NASHVILLE – Over the last handful of games, the Tennessee Titans’ passing attack could best be described as efficient.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has cut back on turnovers, throwing four touchdowns versus just two interceptions in the last five contests. He’s completed over 70 percent of his passes in three straight games and posted a quarterback rating of better than 100.0 in two in a row. Wide receiver A.J. Brown returned from injury with a flourish against San Francisco, catching 11 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown.
What the Titans’ passing offense hasn’t done over the past five games is put up big numbers. Tennessee has been held under 210 passing yards in each of those contests. In fact, the Titans have averaged just 153 passing yards during those games, which seems like a half’s worth of yardage – or less – for more air-oriented teams these days.
One reason the yardage is less than eye-popping over the last five games?
In at least two of the contests – one-sided wins over Jacksonville and Miami – the Titans hardly needed to throw the ball. Impressive defensive showings as well as strong performances from the run game allowed the Titans to manage the games without having to go to the air. In another, a loss to New England, the Titans were so busy running for 270 yards that – again -- they didn’t throw often.
Still, the lack of production in the passing game could raise questions as the team readies for the playoffs.
What if an opposing defense stymies the Titans’ powerful rushing attack, forcing the team to throw more than it’s used to? What if a high-powered offense rings up points early against the Titans, again forcing the Titans to match scores – or come from behind -- in a shootout?
Are the Titans confident this aspect of their offense – if put to the test in the playoffs – will be able to ramp things up if necessary?
“I would say again that confidence in our passing game needs to be built over repeated success,” offensive coordinator Todd Downing said. “Some of that is stuff that isn’t on TV and on the games -- repeated successes in practice and things of that nature.
“(But) I would think at times in the past we have gotten out and passed the ball. There have been certain games throughout the course of the year where we’ve had to march down the field with the pass late in the game and we’ve done that. So, as we get more playmakers back and we’re able to find ourselves in different game situations, I believe you’ll see we can be efficient in all aspects of our offense.”
The Titans didn’t necessarily put up huge passing-game numbers last year, either, as the team averaged 228 yards per game, which ranked 23rd in the league. But the Titans still managed to be one of the NFL’s top-scoring teams at 30.7 points per game.
They’re throwing for about 30 fewer yards per game in 2021, averaging 196.1. But maybe it seems like the passing game has dropped off even more because the offense is averaging just 24.4 points per game, about a touchdown less than in 2020.
Tannehill, like Downing, believes there’s more ammo in the aerial attack if that’s what a game requires.
“We have had situations where we have had to go down and win a game, late in the game, and throw the ball and we have done that more times than not,” said Tannehill, who has engineered four game-winning drives this year. “I definitely have confidence in the guys that we have, as we get healthy here at the end of the year and build momentum. I have a lot of confidence that no matter what situation comes up, we will have the attitude and the guys to go make it happen.”
One plus for the Titans’ passing game is that Brown appears to be as healthy as he has been all season. His 801 receiving yards make up more than a quarter of the team’s 3,137 passing yards. In addition, the Titans are 10-2 in games Brown has played this season, 1-3 when he’s out of the lineup.
But what happens if Brown gets blanketed in double coverage in the playoffs?
The Titans have been hugely reliant on him this season, as pass attempts to Brown have accounted for 33 percent of the Titans’ air yards this year, per Next Gen Stats. Nick Westbrook-Ikhine is a distant second in that department at 14.7 percent.
The obvious hope is for seven-time Pro Bowler Julio Jones, who’s been in and out of the lineup all season, to turn into the impactful receiver the Titans had sought -- to take attention away from Brown. Jones was a full practice participant on Thursday, a step in the right direction for the 32-year-old.
“Yeah, first we just need to chase consistency there (with Jones),” Downing said. “There’s been a lot of ups and downs throughout that journey. We’ve had some opportunities to get him the ball and for a variety of reasons, we’ve not connected on a couple of things.
“So, we just need a little more consistency out of that area. I can certainly be better at trying to get him involved at different points in the game, just working through the process and finding the right balance.”
And if the big passing numbers don’t come around for the team?
The Titans will have to hope that, as they have at times in recent weeks, they can win with a complementary passing attack – one that does just enough to boost the running game and a rugged defense.
“I’ll take efficient and a win over flashy and a grab bag any day of the week,” Downing said.