In this series of articles, our resident tape wizard Greg Cosell will take an in-depth look at some of the more interesting fantasy players for the 2020 NFL season. It’s a peek behind the curtain of the film room, as these are Greg’s raw, unfiltered notes he takes as he watches a player.
Ryan Tannehill has always had ability, but inconsistency, injuries, and some bad luck made him a washout in Miami, where he was a first-round pick in 2012. The Titans made a shrewd move to deal for him on the cheap to back up Marcus Mariota before the 2019 season, and their offense took off when they benched Mariota for Tannehill just six games into the year. Tannehill orchestrated a surprise Tennessee run to the AFC Championship Game, and the Titans rewarded him with a nine-figure contract extension.
But was Tannehill as impressive as his new contract suggests, or was his performance a bit fluky, and the result of a hyper-efficient Titan attack under OC Arthur Smith?
For the purposes of this study, I focused on Tannehill’s first- and third-down passing, the downs on which the passing game needs to be particularly effective.
What consistently stood out was Tannehill made some excellent tight-window throws between the numbers, against both man and zone coverage — he was willing to turn it loose.
Tannehill was willing to turn it loose against tight man coverage on third downs – you must do that as an NFL QB.
My sense watching the tape was Tannehill did a good job before the snap with checks based on defensive alignment and coverage looks.
Tannehill has excellent running ability, if needed, off of play-action boot. His 21-yard TD run against the Jaguars was a good example.
What Tannehill did consistently well was move his feet with eyes and step to his throws, which positively impacts ball placement — a good example was a throw to Adam Humphries for 25 yards against the Panthers.
Tannehill gives the Titans the second-reaction dimension, both throwing and scrambling on third-and-long. He can beat Cover 2 man and Cover 1 robber with his scrambling ability and his movement outside the pocket. AJ Brown’s 51-yard TD against the Texans is a perfect example.
One reason Tannehill had good success on third down in 2019 was his precise ball placement. He was consistently accurate, making some outstanding throws – a 12-yard TD for Jonnu Smith against the Ravens featured impeccable ball placement and a spectacular catch.
The more I studied Tannehill, the more I concluded that he is a talented QB with desirable traits: he has a strong arm, is tough in the pocket, featured consistent ball placement, and shows excellent movement skills.
- Tannehill stats on first down: 74/102 (72.5%), 1133 yards (11.1 YPA), 8 TD, 3 INT.
- The Titans featured a good mix of base personnel groupings (including a meaningful percentage of 13 personnel) and 11 personnel on Tannehill’s first-down drop backs. My sense watching the tape was there were more snaps with base personnel.
- The Titans’ personnel foundation on first down was multiple TE packages, in both 12 and 13 personnel. They featured multiple formation looks.
- Anthony Firkser was the third TE in 13 personnel. There were snaps in which Firkser was the slot to twins with the boundary closed.
- The Titans featured shot play concepts out of both 12 and 11 personnel, with Tannehill under center running both drop back play action and boot action – post-cross and dagger were featured shot play concepts.
- Quick-game play action was a foundational pass-game concept on first down, both out of 12 and 11 personnel. These passes ran off of multiple run game looks, including iso lead, outside zone, and gap scheme.
- Play action and play action boot are predominant features of the Titans’ first-down passing game, out of multiple personnel groupings and formations, with Tannehill under center.
- The Titans also featured shotgun play action, but that was more of a complement to the conventional under-center play action.
- What consistently stood out was the Titans’ use of closed boundary formations out of 12 personnel, often with twins to the field.
- The Titans also featured tight trips bunch to the field out of both 12 and 11 personnel – that was a staple formation look on first down.
- The Titans’ 12 personnel grouping, at times, featured TE MyCole Pruitt as the I formation fullback in two-back sets. There were also snaps on which TE Jonnu Smith was the I formation fullback – Smith and Pruitt were almost always the TEs in 12 personnel.
- At times in the straight I, the formation was closed to the boundary with twins to the field, both with a WR in the slot (12 personnel) and a TE in the slot (13 personnel).
- When the Titans were in the straight I formation with Pruitt the fullback out of 12 (and at times 13) personnel, it was almost always run action (iso lead being most predominant but always outside zone, at times with boot action)
- The quick game play action was featured out of 12 (13) straight I, as was the screen game. Slant routes and glance routes were featured – it would not surprise me to see more screen passes to RB Derrick Henry in 2020.
- The Titans ran specific formations and packages out of 12 personnel in the tight red zone, including empty sets.
- The Titans did a good job with their route concepts out of 12 and 13 personnel, attacking both Cover 3 and Cover 4. Flood, post-wheel (two-through-zone), dagger were all featured concepts.
- The Titans ran a high percentage of 2x2 sets out of 11 personnel with Tannehill in the shotgun when they were behind against the Panthers in the second half in Week 9 — the Panthers played almost all zone coverage behind a four-man DL pass rush.
- The Titans’ other predominant formation out of 11 personnel late vs. Panthers was 3x1, with trips bunch to the field.
- WR Adam Humphries’ 23-yard game-winning TD against the Chiefs in Week 10 came out of 11 personnel 2x2 set against dime Cover-2-man coverage. Humphries ran a great seam route to beat CB Rashad Fenton.
- WR AJ Brown’s 65-yard TD against the Jaguars came out of 12 personnel straight I formation with Corey Davis as the Z receiver and Brown as the X. The Titans ran iso lead weak run action with Brown, from a reduced split, running a five-step slant against off coverage.
- As the season progressed, the Titans featured significant snaps of 21 and 22 personnel on first down, with Khari Blasingame the fullback.
- A 39-yard reception for Firkser late in the first half against the Raiders in Week 14 came on an excellent route concept vs. Cover 6. It was an 11 personnel 2x2 set with Firkser as the slot to the field, running the seam to the halves side of the coverage. The Raiders locked the slot with a linebacker, but Firkser got on top of him, with Tannehill making a precise ball placement throw.
- The Titans featured WR Brown and TE Smith in the screen game. Smith is an athletic TE with strong run-after-catch ability.
- The Titans showed a rare 02 personnel (0 RB, 2 TE) grouping with TE Smith the I back behind Tannehill under center from a 3x1 set – from this, they ran a fake toss to Smith to the field, with a boundary screen to Brown.
- In 3x1 sets out of 11 personnel, Brown was almost always the boundary X receiver, with Davis the Z.
- Brown’s 47-yard sideline catch against the Texans in Week 17 was one of the most overlooked yet best throws of the season. Tannehill showed precise ball placement to the sideline on a ball that travelled about 60 yards in the air.
- WR Kalif Raymond’s 45-yard TD against the Ravens in the AFC Divisional Round fit the Titans’ first-down profile. It came out of 13 personnel, with outside zone run action, and a post-cross combination with Raymond running a great route to get on top of the coverage.
- The Titans featured schemed throwback concepts out of multiple TE sets — examples include Smith’s 17-yard TD against the Raiders, and Tannehill just overthrowing Firkser in the AFC title game.
Tannehill stats on third down: 51/79 (64.6%), 702 yards (8.9 YPA), 9 TD, 1 INT, 13 sacks taken.
The Titans featured natural rub concepts on third-and-short-to-medium. It’s an effective tactic to attack and defeat man coverage.
The Titans featured shifts and motions as man-zone indicators to give Tannehill as much information before the snap as possible – this was one of OC Arthur Smith’s staples of his third-down approach.
“Dagger” was a concept the Titans ran on third-and-long. Dagger is the “96” combination from the same side of the formation: an inside vertical (9) with the outside dig route (6) coming underneath the vertical.
A consistent concept in the Titans’ pass game was the backside shallow cross — or “drive” route — to the front side of the progression read. That allows the QB to keep his eyes and body position focused on one side of the field.
Smith’s 35-yard reception on third-and-14 against the Chargers came on what was essentially a screen concept, with Smith running a shallow cross from the field to the boundary with the three boundary receivers blocking. It was a good concept against soft zone coverage and featured great run-after-catch by Smith.
WR Tajae Sharpe’s 5-yard TD against the Chargers came on a well-designed concept: hi-lo with a horizontal stretch to create voids in the zone coverage.
The conventional screen game was an effective tactic for the Titans on third-and-long vs. Cover 2 man coverage — Dion Lewis had a 24-yard screen reception against the Jaguars.
What stood out watching all the Titans’ third downs was that RG Nate Davis needs works in one-on-one pass protection, especially with his anchor versus speed-to-power and the bull rush.
The Colts’ defensive profile on third down in their second matchup with the Titans was man coverage, often with blitz. The Titans beat man coverage in the fourth quarter on Kalif Raymond’s 40-yard TD. Raymond ran a deep over route from the slot with a great throw by Tannehill.
Overall, I saw a lot of man coverage concepts on third down versus the Titans. It seemed to be the predominant coverage for many teams.
The other defensive tactic that kept showing up on third down was the use of stunts. Multiple stunt concepts caused some issues for the Titans pass protection throughout the season.
Firkser’s 12-yard TD against the Patriots came on an excellent route versus safety Terrence Brooks with the Pats in Cover 0 – it was a great example of winning one-on-one matchups in the high red zone.
My sense watching all the third downs with Tannehill at QB is that the Titans will have to improve against man coverage in 2020, both with designing man-beater route concepts and receivers winning one-on-one matchups.