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Can Ryan Tannehill keep this up?

The Titans traded on Tannehill’s arm strength to shake up the Chargers’ defense.

Los Angeles Chargers v Tennessee Titans Photo by Silas Walker/Getty Images

The Titans’ offense was stuck in neutral. Tennessee was home to a top-five scoring defense, but two straight losses had dropped the team to the bottom of the AFC South after Week 6. A punchless attack was largely to blame; the Titans hadn’t thrown for 300+ net passing yards since September 2018.

And then Ryan Tannehill showed up.

The former Dolphins standout took over as the team’s starting quarterback in Week 7, replacing an ineffective Marcus Mariota in the process. He responded with the Titans’ biggest passing performance in more than a year. Tannehill finished his day with 312 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception as the Titans snapped a two-game skid and held on to barely upend the Chargers, 23-20.

For one week, Tennessee’s weakness behind center became a strength. The Titans made a smart move acquiring Tannehill last offseason, supplementing an injury-prone starter with a high value backup who still had plenty to prove. And while it’s only one game, Tannehill thrived when given a chance to keep his team afloat in a wide-open AFC playoff race.

How’d that happen?

The Titans used Tannehill’s arm strength and big targets to slice through the LA secondary

Tennessee trusted its backup-turned-starter to find opportunities for big plays from his very first pass. He hit tight end Jonnu Smith — starting in place of an injured Delanie Walker — for a 24-yard gain to start his day.

This risk-taking shined through on shorter throws as well. He threaded the needle by hitting Corey Davis in the middle of double-coverage for a modest gain on the offense’s second drive. Minutes later, he showed off that accuracy by hitting Davis again, this time while rolling to his left:

The message was simple. Tannehill had the green light to make the throws he wanted, even if they weren’t clear winners. Though the team’s deep routes were largely diversions, they helped set up an efficient passing offense the Titans have largely lacked in 2019.

Most of these passes relied on his biggest targets. The Miami castoff excelled when either throwing high to taller wideouts and tight ends or throwing comeback/curl routes that allowed thicker targets like Smith (250 pounds) and A.J. Brown (225) to box out smaller defenders and clear a path to the ball. Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith recognized Tannehill’s laser arm and crafted a route tree that traded on his ability to fire the ball to a specific point. From there, he allowed his young playmakers to do the rest.

This stop-and-turn success also helped unlock big plays in the intermediate area downfield. Tannehill is not a deep-ball wizard. Over his previous four games, including last week’s relief appearance against Denver, the veteran passer had only completed four of his last 13 passes that traveled more than 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

But against the Chargers and their potent secondary, Tannehill went 3-of-3 in those situations — an uptick in accuracy aided, in part, by the fact none of his throws went further than 18 yards. His five longest throws all ended in completions — including a touchdown dart to Tajae Sharpe in the back of the end zone. He threw only one incompletion in eight passes that flew 10 yards or more past the line of scrimmage:

This also mitigated what had been one of the team’s biggest deficiencies; weak blocking up front. No quarterback in the league has been sacked more than Mariota’s 25 times. The Broncos sacked Titan QBs seven times a week before.

On Sunday, Tannehill threw a succession of quick-hit passes and used his moderate scrambling ability to roll out of pressure. Where Mariota could be baited into holding onto the ball as his pocket fell to pieces, Tannehill either escaped the pass rush or made the snap decisions that kept the Chargers off his back.

The result? Only two sacks taken — the second-best mark the Tennessee offensive line has allowed this fall.

Beyond that, those short-range strikes helped make LA’s safeties a little jumpier when it came to crashing down on Titans wideouts. This opened up some gaps for those 10-18 yard passes that ultimately proved fatal for the Chargers. But Tannehill’s ability to make those throws was only part of the equation.

Tannehill incorporated the weapons Mariota struggled to jump start

Tennessee has invested significant draft capital in finding the right weapons to boost the quarterback it once took No. 2 overall. In the past three seasons, the Titans have spent four picks in rounds 1-3 on either wide receiver or tight end help.

The headliner in that group was Davis, the fifth overall pick in 2017. While he’d had his moments in Nashville — a pair of 100+ yard performances in 2018, mainly — he was an underutilized piece of the offense. In 5.5 games with Mariota behind center he’d recorded just 13 catches.

While Mariota didn’t have much faith in the former Western Michigan star, Tannehill clearly does. He hit Davis three times in Week 6’s loss to the Broncos, then added six more catches Sunday as the former first-rounder sprang for 80 yards and a touchdown.

And he wasn’t even Tannehill’s top target! That honor went to Brown, the rookie out of Ole Miss who currently leads the team in receiving yards despite looking like someone left a plodding tight end in the dryer too long. At 6’0 and 225 pounds, Brown is a burly wideout who moves exceptionally well; in Week 7, Tannehill rode him to career highs in both targets (eight) and catches (six). Smith, taken two rounds after Davis in 2017, set a personal record with 64 receiving yards.

That’s the kind of production Tennessee executives envisioned when it spent high-value draft picks on these guys. They just assumed it’d be Mariota pushing them to new heights — not a guy the Dolphins didn’t want gunking up their rebuild.

Tannehill could be a useful (but certainly not ideal) solution to a looming Titans problem

Tannehill was great in Week 7, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned from his previous seven years in the league it’s that consistency isn’t one of his hallmarks. The Dolphins liked him enough to invest more than $72 million in him, then cut him loose last spring once it became clear he wasn’t the savior for which the franchise had hoped. He’s had a dozen NFL games with a passer rating over 120 and 14 where it’s been 60 or less.

Banking on him to be your long-term starter doesn’t make much sense, but there could be a place for him in Nashville come 2020. The Titans don’t have much of a shot at a top-five draft pick thanks to the impressively hopeless situations in places like Miami, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Washington. The odds of the club finding its franchise quarterback in the middle of the first round are pretty low, barring a resource-draining trade to the top of a draft where passers will be an expensive commodity.

Tannehill — especially the Tannehill that showed up against the Chargers — could be a useful seatwarmer who keeps the Titans cruising toward their 9-7 destiny. History suggests he’s more or less the same guy as Mariota is as a passer:

Marcus Mariota vs. Ryan Tannehill

Player Record Cmp% Yds/gm TD TD rate Int Int rate Rate Y/A
Player Record Cmp% Yds/gm TD TD rate Int Int rate Rate Y/A
Marcus Mariota 29-32-0 62.9 212.6 76 4.3% 44 2.5% 89.6 7.5
Ryan Tannehill 43-46-0 63.1 229.6 125 4.2% 77 2.6% 87.3 7.1

But after carving up the Chargers, he’s the Titans top guy going forward. Now we wait and see if he can be something better than the Miami version of Tannehill in order to get Tennessee back to the postseason.