One thing we know without a doubt about the Tennessee Titans as they enter the bye week: This team has an injury problem.
One question that’s not as easily answered: Is there also a Ryan Tannehill problem?
The second issue is potentially more concerning than the first, as we know that the bye week – and the probable return of players from injured reserve – is likely to provide a much-needed boost over the final games of the regular season.
Will those factors also make Tannehill a better quarterback? Almost certainly, especially if A.J. Brown and Julio Jones come back immediately after their mandatory three-game absences – as opposed to if they sit out even more contests than that.
Still, Tannehill’s play overall this season offers cause for concern, as he has now thrown an NFL-high 13 interceptions, a total that includes 10 over the past seven weeks and five in the past two weeks. Only once in Tannehill’s nine-season career has he thrown more than 13 passes in a single season, and that occurred way back in 2013, his second season. On the other side of the ledger, Tannehill has produced just 14 touchdown passes.
In Sunday’s 36-13 loss to the Patriots, Tannehill started the game in great fashion, going nine-for-10 for 72 yards and a touchdown. After that? He went two-for-11 for 21 yards and one interception, completing just one-of-eight passes for 14 yards in the entire second half.
Are there qualifying factors needed to put Tannehill’s picks in context?
• The most obvious is the depleted status of the receiving corps, which on Sunday consisted of Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Chester Rogers, Dez Fitzpatrick and Cody Hollister. Aside from Rogers (63 games, 130 catches), the other three receivers had combined for 33 games and 33 catches heading into the game against the Patriots.
• Along those same lines, the Titans were playing Sunday without Brown (injured reserve), Jones (injured reserve), Marcus Johnson (injured reserve), Josh Reynolds (released), Cam Batson (injured reserve) and Racey McMath (injured reserve). Jones has missed half the Titans’ 12 games this season, Brown has missed two, and both Pro Bowlers have been limited in several other contests.
• The loss of Derrick Henry also has hurt the passing attack in a couple of ways. Defenses don’t feel the need to jam as many players in the box to stop Henry, which means there are more to drop back into Tannehill’s passing lanes. In addition, the Titans haven’t run as much play-action without the threat of Henry, which means there’s less hesitation for linebackers and safeties in terms of committing themselves to pass defense.
All that said, there’s still no way to blame Tannehill’s big drop-off this season completely on a depleted offensive roster.
It wasn’t a depleted roster, for example, that was at fault in Week 11 against Houston, when Tannehill telegraphed a pass to Brown in the red zone, throwing an interception that was nearly returned for a touchdown.
It wasn’t a depleted roster that was at fault early in the second quarter against the Patriots, when Tannehill overthrew a wide open Rogers near the Patriots’ end zone, a third-down miss that preceded a missed field goal. What should have been seven points and a lead for the Titans was instead zero points and a 10-6 deficit at the time.
Tannehill’s interception came early in the fourth quarter, facing a fourth-and-goal at the Patriots’ 2-yard line. He rolled right, saw little in the way of open receivers and – as he had to, given the situation – tried to force a ball into Hollister. It was tipped and picked in the end zone, a backbreaker of a missed opportunity for the Titans, who trailed 26-13 at the time.
“It’s fourth down and you’ve got to rip that thing in there,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “It’s not like you can just throw it out of bounds and live to play another down. He’s got to try to force something. It is what it is, with that situation in the game.”
What about the two other near-picks that Tannehill threw, though, the ones linebacker Kyle Van Noy should have – one in the second quarter and one in the third? What about that one-for-eight in the second half, with the Titans trying to overturn a deficit?
It’s not as if we can pin this latest loss on Tannehill. Not when running backs D’Onta Foreman, Dontrell Hilliard and Khari Blasingame all put the ball on the turf, the first two of those three lost fumbles coming in New England territory when the game’s outcome was still very much in doubt.
Nor are we absolving a defense that failed to produce a takeaway for the second straight week, a defense that forced the Patriots to punt just one time of blame
But it’s the bigger picture than just this one game that’s more the concern regarding Tannehill.
All the injuries at receiver and running back may have robbed the Titans’ offense of much of its firepower, but it’s also given Tannehill an opportunity to shoulder even more of the responsibility than normal. It’s offered a chance for him to prove to critics he is more than just a play-action quarterback that excels because of the threat presented by Henry.
Instead, we’ve seen a surprisingly steady stream of interceptions, made all the more eye-opening because of Tannehill’s tremendous success over the first two seasons here, when he threw a combined 55 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Will a week’s rest, and the hopeful return of Titans weapons like Brown, Jones – and maybe even Henry – help Tannehill turn things around as the team prepares for the near-certainty of a playoff berth?
The Titans better hope so.