Wade Payne/Associated Press
If you had doubts about Ryan Tannehill, his performance in the Tennessee Titans’ decisive 42-16 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Tuesday should force you to reconsider your misgivings about the 2019 Comeback Player of the Year.
From the opening drive, the quarterback looked sharp, threading the needle on a pinpoint 16-yard touchdown pass to wideout A.J. Brown. They hooked up for seven completions, 82 yards and a touchdown against a Bills defense that had no answers for the Titans’ aerial attack inside the 20-yard line.
Despite Brown’s two-game absence because of a bone bruise in his knee, his connection with Tannehill hasn’t skipped a beat. Last year, he led all rookies in receiving yards (1,051) and took off once the Titans benched Marcus Mariota in Week 7.
If teams roll added coverage to Brown, Tannehill can look to budding tight end Jonnu Smith, who hauled in five passes for 40 yards and two touchdowns Tuesday.
Just when defenders think they have Tannehill’s pass-catchers covered downfield, he beat teams with his legs. The athletic signal-caller capped off a strong first half with a 10-yard touchdown run as the Bills failed to contain him in the pocket:
According to ESPN Stats & Info (h/t ESPN’s Turron Davenport), the 32-year-old is tied with Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes for the second-most touchdown runs (four) on scrambles since the beginning of last season.
In recent years, the Titans have adopted a physical offensive identity. Under former head coach Mike Mularkey, it was known as “exotic smashmouth.” Tennessee still has that aspect with 6’3″, 247-pound running back Derrick Henry mowing over and stiff-arming defenders like Josh Norman into the ground:
However, Tennessee now poses a stronger threat through the air, too. Tannehill threw for only 195 yards against the Bills, but he made the most of his red-zone trips, throwing three touchdown passes to go along with his score on the ground.
In the Titans’ four wins, he hasn’t finished with flashy passing numbers, but he’s efficient and often finishes drives with six points as opposed to stalling while in striking distance. Going into Week 5, the Titans ranked fifth leaguewide in red-zone touchdown conversions (72.7 percent). They went 6-for-6 Tuesday.
Bills All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White sat out because of a back injury, which undoubtedly helped Tannehill, but the Titans didn’t have two of their top three wide receivers after placing Corey Davis and Adam Humphries on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
That didn’t stop Tannehill, who made a few passes to unheralded wideout Kalif Raymond and tight end Anthony Firkser for first downs. For a quarterback who missed nearly two weeks of practice because of COVID-19 shutdowns, he had an impressive outing.
Tennessee’s defense provided some help. Cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted two of Josh Allen’s passes and returned them deep into Bills territory, which gave the offense short fields from which to work:
Tannehill capitalized on those golden opportunities and made the Bills pay for their mistakes.
In the wake of Tuesday’s dominant showing, the Titans seem to have the complete package in all three phases of the game. Raymond, who caught two passes for 26 yards, had a 40-yard punt return that set up the offense on Buffalo’s 30-yard line at the end of the first quarter.
In a battle between undefeated teams, the Titans showed they’re playing on another level despite the disruptions at their facility. At 4-0 and at the top of the division, Tennessee looks like the front-runner to win the AFC South after the Indianapolis Colts lost their second game of the season Sunday.
For the naysayers who questioned Tennessee’s decision to sign Tannehill to a four-year, $118 million extension back in March, perhaps this game on the national stage opened your eyes as to why the organization believes in its quarterback.
Instead of looking at Tannehill with a critical eye after he flamed out as a Miami Dolphin, we need to flip that skepticism to New York Jets head coach Adam Gase, who coached him for three seasons between 2016 and 2018. As Gang Green’s lead skipper, he hasn’t elevated quarterback Sam Darnold, and his offense ranks last in points through five weeks. Meanwhile, Tannehill continues to shine.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and offensive coordinator Arthur SmithMark Zaleski/Associated Press/Associated Press
Over the last year, Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith has accentuated Tannehill’s skill set as Tennessee’s offense evolves with a dynamic playmaker under center.
At this rate, Smith will become a head-coaching candidate in the offseason, the Titans will make the playoffs for consecutive years and we’ll have to reconsider where Tannehill ranks in the quarterback tiers.
Last year, Tennessee went all the way to the AFC Championship Game with an offense that came together midseason. But in each of their last three outings, the Titans have scored at least 31 points. Don’t be surprised to see this unit finish among the top 10 in scoring in back-to-back campaigns.
The Titans have a long way to go before a possible return to the AFC Championship Game, but they’re without a doubt a legitimate playoff contender with a quarterback on the rise.