Tennessee Titans 2021 Team Study

Part 18 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 17 here: Indianapolis Colts. Part 19 now available: Jacksonville Jaguars.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Offensive Eff. Rating (blue) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPAAdj. Pass Rate

The Titans offense overcame several significant injuries in 2021. They once again concentrated their offense around Derrick Henry, with the league’s highest adjusted run rate and sets that frequently involved just 1 or 2 wide receivers. A.J. Brown is a stud, and their offense typically featured three focal points. They were hoping Julio Jones could replace Corey Davis as the third, but age and injury caught up with Julio. It often came down to just Henry and Brown.

Unfortunately, both suffered injuries as well. It was a messy season, with a well-coached team trying to overcome injuries that went to the core of what they want to do: run the ball, wear you out, force at least 8 men in the box, and capitalize on play-action with explosive plays to stud receivers. When defenses saw D’Onta Foreman lining up behind Tannehill, they didn’t need to overcommit to stop the run. And with the cornerbacks on the outside facing off against Chester Rogers and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, they lacked the big-play ability to capitalize anyway. This disrupted their offense.

But looking only at the games in which everyone was healthy, this offense still worked to the tune of a +0.31 Adj. Eff. Rating, which would put them comfortably in the top 10 and a slight nudge ahead of where they were in 2020. They opened the year 6-1 when healthy (outside of a loss to the Jets in which both Brown and Julio were unavailable), racking up impressive wins against the Bills, Chiefs, and Colts twice. Despite lower rushing efficiency in the wake of Arthur Smith’s departure, the offense looked just fine early on.

Some will highlight Henry’s drop-off to 4.3 yards per carry (from 5.4 in 2020) even before he got hurt and his underwhelming performance in the playoffs. But despite the lower yards per carry, his role within the offense facilitated overall success. He racked up a ton of carries that occupied the defense and helped take the pressure off an explosive passing game that led to big wins against the Bills and Chiefs. Playing into single coverage off play action, Tannehill delivered the 5th-best on-target percentage in the NFL. It was a tried and true formula, and Henry’s lower efficiency did not kill the offense as a whole when everyone was healthy. He’s not a particularly versatile player, which caps the team’s offensive upside. But the strength was there because he did what he did extremely well.

Henry is still the engine that drives this offense. This raises the concerning question about how long a running back can take the kind of workload Henry has had and still be effective. The injury in 2021 felt inevitable for anyone looking at the numbers. And running backs famously start to decline once they reach around 1,500 rushing attempts in their career. Henry is there and coming off injury. Granted, he is built different. We saw Adrian Peterson dominate after an ACL tear, so it can happen. But the harsh reality for this offense is that running backs rarely continue to dominate with the kind of workload Henry has had, especially coming off an injury.

If he has lost a step, this offense will suffer. Tannehill is far less effective when he has to create the yards and when defenses are playing back into coverage. We saw this in the latter part of the year, when the Titans offense struggled down the stretch without Henry. Yes, Foreman matched Henry’s production in terms of yards per carry, but he did this because the defenses played the Titans softer up front. The overall offensive result was mediocre for the Titans.

After shipping A.J. Brown to the Eagles, the Titans will try to use Henry, Robert Woods, and rookie Treylon Burks as the three-part centerpiece in this offense. That’s a lot of uncertainty. At its best, this should be a good – not great – offense, that capitalizes when it can win in the trenches. Everything flows from Henry getting momentum. If you tackle him behind the line, the whole offense stalls. They should have a great red zone efficiency rate because when they move the ball, they score. And when they don’t move the ball, they don’t get in the red zone. Henry will put up good stats because when he’s playing well he gets more carries. But injury risk is right around the corner, and we’ve seen the back-up plan is not ideal.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Defensive Eff. Rating (blue) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPABlitz RatePressure Rate

The Titans defense really came out of nowhere in 2021. I had them graded as one of the worst defenses in the NFL in 2020 and they didn’t really make any massive improvements that would transform the defense. Yet they finished 2021 ranked 7th. They didn’t do anything exceptionally well, but they did everything pretty well. They were well-coached, disciplined, and played within context.

They didn’t blitz a lot, instead focusing on taking away explosive pass plays with coverage and closing on the receivers. They allowed the 11th-lowest average depth of target and the 6th-fewest yards after the catch per completion. This is obviously a huge combination in today’s NFL, where the best offenses are built around explosive pass plays. Chart A shows the Titans’ defensive Adj. Eff. Rating (relative to opponent) ranking each team by its percentage of total yards gained on the ground. The teams on the right relied on the pass, whereas teams on the left relied on the run. The Titans’ best defensive performances came against the Rams, Chiefs, and Steelers, all pass-heavy teams in terms of production.

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent share of total yards gained rushing (instead of passing).

No game was more impressive than their 27-3 win against the Chiefs. The Titans owned the Chiefs in that game from start to finish, holding Mahomes and the Chiefs under 10 points for only the second time in his career – the other game being in the Super Bowl against an elite Bucs front with a heavily depleted offensive line. It was a very impressive performance. They also stood strong against the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams on defense, capitalizing on mistakes by Stafford.

On a per-play basis, the Titans were seemingly below average against the pass (19th in yards per pass play allowed). But their EPA/play was 9th because their success rate – which measures the frequency with which opposing offenses gain a situational-based meaningful amount of yards – was 5th-best in the NFL. This likely means they often gave up passing yards on third down that didn’t get a first down. This was their style: make it hard to make the key plays. Invite the underneath throws and close quickly. And it worked.

In addition to solid tackling (the 5th-fewest missed tackles in the NFL), they converted pressures to sacks at the 11th-highest rate. This was on full display in the playoffs when they sacked Joe Burrow 9 times. These stats are hallmarks of a well-coached defense focused on fundamentals. Their offense just needed to play about an average game and they would have been hosting Kansas City in the AFC Championship game. But the offense let them down.

If they return with this scheme and effectiveness in 2022, it will be a good thing for their outlook. But defensive performance – especially one that comes out of nowhere – is notoriously difficult to sustain. I think reversion to close to the mean is expected, but they have the coaching and scheme in place to maintain a strong presence on this side of the ball, particularly against explosive passing offenses.

Key Takeaways

When to bet on the Titans: I want a piece of this team when they project to win in the trenches and the opposing team is force into single coverage on the outside. This is the prototypical “positive feedback loop” team when healthy, especially with a defense that can prevent big passing plays.

When to fade the Titans: With such a concentrated offense, they are particularly vulnerable to key injuries. Look out if Henry gets hurt again or they lose Woods or Burks. But even when healthy, this team can get overrated when it wins big in those positive-feedback games and faces off against a really good defensive front that can handle Henry. They perform much worse when Henry is unable to get going.

What to look for in the offseason: They will roll out a completely new wide receiver corps in 2022, which creates some uncertainty. The offensive line could be beefed up, to make it easier to get in their rhythm. On defense I’m looking for consistency and trust building that can help the defense remain consistent. I’m not an expert draft analyst but I’ll be looking to see how their defensive additions impact projections.

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