There is no need to look at the numbers or study much tape of the Tennessee Titans before Week 7.
That week was the clear line of demarcation in their season — the first game that Ryan Tannehill took over for Marcus Mariota at quarterback.
In the first six games with Mariota, the Titans went 2-4 and were 28th in the NFL in scoring (16.3 points per game).
And since Tannehill took over in Week 7, the Titans . . .
■ have gone 7-3.
■ are fourth in the NFL in points (30.4 per game) and second in touchdowns (42).
■ are first in yards per pass attempt (9.64) and quarterback rating (119.5).
■ are first in rushing yards per attempt (5.64) and rushing touchdowns (17), and second in rushing yards per game (160.6).
■ are first in yards per play (6.94) and third in yards per game (406.2).
■ and are first in red zone touchdown percentage (86.7).
“Probably as explosive as anybody we’ve seen in a while,” Bill Belichick said Tuesday as his Patriots prepared to face the Titans in Saturday’s wild-card game. “These guys are tough. They’re a well-balanced team, had a lot of success in the last two-thirds of the season. Can see why.”
The Titans offense has been downright remarkable under Tannehill, who is having a career renaissance after seven disappointing seasons in Miami. He and first-year offensive coordinator Arthur Smith have been a terrific marriage.
Armed with a tank at running back in 6-foot-3-inch, 247-pounder Derrick Henry, and one of the best big-play receivers in the league in rookie A.J. Brown, Tannehill and the Titans have compiled impressive stats and impressive wins, taking down the Chiefs, Colts, Raiders, and Texans in their second-half surge.
And while the Titans have been unstoppable in the red zone, they do a lot of their damage outside it. Brown has touchdowns of 49, 51, 55, 65, and 91 yards. Henry has touchdown runs of 53, 68, and 74 yards.
Henry, now in his fourth season, is the linchpin of the offense. The NFL’s leading rusher with 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns, he isn’t just a big, bruising running back. He runs with shocking quickness and agility for someone his size. Henry has averaged 112 rushing yards per game since Tannehill took over, with 12 touchdowns in 10 games.
“He can make you miss in space, he can drop his pads and run with power, run over you,” Belichick said. “He’s a good inside runner, a good outside runner, catches the ball well, and he’s got speed to go the distance. He doesn’t get caught much. He’s got a good stiff-arm, breaks a lot of tackles in the secondary. It’s hard to simulate all that.”
The offense revolves around the run. In Tannehill’s 10 games, the Titans are seventh in rush attempts (28.5 per game) and 31st in pass attempts (27.3 per game). They lost two of the three games in which Tannehill attempted more than 30 passes. His sweet spot is more in the 18-25 range, and he is averaging only 228 passing yards per game.
But, boy, does Tannehill make those passes count. He is third in the NFL in completion percentage (70.3), and has pushed the ball downfield like no one else; his 9.6 yards per attempt are a full yard better than any other quarterback.
The play-action pass is a huge part of the offense thanks to Henry’s success as a runner. They run a lot of play-action bootlegs from under center, and Tannehill has shown a tremendous ability to fit the ball into tight windows, and to improvise on plays when the initial reads aren’t there.
The play-action, rollout throwback is one of their favorite plays, where Tannehill will roll to his right and throw back to the left across the field to an open receiver. Kalif Raymond scored a 40-yard touchdown on this play last month, and tight end Jonnu Smith caught a 17-yard touchdown on a similar play against the Raiders.
Tannehill, a former college wide receiver, also has the athleticism and toughness to make plays with his feet, as on his 21-yard touchdown run against the Jaguars in Week 12, when he took on two defenders and helicoptered into the end zone.
Tannehill had a career-high four touchdown runs this year, and the Patriots’ outside linebackers will have to make sure they stay disciplined and don’t bite too hard on the play-action fakes, as the Texans did in letting Tannehill walk into the end zone untouched three weeks ago.
Tannehill’s deep-ball accuracy has been mighty impressive. Last week against the Texans, he put one on a dime for 47 yards to Brown, who showed great concentration in fighting for the ball over two defenders, then barely tapping both feet inbounds.
Tannehill also had a gorgeous 60-yard bomb to Brown down the right sideline in Week 15.
Tannehill’s athleticism and arm strength are underrated. He made a gorgeous throw to Brown last week, throwing on the run and squeezing the ball into a tight window on a crossing route. Brown did the rest, turning the corner and dancing 51 yards down the sideline for the touchdown.
Tannehill also had a tremendous touchdown pass against the Saints two weeks ago, sliding to his left and firing a bullet past three defenders for a 7-yard score to Tajae Sharpe, despite taking a huge hit as he threw.
And the Titans are one of the best catch-and-run teams, thanks to Brown and his incredible speed. Since Tannehill took over, Brown is averaging 20.5 yards per catch, second-highest in the NFL, and he also had a 49-yard touchdown on an end-around.
In Week 12, he took a quick slant from Tannehill and outraced the Jaguars defense for a 65-yard touchdown. The Patriots had better put a safety over the top of Brown all game long.
“They get him the ball in space and he takes those 10 yards and turns them into 60-yard touchdowns,” Belichick said. “He’s really good.”
Tannehill shows great patience in the pocket, and will wait . . . wait . . . wait for his receiver to come open. His 36-yard touchdown pass to Sharpe two weeks ago came on one of these plays, where Sharpe eventually broke open over the middle.
But Tannehill’s patience also works against him. He has taken 31 sacks, and in his 10 starts, he has the highest sack percentage in the league (9.1 percent of pass plays). While many of the sacks are due to poor pass protection — the Titans appear to have significant protection issues, particularly up the middle — Tannehill has taken more than a few because of his unwillingness to throw the ball away or scramble. He has fumbled six times in his 10 starts thanks to strip-sacks.
The Titans certainly aren’t perfect. The offensive line has issues, Tannehill sometimes throws with too much heat, leading to tipped interceptions, and they don’t have a ton of production at receiver outside of Brown (Corey Davis is their second-leading receiver with 43 catches for 601 yards and two touchdowns). Tight end Delanie Walker is out for the season, though Smith (35 catches for 439 yards and three touchdowns) has done a nice job filling in.
The Patriots’ best bet may be to sit back in coverage, take away the deep ball, and hope that the defensive linemen can get off their blocks and slow down Henry.
But stopping the Titans won’t be easy. They have a Mack truck at running back, one of the speediest playmakers in the NFL, a quarterback who can let it rip, and a great scheme that disguises run plays and play-action passes well.
The Patriots may have the No. 1 defense, but they just gave up 27 points to the Dolphins, and certainly have their work cut out for them against the Titans.