There were plenty of valid reasons to believe the Tennessee Titans offense would regress in 2020.
Those reasons started with the performance of Ryan Tannehill, who after taking over for Marcus Mariota in Week 6, completed 70 percent of his passes at an average of 9.6 yards per attempt, the best figure in the NFL. He threw 22 touchdowns against only six interceptions, giving him a league-best 117.5 passer rating. To say those figures were out of line with his performance during his time in Miami would be a dramatic understatement. Tannehill completed 63 percent of his passes at an average of 7.0 yards per attempt with the Dolphins, throwing 123 touchdowns and 75 interceptions while registering a 87.0 passer rating. It was more than reasonable to expect Tannehill to take a step backward this season, even if you still thought he'd remain a quality contributor.
The second reason to expect a step backward was that it figured to be remarkably difficult for Derrick Henry to repeat his extraordinary efficiency. Through the first six weeks of last season, Henry averaged only 3.7 yards per attempt and scored four touchdowns. Once Tannehill took over, Henry took off: he ran for 1,124 yards and 12 scores in nine games, averaging an absurd 5.9 yards per attempt along the way. With the Titans losing star tackle Jack Conklin in free agency, it seemed reasonable to expect at least a minor step backward from Henry, even if you still thought he'd remain one of the league's better backs.
The third reason was that the Titans figured to be a run-heavy team -- just as they were last year -- and run-heavy offenses are generally less efficient than pass-heavy ones. The Titans were an exception in 2019, but the reason exceptions are exceptions is because they are not the rule. They're rare. So it was reasonable to expect a step backward if they oriented the offense the same way they did last year.
Instead, Tennessee is right back where it was last season. From Week 7 through Week 17 of the 2019 campaign, the Titans ranked second in Football Outsiders' offensive DVOA. This season, the Titans rank third in offensive DVOA through the first six weeks. They've got the No. 11-ranked rushing unit and the second most efficient passing game in the league. They're second in the league in both scoring average (32.8 points per game) and yards per game (422). What makes those figures even more impressive is the fact that prior to last Sunday's monster game against the Texans, Henry was again averaging just 3.7 yards per carry early in the season. It was Tannehill and the pass offense doing almost all of the heavy lifting.
If Tannehill has regressed this season, it is only very slightly -- and you can make a pretty good argument that he's actually been better than he was a year ago. Take a look at the numbers.
What really makes the Tannehill-led passing attack work for Tennessee is the combination of two things: the play-action fake and the intermediate pass.
Tannehill has 26 completions of 15 or more yards this season, 19 of which have come after a run fake. The Titans love to get in heavy formations with Tannehill under center, then have him fake a hand-off to Henry before hitting a crosser over the middle of the field. But they'll also line Tannehill up in the shotgun with light personnel packages, then have him fake a hand-off to Henry before unleashing a throw downfield, just to keep defenders a little bit off-balance.
The Tennessee pass-catching corps is not the most well-known group outside of explosive second-year wideout A.J. Brown, but it is an extremely well-constructed group. Brown is a physical marvel, one of the biggest, strongest, and fastest wideouts in the league. He's their matchup nightmare, and Tannehill's first option both over the middle and down the sideline. But the Titans supplement him with speedsters like Khalif Raymond, shifty slow men like Adam Humphries, and big-bodied possession receivers like Corey Davis. And then they have Jonnu Smith at tight end, who provides similar matchup problems as Brown.
Having a versatile crew of receivers allows the Titans to use all different kinds of route combinations to move the ball on those intermediate passes. Tannehill is 31 of 48 for 571 yards, four touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a league-best 133.2 passer rating on throws traveling between 10 and 19 yards downfield so far this season, per Pro Football Focus and Tru Media. As as a result, a league-best 43.9 percent of his pass attempts this season have resulted in first downs or touchdowns. Tannehill has spread the wealth to each of his weapons with those throws, and it's actually kind of remarkable how similar some of the passes look to each other.
Another big factor driving Tannehill's efficiency this season: he has simply stopped taking sacks. He's been under pressure about 4 percent less often than the average QB this season, but his sack rate is a microscopic 2.8 percent -- third-lowest in the NFL. It's down from 9.8 percent last season, making this a huge area of improvement. Considering the Titans lost one of their best offensive linemen in free agency, it's an impressive one. But it also might be about to take a hit, because left tackle Taylor Lewan is now out for the season after tearing his ACL last week.
Lewan is likely to be replaced by Ty Sambrailo, who figures to be a big downgrade. But the Titans have the ability to scheme around his loss. Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith has emerged as a very good play-caller over these past two years. It's not just his reliance on play-action, throwing from heavy sets, and running into light boxes, either. He's getting pretty creative. The Titans have scored touchdowns in each of their past two games on plays where they lined up their monster-sized running back in the slot, confusing opposing defensive assignments.
The thing about all this efficient passing is, it will open things up even more for Henry to run the ball down the throat of opposing defenses, as he did last week. He struggled to get untracked through the early part of the season, but against the Texans, the Titans called some runs with designed cutbacks that allowed him a freer path to the second level, where he can more easily run over, around, and through defenders. Henry is so massive that he almost can't be taken down by a single defensive back -- you've got to stand him up at or near the line of scrimmage in order to prevent him from getting a big gain. If the Titans are able to get him in open space as often as they did last week, that's less likely to happen.
They'll face their toughest test to date this Sunday, when they take on the Pittsburgh Steelers and the league's most dominant defensive front. Each of T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Tyson Alualu is playing fantastic football this season, absolutely schooling offensive linemen at the point of attack. It's tough to imagine a better group to test the efficiency and efficacy of your offense. By this time a few days from now, we'll know a lot more about whether the Titans are up to the task.