After faking a handoff to Derrick Henry, the veteran quarterback completed a 70-yard bomb to wide receiver Treylon Burks, igniting the home crowd. The ball placement was terrific, hitting the second-year pro in stride to set up the Titans’ first touchdown. The pass traveled 62.2 air yards, according to Next Gen Stats.
It was the highlight of Tannehill’s bounce-back performance, one in which he completed 83.3% of his passes for 246 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions and a 123.3 passer rating, one of the best games of his career. It followed one of his worst, one in which he threw three interceptions against New Orleans and posted a 28.8 passer rating, the worst of his career.
With two young signal callers behind him in second-round rookie Will Levis and 2021 third-round pick Malik Willis, Tannehill’s showing for the Titans (1-1) reasserted his status as QB1 ahead of Sunday’s road game at Cleveland (1-1).
“I didn’t really have any doubt that that was coming,” offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said this week. “He’s such a pro and he’s been successful for a long time. Obviously, the game a couple weeks ago didn’t go as we wanted it to. …. He took advantage of the opportunity and played the way that we needed him to play and the way we expected him to play.”
That’s the best possible news for these Titans.
Their hopes of playoff contention rest largely in his hands. They will go as he goes.
This is a team still built to win now. When the NFL world this offseason thought they should rebuild after their 7-10 disaster in 2022, they instead retooled — and kept the aging veterans who were subject to release and trade rumors (Tannehill, Henry, star safety Kevin Byard). There’s a good chance that this season is the last time we’ll see this iteration of the team, considering the contract statuses and ages of those team leaders. So Willis and/or Levis playing, save an injury to Tannehill, would be a waving of the white flag on 2023.
When Tannehill plays as he did last week, the Titans’ outlook is promising.
It’s early in 2023, but Tennessee looks like it has its best offense since 2020. The tandem of Henry and third-round rookie Tyjae Spears provide the kind of dynamic, versatile run game it hasn’t had.
There’s been heavy discussion across the usage of both, which is a good problem to have. Henry, still one of the league’s premier backs, is currently ninth in the NFL with 143 rushing. And in a small sample size, Spears has been one of football’s most efficient rushers. Of all running backs with at least 10 rush attempts, he’s tied for third in yards per carry (6.9), fourth in yards before contact per carry (2.0), sixth in yards after contact per carry (5.0) and seventh in rush success rate (54.5%), according to Next Gen Stats.
Among all players with at least 10 rush attempts, the former Tulane star is also No. 2 on Pro Football Focus’ elusive rate metric, which measures the success and impact of a runner with the ball independent of the blocking.
“We’re going to block for him one day, I promise you,” coach Mike Vrabel said this week of Spears. “And he’s going to gain 30, 40, 50 yards. I’m not sure. Every time you think he’s going to get tackled, he bursts through for another five or six yards.”
The Titans’ offensive line is also much improved from last season. Tennessee allowed a 44.4% pressure rate last season, dead last in the league, per NGS. That number has improved to 37.9% so far this season, which ranks 20th — not great, but closer to average. And there’s optimism that can continue to improve. The team has four new starters on the offensive line — the lone returner, Aaron Brewer, has moved from guard to center — and first-round rookie left guard Peter Skoronski is currently sidelined with an abdomen issue. Continuity should improve the pass-protection numbers over time.
The Titans have a stronger cast of receivers than they did last season, too. Three-time All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins, who signed a two-year, $26 million deal with Tennessee, has been as advertised so far, leading the team in receiving to this point (11 catches, 105 yards). Titans wide receivers last season were collectively third-worst in receiving yards, according to Next Gen Stats. So far, they’re 13th (331 receiving yards), all the more impressive considering Tannehill’s stinker in Week 1.
Coverage remains a work in progress, but Tennessee’s defensive front is poised to lead the team once against in 2023. Entering Week 3, the Titans have the No. 3 run defense (65.0 rushing yards allowed per game). Since the beginning of 2007, the current 17-game stretch by the Titans’ defense (the final 15 games of last season, the first two of this season) is the best any NFL team has fared in rushing yards allowed over any 17 consecutive contests (64.6 rushing yards allowed/game), according to Titans PR.
The Titans, of course, get after the quarterback too. They rank in the top half of the league in pressure rate at 35.8% (16th), according to NGS. They’re tied for eighth with nine sacks. Six of those have come without blitzing, fifth-best in the league entering Week 3, per NGS.
This is a team that can be a playoff contender down the stretch; one that can be much better than casual observers believe.
Tannehill needs to be on his A-game, though. Consistently.
Like he was against the Chargers.
“I don’t ride that wave,” Tannehill said of those who want him with the Titans one week and want him gone the next week. “I know a lot of people, especially outside the building, ride those waves. Personally, (I) take it one week at a time and try to improve on the things that you want to each and every week and go out and play football and not let one week roll into the next.”
Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.
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