Despite the departure of Offensive Coordinator Arthur Smith to Atlanta, the Titans will likely want to run their offense in a similar fashion to the way they have over the last two seasons. That’s why they promoted from within, giving the OC job to tight ends coach Todd Downing instead of hiring externally.
That offense goes through Derrick Henry and the running game.
The Titans finished 3rd overall in run-play percentage during each of the last two seasons. And a significant component of their passing game is based off of the run. In fact, no quarterback in the NFL has had a higher percentage of their passing yards come from play action over the last two season than Ryan Tannehill (40%).
Tannehill’s passer rating on play action over the last two seasons is a whopping 123.1. That said, he’s also been really good on non-play-action passes, playing to a 105.2 QB rating. That’s not just good, that’s great quarterback play.
The bigger concern is how Tannehill and the passing game have performed in the playoffs. The drop off here has been more noticeable.
Simply put, against better competition in the playoffs, Tannehill and the Titans passing game have struggled when the threat of the running game isn’t there. This has held Tennessee back during the last two postseasons. The Chiefs in the 2019 AFC Championship Game and the Ravens in last year’s Wild Card Round held Derrick Henry to 69 and 40 rushing yards respectively. It’s no surprise that the Titans’ seasons have ended there.
What does this mean? The Titans need more options when the running game isn’t a factor. Enter Julio Jones.
While Jones might not be the player he was in his prime, particularly on vertical routes, he can still win consistently at the intermediate level:
Jones is a very good route runner as you could see on the above touchdown. He’s also a physical, big-bodied receiver who is still a mismatch in most 1-on-1 situations. Cornerbacks can’t jam him at the line and expect to disrupt his route, as you can see below. Watch him fight through the contact, keep it from impeding his route, and get his man leaning inside before breaking to the sideline.
It’s with his route-running and physicality that Jones can still create separation consistently and generate big plays.
When Derrick Henry is taken out of the game, Tannehill will now have more options. Defenses won’t be able to dedicate defenders to stop the run and double team both Jones and A.J. Brown. The addition of Jones means there will be more opportunities across the board for the Titans offense. Tannehill, Brown, and Henry are all now better because of Jones’ presence.
And of course, Jones will make one of the Titans’ greatest strengths (play action) that much better. With linebackers sucked up to the line of scrimmage in response to the run, Jones will be able to work 1-on-1 matchups in man and zone at the intermediate levels, the area where he thrives the most. Check him out at the bottom of the screen on this play-action pass.
I love that route by Jones. His break seemed to come out of nowhere. It’s tough to get a read on that as a cornerback. This is one of the ways Jones is able to consistently create separation.
The below route was just unfair. Again, Jones was aligned at the bottom of the screen:
From a pure football standpoint, Jones is a huge addition for the Titans Offense if he can stay healthy. Does he make Tennessee a Super Bowl contender? Not on his own. He’s a piece the offense badly needed to take the next step, but the defense is still the major question mark for the Titans. That side of the ball was horrendous in 2020, finishing 24th in points allowed, 28th in yards, 29th in passing yards, 30th in sacks, 31st in pressure %, and 32nd on 3rd down. It’s amazing that they were still able to win the division.
Most teams aren’t Super Bowl contenders without a good defense. The last 8 Super Bowl winners all had defenses in the top 10 in scoring, for instance. The Titans did their best to address this deficiency during the offseason. If they can get back to where they were under Dean Pees, then they definitely have a chance. If not, then this is all conjecture. A healthy and dynamic Julio Jones won’t make a difference without a huge improvement on the other side of the ball.