One week is all it takes for supporters’ confidence about their NFL teams coming into the 2021 season to be dashed. The Bills, Packers, and Titans all entered the season hoping to take their powerhouse offensive all the way to Super Bowl LVI. They combined to average over 94 points each week in 2020 after finishing as three of the league’s top four scoring offences last season. In their Week 1 losses, those three clubs combined for 32 points. It wasn’t intended to happen like this.
What went wrong with their offences in Week 1 of the NFL and should we be concerned?
The events of Week 1 are now history. Every team experiences blips, and if those three offences simply had a bad day, no one will remember it in a few weeks. Our preseason expectations for these past playoff teams would have to adjust if it wasn’t just a bad day. Let’s take a look at what happened in these three clubs’ first games of the season to see if there are any concerns following their poor start. It’s far too early to modify your expectations about what they can do in 2021, but it’s not too early to be aware of potential difficulties in the coming weeks. I’ll start with the team that concerns me the most and work my way down to the one that appears to be the least concerning:
It was supposed to be a happy occasion! The Titans were welcoming back franchise left tackle Taylor Lewan in their home opener after he missed most of 2020 due to a ruptured right ACL. Even more exciting, the Titans finally got to show off offseason acquisition Julio Jones, who was playing in a Titans uniform for the first time since 2010. In Nashville, almost everyone expected a shootout against a Cardinals club with one of the league’s weakest cornerback depth charts. The Cardinals, for the most part, kept their half of the bargain. On offence, the Titans were a catastrophe, and their star players were partly to blame. Chandler Jones racked up a few of his five sacks despite Lewan’s best efforts. When Lewan returned to the field in the second half, he was booed, and he later tweeted, “I let the team and the supporters down.”
Jones had 29 receiving yards on six targets, but it was an unnecessary roughness call that transformed a third-and-1 into a third-and-16. Tennessee’s sole first down came on a fake punt in the first quarter. The third significant newcomer for this offence, new coordinator Todd Downing, who spent the previous two seasons as Tennessee’s tight ends coach before being moved to the position after Arthur Smith left for Atlanta, is my biggest concern. Downing previously served as the Raiders’ offensive coordinator for one season in 2017, during which the team had a terrible season. During his tenure as the Raiders’ playcaller, he shunned play-action in particular. Play-action was used on 20.8 percent of all dropbacks across the league in 2017. Downing’s Raiders only employed play-action 7.8% of the time that season, which was the lowest in the NFL.
As you may recall, the Titans reversed their passing attack and got career-high numbers from Ryan Tannehill by going the other way. They used play-action on 32.8 percent of their dropbacks over the last two seasons with Smith as their offensive coordinator, which is the highest rate in the NFL. Between 2019 and 2020, Tannehill dominated with play fakes, leading the league in yards per attempt (11.0) and QBR (84.6). Without a play fake, he was 11th in the league in both categories. You probably have a good idea where this is headed! Tannehill was sacked 43 times in Week 1. Only five of the 43 efforts featured any form of play-action, resulting in an 11.6 percent success rate. Tannehill had the third-worst QBR of the week in the defeat to Arizona, owing in part to the play-action rate and possibly more so to the fact that he was wearing Chandler Jones on his back for the majority of the day.
Traditionalists would argue that the Titans would not have gone to play-action if their running game had been a problem. Derrick Henry wasn’t his usual self on Sunday, as the bruising back managed only 58 rushing yards and two first downs on 17 carries. However, studies have shown that in order for play-action to operate, teams do not need to establish the run or succeed in running the football. Even if it were true, the Titans “proved” two years ago that Henry is a devastating threat when he has the ball in his hands. Because Henry wasn’t averaging 6.0 yards per carry, no linebacker is going to disregard his run key. Consider how the Bills limited Henry to 57 yards on 19 rushing attempts last season. Despite this, Tannehill completed 7 of 10 passes for 75 yards and a touchdown on play-action in a rout of Tennessee.
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