NASHVILLE –Ryan Tannehill lived a relatively comfortable life in the pocket last season.
The Tennessee Titans quarterback was sacked a career-low 24 times over 16 games, and his sack percentage – the number of times he was sacked per drop-back – was just 4.8, also the lowest of his career.
Those numbers showed not only that Tannehill was well protected for the most part, but also that he’d learned to get rid of the ball when heavily pressured.
So, what are we to make of this mess through four games, as Tannehill – after the New York Jets sacked him seven times Sunday – now leads the NFL with 17 this season? His sack percentage has more than doubled from last year to 10.1, which is on pace to be the second-highest figure of his nine-year career.
Coach Mike Vrabel wasn’t about to pin the problem on any one player or position group earlier this week, noting that the offensive line, quarterback and receivers all have roles to play in alleviating pocket pressure.
“It is about getting open -- recognizing man and zone, running the correct route. It is about protection holding up. And it is about the quarterback getting rid of the football and getting it to someone quickly,” Vrabel said Monday. “When the quarterback starts to get hit, then he wants to start getting rid of the ball sooner and then maybe guys aren’t open as quickly. It is just this process, and we need everyone to come together like we do when we have successful plays.”
But how much of the blame should be attributed each of the three groups?
To the naked eye, the evidence seems to point overwhelmingly toward the offensive line as being the biggest issue, and the advanced statistics back that theory. That’s not to say the quarterback and receivers are without guilt.
Here’s a look at how offensive line, receivers and quarterback have all contributed to the rash of 17 sacks, which projects to 72 over a 17-game season.
IT’S THE OFFENSIVE LINE
The Titans’ offensive line kept its middle – left guard Rodger Saffold, center Ben Jones and right guard Nate Davis – intact from last season. It regained Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan after he missed most of last year, and it replaced right tackle Dennis Kelly with David Quessenberry. That hardly seems like a recipe for disaster, but here are some of the damning numbers:
• The Titans in 2020 allowed 164 pressured dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus, an average of about 10 per game. So far this season, the Titans have allowed 60 pressured dropbacks, an average of about 15 per game. That’s a whopping 50 percent increase from one season to the next. Why?
• PFF also charts “percent of (QB) dropbacks with some responsibility for pressure.” In 2020, per PFF, Tannehill bore some responsibility on 6.4 percent of the quarterback pressures, while the offensive line was at 87.1 percent. This year? Tannehill has been responsible for just 3.8 percent of the pressures, compared to 92.3 percent for the offensive line.
• Individually speaking, a number of Titans’ offensive linemen are grading out poorly in regard to their NFL peers, a telling sign. Among all tackles, Lewan and Quessenberry are tied for the second-most sacks allowed (three each). Among all guards, Davis has allowed 20 pressures (which includes sacks, hits and hurries), the most in the league at that position. Among centers, Jones has surrendered 10 pressures, tied for third at his position.
“We have to do a better job of picking up the pressure when somebody drops out and somebody comes,” Vrabel said when asked about the right side of the line. “Staying inside -- things we are always going to teach -- being firm in the middle of the pocket and trying to get some certain width to it so the quarterback can operate. Those are all things we need to improve on.”
IT’S THE RECEIVERS’ FAULT
With A.J. Brown, Julio Jones, Josh Reynolds and a deep cast of others in the receiver room, the Titans figured to be a team that would be challenging to cover. If defenders clamped down on one guy, two others might have more room to get free. But the receivers have not done a great job separating so far this season, per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. The tighter coverage a quarterback sees, the more likely he is to hold onto the ball, potentially risking a sack.
• Next Gen Stats defines separation as “the distance (in yards) measured between a WR/TE and the nearest defender at the time of catch or incompletion.” The league-wide average for WR/TEs this season is 2.88 yards of separation. In the loss to the Jets, the Titans’ averages were as follows: Chester Rogers (2.51 yards), Anthony Firkser (2.51 yards), Cam Batson (2.42 yards), Reynolds (2.37) and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (2.35).
It’s easy to think those totals were a Week 4 fluke caused by the absence of Brown and Jones, but that’s not the case. In their six combined games this season, neither Brown nor Jones have topped the league average of 2.88 yards of separation.
IT’S THE QUARTERBACK’S FAULT
Every quarterback gets pressured, but not every pressure turns into a sack. There have been a few times this season when it looks as if Tannehill might have had time to get rid of the ball, but instead took a sack. Some numbers:
• In 2020, Tannehill threw the ball away 21 times, per PFF, the ninth-highest figure in the league. So far this year, he’s thrown the ball away just three times, which is 17th highest. Again, throwing the ball away sounds negative, but when it avoids a sack, it’s a positive. Some of the NFL leaders in throwaways this year are the best quarterbacks in the game so far – like Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Oakland’s Derek Carr, Arizona’s Kyler Murray and Kansas City’s Pat Mahomes.
• PFF tracks how often pressures turn into sacks of each quarterback. In 2020, Tannehill was sacked 31.1 percent of the time he was pressured. In 2021, that figure has climbed a bit to 34.1 percent, which ranks around the middle of the league.
“There were times where (the ball) needs to come out,” Vrabel said of last Sunday. “I think pocket presence is something I have always appreciated with Ryan, his ability to stay in there, to slide, and deliver the football. To do that, we talk about having some room to do that, to have a firm pocket inside so that when he does slide away from one guy, he is not sliding into another.”