NASHVILLE – The tremendous production of Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry through five games has – at least to a certain extent – masked the team’s deficiencies in the passing attack.
We know what some of the issues are: Marquee trade acquisition Julio Jones has only been healthy enough to play three games; the offensive line has struggled to keep quarterback Ryan Tannehill upright on a consistent basis; and receivers haven’t created enough separation.
But what is going on with A.J. Brown?
Coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to start his NFL career, expectations were high for the 2019 second-round pick out of Ole Miss. We know that Brown has been dealing with a hamstring issue – one that limited him to just eight snaps in Week 3, caused him to sit out in Week 4, and had him intentionally held to just 41 of the Titans’ 64 offensive in the win over Jacksonville.
Is it strictly poor health, though, that’s behind his sluggish start – just 10 catches for 130 yards and a touchdown in the four contests that he’s appeared?
“I’m not there yet. Soon” Brown said following Sunday’s victory, in which he caught three passes for 38 yards. “Soon. Maybe. Hope so. But I’m not there yet.”
Brown also sounded a little frustrated, saying he didn’t get as many snaps as he wanted because he was on the snap count.
Coach Mike Vrabel said Monday that kind of attitude is expected of a competitor, adding a bit more to his response as well.
“I want to focus on his conditioning, too,” Vrabel said. “There are a lot of things that we need to focus on. Coming back and making sure we get everybody in there and making sure that we have some gas there throughout the game.”
So far, the numbers are uncharacteristic of Brown, who:
• Has caught only 10 of the 25 passes that have been thrown in his direction, a 40 percent catch rate that ranks near the bottom of the league. His three drops come into play here, but even catching all three of those passes would leave him at just over 50 percent. Brown’s catch rate last year was 66 percent last season, 62 in his rookie year.
• Has come down with just one of six contested pass attempts for him this season, per Pro Football Focus. That 16.7 percent success rate in contested catches ranks 58th out of 68 NFL receivers who’ve been targeted at least 20 times this season.
• Has averaged just 3.6 yards after catch, which ranks tied for 41st in the league. Yards after catch has always been a strength of Brown’s game, as he averaged 8.7 in his rookie season of 2019 (second in the NFL) and 5.9 in 2020 (tied for 13th). This year’s sample size so far admittedly is small, but it is not promising.
If Titans fans are concerned about the early struggles, Brown sounds even more so.
“To be honest, right now, I'm not going to lie, it's difficult,” Brown said following Sunday’s game. “I'm glad we got the win. But for me, I expect more out of myself. I expect better out of myself, and I've got to do a better job. I've got to get going.”
Vrabel said Brown came out “OK” physically after getting a limited number of snaps against Jacksonville.
So perhaps a more significant role will be on tap for him next Monday. That’s when Buffalo brings the top overall defense – and the second-best defense against the pass – to Nissan Stadium.
Brown will seek to get healthy – in more ways than one – against a team that’s posted two shutouts in its past four games.