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Spreading It Around Elevated Pass Game

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill relied on more than just one target to produce one of his best games of the season Sunday against the Houston Texans.

NASHVILLE – When A.J. Brown burst back onto the scene in Week 16, his standout performance highlighted both a strength and weakness of the Tennessee Titans at the time.

Brown’s 11 catches for 145 yards and a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers on a Thursday night at Nissan Stadium – after four weeks on injured reserve -- made it clear he was still operating at a Pro Bowl level. The fact that all the other Titans pass-catchers in the game totaled 11 catches for just 64 yards, however, revealed the continuation of another trend: Nobody besides Brown was making much of an impact in the receiving department.

But as playoff preparations begin this week, there are some encouraging signs of increased diversity in the passing game.

In fact, four Titans posted more than 50 receiving yards and a touchdown in Sunday’s victory over the Houston Texans, marking just the second time in franchise history that had occurred, per NFL Research via Broadway Sports. The first was back in the Oilers’ run-and-shoot days, a 1990 game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Maybe even more impressively, there have only been six occurrences of the “four-for-50-and-a-TD” anywhere in the NFL over the past seven seasons.

The fact that Brown was one of the four (four catches, 68 yards and a touchdown) was no surprise. He led the team this season in catches (63), receiving yards (869) and touchdowns (five) despite missing three full games – and portions of others.

But the contributions of receivers Julio Jones and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, along with tight end Anthony Firkser were a little more newsworthy, perhaps a sign the Titans won’t have to be as reliant on Brown in the postseason.

Here’s a closer look:

Julio Jones – In a year in which he’s been plagued by injury, Jones had been little more than an afterthought in recent weeks, targeted a combined total of twice in games against Pittsburgh and San Francisco before sitting out the Miami game due to COVID-19.

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Against the Texans, however, it was a different story. Tannehill targeted Jones a season-high nine times. His five catches for 58 yards and a touchdown were Jones’ most impactful numbers since Week 2 at Seattle. Jones played 46 snaps, the most he’d played since the Seahawks game, which went to overtime.

Was the tight-window touchdown catch evidence that Tannehill’s trust level with Jones is increasing?

“We're steadily working at it, and to make a huge play in a critical moment in a situation where we really needed it, and to be able to make it through the contact, you know, it wasn't just a simple, easy catch,” Tannehill said. “He was in the perfect spot and was able to make it through tough contact and reel it in. It was a huge play for us."

Nick Westbrook-Ikhine – He’s been a steady contributor this season, recognized as much for his run-blocking and ability to play all the receiver positions as for his receiving stats. Still, Westbrook-Ikhine had only caught a combined two passes in the two games prior to Sunday.

Against Houston, however, Westbrook-Ikhine bounced back with four receptions for 78 yards and a touchdown, just the third time this year he’s had more than 50 receiving yards in a game. The second-year receiver recorded one of the season’s most important catches, hauling in Tannehill’s already famous “Houdini” pass – and helping the Titans keep the Texans at bay in the fourth quarter.

“I have so much respect for him and the way he works,” Tannehill said. “He plays wide receiver positions consecutively – within the drive he’ll play all three -- and people don't realize what kind of mental gymnastics that puts you through on where you are and what you're listening for, and just the flexibility that gives us as an offense.”

Anthony Firkser – It’s fair to say bigger things had been expected of Firkser this season following the departure of Jonnu Smith. Despite a slight increase in snaps, however, the numbers haven’t been as good as they were in 2020.

But perhaps his production over the last two weeks, which included four catches for 56 yards and a touchdown against Houston, are signs of things to come. The Texans game marked the first time this year Firkser had topped 35 receiving yards, and the touchdown catch was his second in as many weeks. He’s now totaled seven catches for 80 yards and two touchdowns in the last two games.

“I think Anthony is playing with more confidence,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “I think he has done a better job chipping (as a pass blocker) when we have asked him to chip, and I think that has given him a lot of confidence, just for him to be able to start that.

“I felt like that really improved in the 49ers game, and then when we have asked him to go out on routes, he has gotten into routes quicker. He had some really nice plays (against the Texans). I think the confidence level has really improved there.”