In the previous articles found here and here, we examined Ryan Tannehill's playoff performances against New England and Baltimore. This final article in the three-part series will scrutinize Tannehill's play against the Chiefs and summarize whether or not Tannehill's success is sustainable in the long-term should he remain the quarterback in Tennessee.
14:18- On the first play for the Titans, Derrick Henry nets four yards. Out of a 21-personnel package, Tennessee runs a beautiful pass blocking play in which all the linemen block right and Jonnu Smith heads right to left to pick up any surprise blitzers who may be coming from that side. A.J. Brown earns ample separation on his in-breaking route and proceeds to wrack up yards after the catch by stiff-arming one defender and making some exceptional cuts to extend his run. The result of the play is a 37-yard gain.
12:51- Derrick Henry’s next play goes for only a yard. Once again out of 21 personnel, the Titans fake handoffs to both Khari Blasingame and Derrick Henry before Tannehill drops to pass to Corey Davis or A.J. Brown, both of whom have lined up on the right side of the formation. A gaping hole develops and Tannehill does a good job of not tucking the ball and running in this situation. He realizes that he will net more yardage by threatening to run and passing instead. He holds the ball, steps to the line of scrimmage, and fires to an open Corey Davis. Davis is able to squeeze through two defenders to pick up extra yardage and gains 12 yards.
11:44- Another four-yard gain by Henry gives way to Tannehill’s next pass attempt. This play looks like there might have been some sort of miscommunication between Davis and Tannehill on the route. Davis breaks towards the inside, but Tannehill throws a ball to the outside that Davis has no chance at catching. The ball falls incomplete.
11:39- The Titans morph back to 11 personnel on third and six. A.J. Brown is split out wide left, but motions back into a reduced split trips formation with Anthony Firkser and Corey Davis. Tajae Sharpe is the lone man to the right. Pressure gets to Tannehill from multiple angles before the receivers have made their route breaks. Tannehill smartly throws the ball away. The Titans have to settle for a field goal.
8:40- The Titans had success with 22 personnel so far during this game and they go back to it again here. Tannehill has plenty of time and correctly identifies that Corey Davis is the most open of his receivers. His throw could have had better placement toward the sideline, allowing only Corey Davis to have a shot at it. Instead, Breshad Breeland nearly picks it off. Another view of the replay shows that the ball hit the ground, so the call of interception is reversed to an incompletion.
7:18- The Chiefs jump offside on the next two plays and Derrick Henry nets a total of three yards on the plays following those penalties. This sets up third and two at the Chiefs’ 29-yard line. The Titans end up with three receivers and two tight ends running routes. The line holds up under the pressure and Tannehill has time. Unfortunately, he tries to get a pass off to Jonnu Smith and has it knocked down at the line by Terrell Suggs. Had Tannehill been a little more patient, given the separation Mycole Pruitt had already earned in his route, he probably would have had a completion for greater yardage.
7:13- The Titans aggressively (and correctly, in my opinion) decide to go for it on fourth down. They initially have three wide receivers lined up in a reduced split to the left, but Adam Humphries peels off from the bunch comprised of Corey Davis and A.J. Brown. Humphries lines up in the backfield before the snap. On the other side of the formation, Jonnu Smith is the lone receiver. Humphries slips through the seam and Tannehill makes the easy throw. Humphries is able to pick up the first down.
6:35- This beautifully designed 12-personnel play starts with Jonnu Smith moving from left to right and settling down split just off the line. As the play begins, Smith runs to the area that Kalif Raymond just vacated by taking his man vertical. Derrick Henry trails Smith. On the other side, Anthony Firkser runs free in the seam. With the defense confused and stretched too thin, Tannehill has his pick of open options. He selects the best one when he hits Jonnu Smith at the 14-yard line. Smith is able to pick up 10 more yards after the catch for a total of a 22-yard gain. Derrick Henry scores on the next play.
0:46- The Chiefs answer with a touchdown drive of their own and Rashaan Evans hurts his foot, an injury that proves to be fatal to their chances of containing Patrick Mahomes II’ running ability. Tannehill fakes to Derrick Henry and drops back to pass. With pressure coming, he misses seeing that Jonnu Smith was coming open downfield on what would have been a much larger gain. He essentially checks it down to Pruitt, who had been blocking earlier in the play but released to catch a pass. Pruitt is able to use the space he has to gain additional yardage. He ends up with a nine-yard gain.
15:00- Offensive Coordinator Arthur Smith is pulling out all the stops and implements another very interesting play design. He has Kalif Raymond line up on the right and run an end-around. Had Tannehill checked it to him, I think Raymond may have had significant room to run. Meanwhile, Jonnu Smith makes an excellent block on a blitzing Chavarius Ward that buys Tannehill more time. Tannehill spots an open Corey Davis down the field and fires an 18-yard strike to him.
13:46- Derrick Henry gains 22 yards on the next play, his biggest run of the game to this point. Tannehill runs another play-action fake and Anthony Firkser gets a step on his man deep down the field. This would have probably set the Titans up in the red zone if Tannehill had been able to hit him in stride. Unfortunately, Tannehill’s pass placement is poor and he overthrows Firkser.
12:30- Derrick Henry gains three yards on the next play and Frank Clark jumps offside on third down. On third and two, Tennessee lines up with A.J. Brown and Adam Humphries split out right and Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith just off the line to the left. When Tannehill is about to release the ball, A.J. Brown is breaking open downfield and Jonnu Smith is open at a slightly shallower depth than Brown. Given the objective of getting the first down, it is understandable that Tannehill takes the safer throw to Adam Humphries here. The chains keep moving with the five-yard gain.
11:23- Derrick Henry picked up five yards on the previous play. The Titans, recognizing the success they have had from 21 personnel on this day, go back to it here. After faking the handoff to both Blasingame and Henry, Tannehill rolls right. Under pressure, he makes a very good throw under duress to A.J. Brown. The play picks up nine yards.
10:18- Jack Conklin’s holding penalty backs up the Titans by 10 yards. On this play, Tannehill fakes the handoff to Derrick Henry and rolls left. A.J. Brown is wide open on that side of the field. If Tannehill tosses it to him, it is likely a touchdown. Tannehill is so locked in on Corey Davis the entire play that Tyran Mathieu is streaking to Davis well before the pass leaves Tannehill’s hand. The result is a loss of two yards.
9:34- On second and 22, we once again see Tannehill lock his eyes on one part of the field and never take them away. He is looking at A.J. Brown the whole way and throws an ill-advised deep ball into what ends up being triple coverage. Had Brown not played defender and batted the ball away, this likely would have been an interception.
9:29- Faced with third and 22, the Titans need a little help to convert this drive into a touchdown. They get it when Breshad Breeland holds Corey Davis midway through the route. When watching the play carefully, we cannot see an open option better than Corey Davis. Davis catches the pass that Tannehill throws for 10 yards, but it does not matter. Pass interference will give the Titans a fresh set of downs with which to work.
6:43- 13 yards worth of runs by Derrick Henry and Marcus Mariota set the Titans up with second and goal on the one-yard line. Lineman Dennis Kelly reports as eligible and Jonnu Smith splits out wide left. Khari Blasingham is lined up behind the right tackle. Dennis Kelly starts the play blocking, but slips behind Frank Clark. He is wide open and Tannehill makes the easy lob for the touchdown. It is fun to note how happy Kelly is to score the coveted big man touchdown.
2:30- The Chiefs make short work of answering with a score of their own. Two straight Derrick Henry runs net just a yard. The Chiefs have kept him in check all afternoon and are daring the Titans offense to pass. So far, Tennessee has been able to answer the bell. Facing a critical third and nine, the Titans line up with Anthony Firkser, Corey Davis, and A.J. Brown trips reduced split right and Mycole Pruitt split wide left. Firsker eventually motions left and lines up in a reduced split. With pressure coming, Tannehill barely gets it away to Dion Lewis. The only critique to offer is that A.J. Brown was open and would not have had to make an adjustment to the football that Lewis did. He probably had a better chance at the first down. Lewis gets only six yards and the Titans punt the ball away. Patrick Mahomes II leads a drive capped off by a 27-yard run for a touchdown. The Titans get the ball back with seven seconds and choose to kneel to end the half. The Chiefs now have the lead heading into the half and also get the ball back to open the third quarter.
10:17- The Titans hold the explosive Chiefs offense to a punt and get the ball back. Tannehill sees A.J. Brown come open, but a poorly thrown pass lands incomplete at the feet of Brown.
10:14- On third and seven, the Titans find themselves in another must-convert third-down situation. As they have done most of the game when they need a chain-moving effort, Tannehill targets Humphries. Humphries sets down right at the boundary and Tannehill throws a low ball. Fortunately, Humphries is able to get to the ground and make the catch. The pass nets for eight yards and keeps the drive alive.
7:54- Kansas City gets a too-many-men penalty, but Derrick Henry gets only four yards on the next two plays. A holding penalty puts Tennessee further in the hole. The Titans will need 11 yards to convert on third down. Tannehill gets forced out of the pocket to the right before his receivers can reach the field depth needed for the first down. Also unfortunate for Tannehill is that his receivers are largely on the left side of the field and throwing cross-body is hardly advisable. He manages a six-yard scramble, but it is not enough. Tennessee has to punt.
14:50- Patrick Mahomes II leads another touchdown drive and puts the Titans down by 11. They need to score soon to keep the game within striking distance. Derrick Henry lines up split out wide left, but eventually motions into the backfield. As Tannehill fakes to Henry and rolls right, Corey Davis runs a crosser from the left side of the field to the right sideline. A.J. Brown runs an out route deeper down the field on the same side that takes away the deep safety and the corner. Davis is able to get separation on his man and picks up 15 yards before being run out of bounds.
14:16- This play is a shame because Corey Davis has his man beat by several steps early on in the route. A.J. Brown also has a step on his defender and if the pass were timed right, Tannehill might have been able to slip a pass to him before deep safety help arrived. Instead, Tannehill waits and is eventually almost sacked. He escapes and checks down to Derrick Henry for a two-yard loss.
13:31- On the next play, you can tell the Titans are worried about the pass rush pressure that seems to have amped up as the game has gone along. Jonnu Smith motions back inside to block and it is a good thing he does, because it buys Tannehill enough time to find a wide-open A.J. Brown for five yards. It sets up a manageable distance for a third-down conversion attempt.
12:48- The Chiefs send a delayed blitzer through the middle and Dion Lewis gets absolutely blown up. It is so bad that he flies into Tannehill and nearly knocks him down. By the time Tannehill recovers, more pressure has arrived and Tannehill is sacked by Tanoh Kpassagnon. The Titans once again have to punt and hope for the best.
7:27- Patrick Mahomes II scores a back-breaking 60-yard touchdown to Sammy Watkins that almost puts the game out of reach. The Titans do their best to make up the deficit with time running down. The start of this drive is not positive for Tennessee. Tannehill is looking for a quick screen to A.J. Brown here, but for some reason, he hesitates and instead executes a pump fake. The moment is lost and with the pass rush coming, he chooses to check it to Derrick Henry. Henry is tackled immediately for a six-yard loss.
6:58- On this play, Tannehill almost completes a pass through a tight window, but the defensive back is able to get a hand on the ball before it can make it to an open Corey Davis.
6:51- The Titans need 10 yards to convert the third down, so I am not sure about the play design here. All four receivers stop and are looking for the ball short of the line to gain. Tannehill passes to Jonnu Smith, who immediately has three defenders converge on him. He is tackled short of the marker to gain. Fortunately for the Titans, they convert a fake punt passing play on fourth down to keep the drive alive.
5:27- The Titans go with a trips reduced split bunch on the right and line A.J. Brown up alone on the left. Corey Davis and Tajae Sharpe clear the coverage with their routes, allowing Jonnu Smith to slip in behind the vacated area and catch a pass. He picks up eight yards on the play.
5:00- The Titans snap the ball with four receivers, two on each side of the formation. Corey Davis is able to get open and catch the ball. He makes his defender whiff on the tackle and takes the ball for 22 yards.
4:53- Tannehill has plenty of time, but with no one open, he tries to scramble for a gain. Instead, he is taken out of bounds by Tanoh Kpassagnon, who registers his second sack of the game.
4:24- Tannehill has plenty of time on this play and correctly picks out the mismatch when he sees Daniel Sorensen covering a much bigger Anthony Firkser. Tannehill is already throwing the ball when Sorensen stumbles and falls. Firkser catches a wide-open 22-yard touchdown.
2:08- The Titans get the ball back down 11 points and with very little time. Tannehill almost gets sacked by Terrell Suggs. Feeling the pressure, Tannehill breaks the pocket and gets out of bounds for six yards. He fails to see that Corey Davis is glaringly open. It is likely the Titans would have pulled within 4 points with 2:00 to go if Tannehill had not taken his eyes off the receivers downfield, stepped up in the pocket, and delivered the ball. It is a missed opportunity, but an illegal use of hands penalty will give Tennessee a fresh set of downs with which to work. Nate Davis commits a false start penalty that makes it first and 15.
2:00- Tannehill has plenty of time here, but the Chiefs are playing prevent and not allowing anything to develop downfield. Ryan Tannehill is eventually forced to make a 9-yard pass to Humphries.
1:36- It is hard to blame Tannehill too much for the throw in this situation because he understands that time is running short and the Titans need to score soon if there is any hope. He throws what is ultimately an incompletion to Adam Humphries, but it was very close to being picked.
1:32- Tannehill makes an accurate throw to A.J. Brown, but the ball is batted away by Tyran Mathieu. It might have been better to go to one of the outside receivers, who did not have as much coverage to help in their immediate area.
1:28- With the game on the line, Tannehill is sacked by Frank Clark as he is trying to buy time for a throw down the field. No one came open early enough in the play to blame Tannehill for this one. The Titans forfeit the ball on downs and the Chiefs kneel to end the game.
Final Tannehill statline: 21/31 passing, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. 3/11 rushing with no touchdowns.
Performance grade for Tannehill: B-
Rationale: Tannehill did not make any huge mistakes in this game and was not the reason the Titans lost this game, However, he also did not elevate his team to a victory in the way Patrick Mahomes II did for the Chiefs. He missed converting opportunities that may have made this game a much closer contest.
Is Tannehill’s Success Sustainable?
We have examined three of the biggest games the Titans have been in under the Mike Vrabel regime and we have seen basically the same things that were present during Tannehill’s successful regular season. Ryan Tannehill is a quarterback that is largely not anticipatory and must see receivers break open before he is comfortable releasing the football. He operates the offense very efficiently when there is minimal pressure and can make very accurate throws under these conditions. Tannehill seems to be more comfortable and effective when operating from play action passing than straight dropbacks. On the negative side, he does not seem to be as effective when he is off schedule or making off-platform throws. He sometimes misses open receivers because he drops his eyes under pressure and looks to scramble instead of taking a hit and delivering the football.
The answer to the question we have been asking this series is that team success is sustainable, but the ceiling for your club is only so high with Tannehill leading it. While defenses can adjust to what the Titans have shown them this season and try to force Tannehill into operating outside of play action, there is also the potential for Arthur Smith to continue to develop as a play-caller and become more inventive with his deployment of personnel. If Tennessee can realize that Derrick Henry is a competent third-down back and trust him in this capacity, they may unlock some possibilities that were closed to this offense with Dion Lewis on the field. Also, Kalif Raymond was serviceable, but if they can find a receiver with deep speed that is more sure-handed, they add another layer to a budding offense that would keep defenses off-balance.
The Titans possess a good overall team, but currently lack elite offensive or defensive players that can single handedly change a game. The closest thing they have to that right now is Derrick Henry, but as was proven in the Chiefs game, if you can hit him before he builds momentum, he is stoppable. Tannehill is a serviceable bridge option, but to trust him as the future of the franchise would be a mistake.
What would be best for the Titans to do given these facts? If they can get a quarterback who is an elite processor of the field in free agency, it is worth pursuing. Otherwise, it would be prudent for the team to keep Tannehill for now and begin the search in the NFL Draft for a quarterback that does have elite traits, but needs development. There is hope that Jon Robinson is aware that Tannehill is merely a bridge option. The initial reports of the deal that was offered to extend Tannehill indicated Robinson extended only a two-year deal to the quarterback. If the Titans ever hope to win a Super Bowl with this core group, they can only hope that the rumor is true.
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