For fans, the struggles were frustrating but not surprising to watch since the team has dealt with inconsistent play all year. But throughout the regular season, the offensive hiccups were attributable to injuries so we had reasons to feel optimistic about their chances in the playoffs.
For starters, A.J. Brown had broken out big time in the 2nd half of the season. Maybe he was the missing piece to the offense that would get them back on track?
Next Julio Jones was healthy and productive for perhaps the first time since game one, and he was coming off of his best game of the season vs the Houston Texans.
Another big improvement was that the Tennessee Titans’ offensive line had started to look like the bruisers they set out to be instead of the leaky unit that had Tannehill peeling himself off the ground play after play.
Oh, and the King was coming back.
From the outside looking in, it was all systems go!
Enter Todd Downing…
Now before we start with this discussion, let’s be honest with ourselves: Maybe the game plan put together by Downing would have been passable had Ryan Tannehill not had a Chernobyl-scale meltdown.
But Tannehill’s turnover fiasco combined with the unoriginal, arrhythmic, and flat-out inexplicable decisions in the play-calling made the Titans look like a 15-year-old driving a manual car for the first time: clunky and stalled-out.
Stepping back from the Cincinnati cataclysm, the larger story of the season is the Titan’s offensive flop.
Looking at Todd Downing’s effect on the Tennessee Titans offense
The backslide is undeniable. In 2020, the offense ranked 4th in points per game and 3rd in yards per game. In 2021, they ranked 17th and 15th respectively.
Watching the games it is clear to see where the problem lies. All year and crucially in the playoffs, the offense was predictable when it should not have been and then did baffling things when the simple option would have worked.
Let’s take the first play from scrimmage against the Bengals for example, Downing called an intermediate play-action pass. On its own this is a flawed way to start the game for a few reasons:
First and foremost, it is Derrick Henry’s return. I mean, come on man, everybody is there to see one man, just hand it to Henry so the crowd can erupt in cheers even if it’s just for two yards. At worst, it is ceremonial and sets a positive tone for the crowd.
Secondly, it’s the first play from scrimmage so the defense is not likely to bite on a fake because nothing has happened yet. Sure, everyone expects a Henry handoff, but even then the defense was fresh and ready to adjust to the play action.
It was just a bad call and, yes, a bad throw, but the throw is the subsequent result of a ludicrously poor script to start the game.
Later in the game, the decision-making was just as bad.
On the opening drive of the 2nd quarter, the Tennessee Titans ran the ball with ease with a couple of runs from Henry of just less than 10 yards and a huge 45-yard run from Foreman.
So what does Downing decide to do after consecutive runs that gashed the Cincinnati defense?
Put the offense in a shotgun formation to run a bubble screen to Chester Rodgers.
No disrespect to Chester Rodgers (although the Titans have run that exact play a few times and I am nearly positive it has not gained more than about 5 yards), but if you have an assortment of weapons like Derrick Henry, Julio Jones, and AJ Brown, why is the red zone offense starting with the fourth string wide receiver?
Of course, the screen pass to Rodgers ends up as another interception and whether or not Tannehill is at fault for throwing right into the face of Cincinnati defensive back Mike Hilton, it does not change the fact that Downing effectively took his foot off the pedal of a clearly dominating run game.
The duo of Henry and Foreman looked ready to carry the Tennessee Titans to the endzone on that drive, as an offensive play-caller you have to stick with your momentum there.
I am always reminded of something my dad tells me when we watch football and it is something that seems especially apt in this situation:
“If something is working, I am going to keep doing it until you prove you can stop me.”
For the Titans in this game, what was working, especially in the 2nd half, was the downhill run game. In the most inexplicable times, Downing abandoned what was working and strayed from the Titan’s identity.
Think back to the games where Arthur Smith was in charge of the Tennessee Titans offense. He wasn’t afraid to lean on the running game for an entire drive by splitting touches with Derrick Henry, Ryan Tannehill on a designed run, or a creative jet sweep to keep the defense honest.
This isn’t just a cry to “run the ball” more either. One of the worst back-to-back calls of the game was when the Tennessee Titans lined up in the shotgun and called a designed run for Ryan Tannehill on 3rd and 1, and then followed it up by running a counter play towards the best run defender on the Bengals roster.
It begs the question, why in that situation did Downing feel the need to get so cute, again taking a dominant run team and putting them into shotgun formation, when you know all you need is a couple of feet to just keep the drive going.
That should have been a no-brainer play and instead, Downing put everyone in a position to fail.
This leads me to my biggest takeaway from the game. The offense is not putting its best players in a position to succeed. The play calling is graceless, demonstrates no creativity, and lacks any hint of rhythm.
Downing’s offense looks like every play takes place in a vacuum, rarely do possessions feel like the offense is driving. Rather, the plays feel isolated and unrelated, seemingly random at times. And he showed that he cannot design plays to get the ball into his best players’ hands when it is needed the most. (We didn’t even talk about Julio Jones being on the sideline on the final drive of the game)
That was something that was evident all season and in a situation where Todd Downing couldn’t blame injuries, it became clear that he was the reason for the disjointed offense.
What we saw in Nashville against the Bengals was not a surprise. It was a culmination of offensive ineptitude stemming from Downing’s failure to make the right call at the right time in games and he has handicapped what was a top-five offense he inherited.
The Titans offense has been a shadow of what it once was. And Downing has to take accountability for taking a great situation with great players and making them a middle-of-the-pack offense.