season.
Tennessee’s right guard Nate Davis has been particularly dominant. A second-year player out of Charlotte, Davis is probably best known for coming out of college having played in a frog stance. He doesn’t quite sit in that same stance now, but he still sits lower than just about any other guard, which makes picking him out on film that much easier. Davis, in tandem with right tackle Dennis Kelly, has helped Tennessee get into the top 10 in adjusted line yards to middle/guard, right tackle, and right end areas. Only the New Orleans Saints also have top-10 rankings in all three categories.
What stands out most about Davis’ (64) game is how powerful his hands are. The dude is a bully and is always looking to beat the heck out of anyone lined up against him. That mean punch shows up most often when Davis has to work back to help combo on 1-tech defensive tackles (between the guard and center) before climbing to the second level.
In most cases, all a guard really needs to do is get enough of a knock on the defensive tackle to allow the center to reach over to that tackle’s midline and “overtake” the block. Usually that just means ensuring the defensive tackle gets minimal lateral movement. Davis makes it a whole lot easier than that. As seen in both clips, Davis gets off a punch violent enough to jam the defensive tackle back entirely, effectively doing all the work for the center. Center Ben Jones still needs to be athletic enough to get over to the defensive tackle’s opposite shoulder and seal him off, but Davis’ work off the snap makes that incredibly easy.
To some degree, there is a mini-highlight tape to be made for all of Tennessee’s offensive linemen. Even with some injuries here and there, the unit as a whole has held up exceptionally well. Davis in particular just deserves some shine as he continues to emerge as one of the league’s best guards, at least in the run game.
As for the Xs and Os that unlock the Jimmies and Joes, the Titans have a few things working for them. In short, the bigger picture of Tennessee’s run game is well thought out. Everything they do is deliberate and expressly complements something else in their playbook. Of course, that is the goal for every playcaller in the league, but offensive coordinator Arthur Smith has yet again proven to be one of the best in the league at putting together a complete, cohesive offense based around the run game.
In the clip below, the Colts initially set the strength of their front to the two-tight end side of the formation (the offense’s left). Tennessee then moves their fullback into an in-line tight end position to the right, while the outside tight end to the left shifts from the left to the fullback position. Now the formation is strong to the right because the tight end distribution is even and the lone receiver is to the right — in a near split, no less.
Ryan Tannehill “can, can” vs IND pic.twitter.com/q6c5193Aap
— Derrik Klassen (@QBKlassClips) December 2, 2020
In the audio of the broadcast clip, quarterback Ryan Tannehill can be heard calling “can, can,” which is a common “kill” verbiage in the Shanahan system. “Kill” refers to the idea that the playcaller will give the quarterback two plays in the huddle: a primary play, and a “kill” call that serves as a secondary play if the first play looks bad pre-snap. If I were to guess here, the shuffling of players around the formation was intended to see if the Colts would shift the strength of their defensive line, with the primary play call being some sort of run into the new weak side (left) of the formation. Since the Colts do not move the strength of their front away from the left side, Tannehill “cans” the primary call and the Titans run lead zone to the right side. One broken tackle and 8 yards later, the Titans earned a fresh set of downs.
The Titans also do well to create ambiguity between their run and play-action pass concepts. More than just making sure to call play-action passes that flow off the same action as their primary run concepts, the Titans will use similar motions and shifts into formations to try to imitate some of their run calls. Smith dialed up a great play-action pass against the Ravens by doing this.
Here is the Titans’ first play in the second half. They start in an under-center formation with a tight bunch to the right. A.J. Brown (11) motions from the outside of the bunch into a wing/hip alignment outside the offensive tackle. As is usually the case any time a team lines up in a tight bunch like this, the Titans run straight at it, hoping to get a hat on a hat in the box. Kelly, the right tackle, does not have his best rep and Henry is only able to trudge forward for about 2 yards, earning the Titans an uninspiring gain. The real value in this play would be felt on the next drive.
On Tennessee’s fourth play of this drive, they found themselves in a first-and-10 just short of midfield. Though they line up in a more open 2×2 look with the tight end to the left, a couple of players move around pre-snap to set up a similar look as we saw in the previous clip. The tight end moves from left to right and the wide receiver out wide tightens his split to create a bunch. As intended, the similar look and situation (both plays were first-and-10 from the left hash) gets the Ravens defense to buy into the play-action. Most importantly, cornerback Marcus Peters (24, bottom of screen) bites down to play the run, in part because wide receiver Corey Davis’ (84) angle off the snap looks as though he is hunting to block the linebacker in the box. Davis is then able to work freely through his deep corner route, which Tannehill delivers right on the money.
These sorts of developments over the course of a game make up for a good chunk why the Titans are so lethal on play-action. Smith’s play-action calls are not just a smattering of random plays thrown out in hopes of simply getting linebackers to bite once or twice. It is beautiful to watch how well Smith can piece together a game plan to open up shot plays like the one above. Smith’s play calling — in addition to the continued development of young players such as the two Davises and Brown — has been key in staving off the regression many assumed was coming for the Titans this season.
Whether or not all of that will be enough to overcome how awful their defense has been come playoff time, who knows. High-quality offense does tend to mean more for a team’s success, but the Titans’ defense ranks bottom-five in the league. The Titans are as one-sided as a team can get right now. Nevertheless, there is satisfaction to be had in the Titans being able to overcome expected regression and press on with their ground game and play-action passing.