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The Titans Are Finally Healthy. But Will That Be Enough for Them to Make a Run?

This season, Tennessee has been defined by its injuries. Now that its stars are back in the fold, though, does this team have enough to live up to its no. 1 seed?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Titans are a team made for internet debates. The AFC’s no. 1 seed, which kicks off its postseason journey against the Bengals on Saturday, earned that distinction by winning 12 games—including four against teams still alive in the playoffs, such as the Bills and Chiefs—while also finishing the regular season ranked 20th in DVOA. Football Outsiders’ numbers say they’re the worst team to earn a no. 1 seed since 1983. And they would also have been the worst 2-seed since 1983 had they dropped a spot in the standings.

Sports fans love a good “process v. results” debate, and there isn’t a better one than this version of the Titans. But that has made them difficult to predict heading into the playoffs—as have the injuries that have plagued their campaign. In 2021, Tennessee set the record for most players used in an NFL season. That was due to a loooooong list of injuries, which featured running back Derrick Henry, who missed the second half of the season with a foot injury, and receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones, who were sidelined for 11 games combined and missed parts of others.

All in all, Tennessee used 91 players during the regular season and still managed to beat eight teams that finished with a winning record. That stat should be enough to earn Mike Vrabel his first Coach of the Year Award. But it still doesn’t answer the most pressing question we have about the Titans: Now that Henry looks ready to return to the lineup, and the team is (mostly) healthy, is it good enough to win a Super Bowl?

Before we answer that, let’s try to figure out who the Titans are, really. Fans outside Tennessee didn’t get a whole lot of exposure to this team this season. It played just three nationally televised games—two before Week 10, and the third a sloppy Thursday-nighter two days before Christmas (I won’t check your NFL fan card if you decided to skip that 20-17 win over the 49ers).

And honestly, given all the injuries the Titans have had, I’m not even sure that Tennessee fans know what to expect from this team in the playoffs, especially on offense. That side of the ball was seen as the Titans’ strength heading into the season. With Henry in the backfield, and two legit no. 1 receivers in Brown and Jones, it didn’t seem like defenses would stand a chance. But those three players shared the field on just 120 snaps across five games. And Tennessee’s Week 2 win in Seattle was the only time we saw them play at least 40 snaps together, according to TruMedia. That sample size just isn’t big enough to draw any meaningful conclusions about this unit’s ceiling.

Really, you can break down Tennessee’s 2021 offensive performance into four phases, starting with an embarrassing Week 1 blowout against Arizona, where things started off badly and continued to get worse until the final whistle.

The Four Phases of the 2021 Titans Offense

Phase (Weeks) EPA per play Rank EPA per pass EPA per pun
Phase (Weeks) EPA per play Rank EPA per pass EPA per pun
1. The Cardinals game (1) -0.32 31st -0.31 -0.33
2. Still relatively healthy (2-8) 0.13 7th 0.23 0.01
3. The team is cursed (9-15) -0.09 26th -0.11 -0.07
4. Missing Henry but better (16-18) 0.12 10th 0.37 -0.11

The second phase, which spanned from weeks 2 to 8, is the closest we got to the team we expected to see before injuries took their toll. And it was pretty damn good! Outside of a bad loss to the Jets—when both Jones and Brown were out—the offense was relatively healthy, and the Titans won six of seven, including back-to-back victories over Buffalo and Kansas City. But then, in a Week 8 win over the Colts, Henry went down for the rest of the regular season, and that kicked off a third phase, when everything went wrong. Jones got hurt the following week and would miss the next three games. Two weeks later, it was Brown’s turn. By Week 12, Tennessee was without its three offensive stars, and Ryan Tannehill was left trying to keep the offense afloat on his own.

Finally the receivers got healthy again, the passing game saw a late-season surge, and now Henry has returned to practice just in time to save the running game for the playoffs. But it’s fair to ask how much of a boost Henry’s return will provide, even if he is able to perform like he did pre-injury after missing 12 weeks. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell noted this week, D’Onta Foreman, who beat out a washed-up Adrian Peterson for the starting job while Henry was out, was largely able to replicate Henry’s production. Both backs averaged 4.3 yards for the Titans, and Foreman’s success rate is seven points higher.

Henry’s absence seemingly hasn’t had an impact on the play-action passing game, either. At least based on the numbers.

Titans Play-Action Passing Game Splits

Weeks EPA/Play Dropbacks
Weeks EPA/Play Dropbacks
1-8 0.09 86
9-18 0.12 88

But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll quickly realize that the Titans still very much need Henry for his substantial big-play threat:

Not to mention the fact that much of Foreman’s performance can be chalked up to getting better blocking and play-calling compared to what Henry had to work with. Based on Pro Football Focus’s rush yards over expected metric, Henry has been the far better runner relative to factors outside his control.

The improved play-action passing game can be explained easily, too: When Henry was on the field, Tannehill made more mistakes in high-leverage situations, leading to bigger losses of EPA. Despite having nearly identical sack and interception rates on play-action passes with and without Henry on the field, the difference in EPA lost on those plays was massive.

Titans Play-Action With and Without Henry

Henry On/Off Dropbacks Sacks EPA Lost Interceptions EPA Lost Total EPA Lost
Henry On/Off Dropbacks Sacks EPA Lost Interceptions EPA Lost Total EPA Lost
On 86 4 15.2 2 12.3 27.5
Off 88 4 5.9 2 8.2 14.1

If you exclude sacks and interceptions, Tannehill averaged 0.44 EPA per play-action dropback with Henry on the field and 0.31 when he was off, according to TruMedia.

It’s impossible to say that Henry’s presence in the backfield makes Tennessee’s play-action passes—which have fueled the passing game since Tannehill took over as QB—any better. There are too many factors there that we can’t account for. But we can say that the team’s play-action game was better when he was on the field. And we can also say why that was the case: Tannehill was able to target the middle of the field more often when Henry was healthy, as you can see in his passing heat map on play-action attempts, via TruMedia:

When the Titans offense gets rolling, Henry is able to rip off big runs, and Tannehill throws in-breaking routes to Brown and Jones. That was the formula for Tennessee’s best offensive stretch of the season, which included those wins over the Bills and Chiefs. Just look at Tannehill’s passing map in those two games, via Next Gen Stats:

Because Brown and Jones are mostly responsible for running those over-the-middle routes, their intermittent absences in the second half of the season may have played just as big of a role in Tennessee’s inability to attack the middle of the field as Henry’s absence did.

Titans Play-Action Splits

Split Plays EPA/Play Yards/Play
Split Plays EPA/Play Yards/Play
Overall 174 0.11 7.9
No Henry 96 0.13 6.8
No Jones 101 0.11 7.6
No Brown 72 0.11 6.6
All 3 on field 26 0.23 12.2

With all three expected to be ready for the playoffs, though, doling out proper credit is a useless exercise. The good players are back, so the offense should perform better than it did over the course of the entire regular season.

That means more support for a defense that carried the team during the second half of the season and ranked eighth in weighted DVOA, per Football Outsiders. Even at its peak, the Titans defense isn’t elite. But it’s more than good enough to get to a Super Bowl, and it just so happens to be perfectly designed to take on the Bills and Chiefs, the two biggest threats in the AFC.

Vrabel and defensive coordinator Shane Bowen do not get nearly enough credit for building an ideal scheme for the modern game and doing so without much star power. Safety Kevin Byard was named to the All-Pro team for the second time in his career this season, and it won’t be long before defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons—who single-handedly destroyed the post-deadline Rams hype in a Sunday-night win in Los Angeles—is one of the better interior linemen in the NFL. But outside of those two, there aren’t a lot of household names. And Tennessee makes up for its lack of blue-chip talent with a well-rounded scheme.

That starts up front. Vrabel and Bowen lean on a formidable defensive line to stop the run game, which allows them to allocate more resources to coverage. Per Sports Info Solutions, the Titans defense ranks third in light box rate—snaps with fewer than seven defenders in the run box—and sixth in plays with two safeties deep. With more defenders dedicated to pass coverage, Vrabel and Bowen can get creative on the back end. Now, the Titans aren’t employing any concepts we don’t see the other 31 teams run, but it’s the volume of concepts they run that makes them unique.

For instance, Tennessee runs a lot of Tampa 2, which has been a popular coverage going back to the mid-1990s, before the Titans even existed. The annoying part, at least for offenses, is all the different ways they play it. Here’s a traditional snap of Tampa 2, with the two safeties taking the deep halves, the two corners manning the flats, and the middle linebacker guarding the middle of the field:

Now here’s another example, but this time, the corner takes a deep half, a linebacker replaces him in the flat, and a deep safety drops into what’s known as the hook area:

And here’s a third, with the nickel corner taking the deep half and one of the safeties taking the middle-of-the-field responsibility:

It’s all Tampa 2 at the end of the day, but all those moving parts can play tricks with the quarterback’s mind. And you can find this level of variation in each of the major coverages the Titans play.

Tennessee’s shithousery isn’t confined to coverage, either. They’ll throw some wild stuff at the offensive line, too. Though the Titans rank 31st in blitz rate, per Sports Info Solutions, only seven teams finished with a higher number of QB pressures by defensive backs and linebackers. They’ve done this by using “simulated pressures”—pressure designs that have a traditional pass rusher (a defensive end or tackle) drop into coverage while a non-traditional pass rusher (a defensive back or linebacker) goes after the quarterback. If the offensive line can’t pick it up, the defense can get a free rusher without sacrificing a defender in coverage.

In those résumé-defining wins against the Bills and Chiefs, the Titans threw all sorts of junk at Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes. Some concepts worked better than others, but neither passer was ever able to get comfortable with what he was seeing. Simply getting Mahomes or Allen uncomfortable may be enough to pull off another upset over either team in a potential rematch … if the offense can get back its first-half form, that is.

Of course, the Titans will have to get past the Bengals on Saturday in order to get a crack at sweeping Kansas City or Buffalo. And with Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase playing as well as they are, Tennessee will have to pass an awfully formidable test to advance to the AFC title game. But so what if these Titans aren’t nearly as good as the no. 1 seeds—or even no. 2 seeds—we’re used to seeing in the playoffs? When Tennessee was at its best this season, it performed like a top-10 team that was worthy of a 3-seed. We’ve seen plenty of those teams make a run to the Super Bowl—including the 1999 Titans—and none of them enjoyed the advantage of a bye week.

This Tennessee team might not be good enough to win a title in most seasons. But it just may be good enough to win it in this one.