NASHVILLE – It remains to be seen when exactly wide receiver A.J. Brown will return to the Tennessee Titans’ lineup, whether he’s deemed healthy enough to play Thursday against San Francisco or whether he needs a little more time.
But the very fact the Titans on Monday designated Brown – along with defensive back Chris Jackson -- to return from injured reserve is a huge plus for a passing game that has been gasping for air in recent weeks.
The designation opens a 21-day practice window for both Brown and Jackson, though neither will count against the Titans’ 53-man roster until each is activated.
Tennessee’s offense has sputtered over the past four games, managing just 13 points in losses to Houston, New England and Pittsburgh while scoring 20 against Jacksonville. The biggest problem is turnovers, a combined 13 in the three defeats.
But the passing attack has struggled in the last three contests as well. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw for 85 yards against the Patriots, 161 yards against the Jaguars and 153 yards against the Steelers. In those three games, Tannehill has completed just five of 19 pass attempts of 10 yards or more, totaling 54 yards, zero touchdowns and one interception.
Brown may not be able to solve all the Titans’ passing-game problems, but the return of the Pro Bowler will likely have Tannehill breathing a huge sigh of relief. The two began to bond back in the Titans’ 2019 training camp when they took plenty of second-team reps together, Tannehill as Marcus Mariota’s back-up and Brown as a rookie trying to earn his job in the starting lineup.
Even then, Tannehill sensed a certain chemistry, noting how easy it was to throw the ball to Brown, a second-round draft pick out of Ole Miss.
“Early on, you can see that when you throw with a guy,” Tannehill said. “Just how easy it is to read their body language and how smooth they move. He has a big catch radius and can adjust to the ball really well. You put those things together and it makes for an easy target.”
In Tannehill’s first start for the Titans, he completed six passes to Brown, who had only totaled 14 in his first six games that season.
The connection between the two only has intensified over the years. Even though Brown has been in and out of the lineup with injuries this season, it’s clear how much Tannehill relies on him:
• Per ESPN stats, Brown has been targeted on 30 percent of the routes he’s run this season, a number that – as of a couple weeks ago (when the numbers were last posted) – ranked third in the NFL, trailing only the Rams’ Cooper Kupp (32 percent) and Green Bay’s Davante Adams (32 percent).
• Per Next Gen Stats, Brown was also one of the most targeted receivers in the NFL when the quarterback was blitzed. Tannehill has targeted Brown on 35 percent of throws while blitzed, a figure that – as of earlier this month – trailed only Pittsburgh’s Diontae Johnson (40 percent), Kupp (38 percent) and Adams (36 percent).
• One more stat of note: Though Brown has played in just 10 of the Titans’ 14 games, his 31 first-down catches are nearly twice as many as the second-highest player on the team, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, who has 17.
Is it any wonder Tannehill is so appreciative of the 6-foot-1, 226-pound Brown’s feel for adjusting to the ball, and the quarterback-friendly routes Brown runs?
“I love throwing the ball to A.J.,” Tannehill said. “He is a great dude. I love being around him. He is a great friend. He is fun to throw the ball to and he is easy to throw the ball to.
“He has a natural ability to get himself open. He has his size and his strength. There are some guys that they are just easy to throw to – (even if) it is your first time taking reps with them, they are easy to throw to. He is one of those guys.”
Brown has 46 catches for 615 yards and three touchdowns this season. He’s averaging 13.4 yards per reception, a drop from the 20.2 yards per catch he averaged as a rookie and the 15.4 yards per catch he averaged last year. Much of the difference is due to fewer yards after the catch, as Brown averaged 8.7 yards after the catch as a rookie, 5.9 last year and 3.8 this season.
The eventual return of Jackson, meanwhile, should boost the depth of a secondary that has had to deal with numerous injuries this season. Rookie Caleb Farley (knee) is out for the season and Jackrabbit Jenkins (foot) has missed the past two games. Rookie cornerback Elijah Molden was on Monday placed on the Titans’ reserve/COVID-19 list.
Jackson has played in nine games this season, starting three, and he’s produced 31 tackles and four passes defensed.