The Tennessee Titans drive that was the epitome of their problems

Tennessee Titans (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Tennessee Titans (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images) /

Of the many plays that went wrong for the Tennessee Titans in their playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals, two of them came at the very end of their penultimate drive and they demonstrate some of the Titans’ biggest issues from 2021.

The first play was on 3rd and 1, and with Derrick Henry in the lineup, they should have easily been able to gain a yard in two plays.

But we know what happened; Ryan Tannehill was stuffed on the read-option, which meant that the Titans had to go for it on 4th and 1.

Henry got the handoff on fourth down, but he was indecisive and the offensive line did a bad enough job that there was no room to gain an inch much less a yard.

The common narrative was that the Titans doomed themselves on third down and that handing the ball off to Henry on two straight plays should have been a no-brainer.

But if you watched Titans football in 2021, you knew that the Tannehill keeper on third down was coming. The truth is, the issues with running that play in that scenario are much deeper than just a bad play call.

Tennessee Titans failed to utilize one of Ryan Tannehill’s biggest strengths all season

Ryan Tannehill isn’t a perfect drop-back passer but he thrived in his first two seasons with the Tennessee Titans by threatening defenses with his legs and his arms.

Even though he hasn’t been in an offense where he has been asked to carry the ball like Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson, or Josh Allen,  he has shown that he can be an effective runner when he has rolled outside of the pocket. Of course, Todd Downing completely failed to capitalize on it, which is a big reason why the Titans brought in someone to limit the damage that Downing could do in 2022.

When Arthur Smith was the offensive coordinator, he realized what Tannehill could do on the ground, and started to use it to his advantage. As the year went on, Smith was increasingly willing to let Tannehill run the ball after a fake handoff to Henry, because he knew that he could catch opposing defenses off guard and keep them guessing.

With Downing at the helm, things did not go quite as well. Yes, Tannehill might have had 55 rushes this year as opposed to 43 in 2020, but many of those were because poorly designed played and a leaky offensive line forced him to run for his life.

Instead of continuing what Smith started, the only times that Tannehill was permitted to keep the ball was when the Titans needed about a yard to pick up the first down. And it was no secret that it was going to happen when it did.

As the 2021 season went on, whenever the Titans lined up in the shotgun with a yard to pick up, defenses knew the read-option was one of their go-to plays. It was a staple of their short-yardage and goalline packages.

Defenses adjusted to this by keeping an eye out in those short-yardage situations and by worrying less about the QB run in every other situation. Not only did that lead to the 3rd and 1 failure, but it showed up in Tannehill’s rushing stats over the course of the season where he only gained 4.9 per carry compared to his 6.2 last year.

The misconception is that the Titans were never going to be able to utilize Tannehill’s mobility without Henry in the lineup, but history has shown that rushing success doesn’t consistently affect plays like that.

Even if it did, don’t discount what D’Onta Foreman turned into over the course of the season. Surely Tannehill could have kept it on a few more read options or play-action rollouts from time to time.

In 2022, the Titans will have to give Tannehill more and better opportunities to run the ball and they need to be smart about it. Letting him take off on first or second down a few times a game would not be the worst thing in the world, especially since Tim Kelly is bringing over an offense that looked much closer to what Arthur Smith ran than what Todd Downing ran.

Furthermore, the Titans should still let him run it on third and very short, but they must have something in the playbook to take advantage of the defense expecting the read-option in that situation.

There are several issues that plagued the Tennessee Titans offense in 2021, but this should be a fairly easy one to fix. At least it should be in theory.