NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Titans head into Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals equipped with something that’s eluded them almost all season: the threat of a downfield passing attack.
It would have been impossible to say the same just a week ago. That was before Ryan Tannehill lit up Lambeau Field last Thursday with a season-best 333-yard performance that included two touchdown passes and a quarterback rating of 127.3.
Just how radically different was the passing game against Green Bay than anything we’d seen previously this season?
Consider some comparative numbers:
• In Tannehill’s first seven games, he connected on just six of 18 passes 20 or more yards downfield, averaging 9.6 yards per attempt on those throws, per Pro Football Focus. Against Green Bay, Tannehill hit on four of six attempts 20 or more yards downfield, averaging a whopping 23.5 yards per attempt.
• In Tannehill’s first seven games, he averaged just 7.4 yards per attempt overall. Against Green Bay, that average was 12.3 yards per attempt—a jump of nearly 70 percent.
• The Titans totaled only 10 plays (runs or passes) of 30-plus yards in their first nine games. In just four quarters against Green Bay, Tannehill completed five passes that went for more than 30 yards.
Is it fair to say the Titans have turned a corner in the passing game?
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“Every week is a new page,” coach Mike Vrabel, clearly not ready to get carried away, said. “Every day is a new page in this league. It’s just about trying to make some progress and improve in a lot of different areas.”
Added Tannehill: “We just want to keep building on what we’re able to do and how we’re attacking defenses. The receivers and tight ends have been doing a great job of taking advantage of the opportunities. … So you’ve got to tip your hat to those guys, and you want to keep the foot on the gas.”
An argument could be made that things began to change a game earlier, against Denver, when Nick Westbrook-Ikhine hauled in a 63-yard touchdown pass (on his way to a 119-yard day) and rookie tight end Chig Okonkwo snared a 41 – yard reception.
But rookie wide receiver Treylon Burks helped take matters to another level against the Packers. He caught passes of 43 and 51 yards to bookend the Titans’ big win.
The influx of explosive plays “makes a difference, no doubt, whenever you’re able to get those explosive plays, shorten drives just by yards needed to gain,” Tannehill said. “Definitely gets the defense on their heels. When they want to stack the box, and you can take advantage for some looks down the field, it helps.”
Burks’ breakout game appears to be further evidence he’s feeling more comfortable in the Titans’ system. In his first four games, Burks totaled 10 catches for 129 yards. In his last two – since he returned from injured reserve – Burks has already matched that catch total (10 receptions) and surpassed his yardage total (135 yards).
The scouting report on Burks coming out of Arkansas was that – despite a lack of blazing speed – he still found ways to get open downfield, often by using his 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame to stack defensive backs behind him. Against the Packers, Burks showed some of those same skills on the deep passes.
“He’s a heck of a player – young guy coming in, does everything we’ve asked him to do,” Tannehill said. “There’s a lot of experiences along the way, but he’s been great to work with. He’s easy to work with. He’s talented, obviously.
“Great hands, judges the ball, can run. So he has everything you’re looking for, and he’s doing a really good job of everything we’re asking him to do. We just want to keep the pressure on him, keep him growing in our offense, and he’s going to continue to make plays for us.”
More than halfway through the season, Burks appears to have given Tannehill a brand new option – in what looks like a brand new passing game.