With 7:31 remaining in the third quarter of a Week 12 game between the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars, Ryan Tannehill dropped back, faked a handoff to Derrick Henry, and delivered a pass to A.J. Brown. The play went for a 65-yard touchdown but the pass traveled just 12 yards in the air.
These throws into the intermediate area of the field are where the Titans have excelled since Tannehill took over as the starting quarterback. Per Sports Info Solutions, Tannehill has thrown a catchable pass on 89.7% of his non-red zone attempts that travel between 11 and 19 yards beyond the line of scrimmage this season and 86.2% of his passes to that area have been caught. Both of those figures lead the league among 35 quarterbacks who have at least 20 such attempts.
Tannehill is averaging 17.1 yards per attempt on those throws, which also leads the league. Lamar Jackson has the second-highest YPA mark at 14.5.
During his seasons with the Miami Dolphins, Tannehill didn’t stand out as an exemplary intermediate thrower. He was fine, but also relied on it less often as his career progressed. In 2018, just 14.1% of his non-red zone attempts traveled between 11 and 19 yards beyond that line of scrimmage. This season, that rate is 21.3%, his highest rate since at least 2015 when SIS started tracking data.
Ryan Tannehill, intermediate throws outside red zone
Even now, Tannehill isn’t a true talent level 80% thrower into the intermediate area, but it’s a part of the offensive game plan the Titans have been able to rely on more with him under center than they could with Marcus Mariota. Mariota had an on-target percentage of just 65.7%, which ranked 32nd of 35 quarterbacks, though 60% of his intermediate passes were completed, which ranked a more respectable 17th.
Against the Jaguars, Tannehill killed the intermediate throws with play-action — 3-for-3 for 103 yards and a touchdown. But most of his intermediate attempts have not come on play-action this season, just seven of his 29 attempts (24%) have used a play fake.
The Tennessee scheme is set up to live in the short and intermediate area of the field to allow elite yards after the catch receivers in Brown, Corey Davis, and Adam Humphries to, well, create yards after the catch. That’s easier to do on shorter routes, but the Titans have worked as a complete unit to create those types of plays on intermediate passes, too.
On average, with this group of 35 quarterbacks, 76% of yards gained on intermediate throws this season have come through the air with only 24% after the catch. Tannehill’s split this season is 68.7%/31.3%, which is the third-highest yards after the catch rate of these quarterbacks (Mariota was at a 70/30 split).
This isn’t to say Tannehill has been bailed out by the supporting cast. He’s done just as much to put the receivers in position to gain yards after the catch. Take the below 3rd and 1 pass from Week 7 against the Los Angeles Chargers. Tennessee used a trips bunch to the left and Davis was the outside receiver. Just as Davis started his break to the middle of the field, Tannehill released the ball and placed it perfectly between the trailing cornerback and the charging linebacker. The accuracy and timing of the throw allowed Davis to turn upfield for a gain of 38.
Right now, the Titans are playing to everyone’s strengths and almost out of necessity. The passing offense has to create big plays of these intermediate routes because the deep passing game just isn’t there. Among 40 quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts to travel at least 20 yards in the air, Tannehill ranks 40th with an on-target rate of just 31.6%.
All of this might not be enough to push the Titans into the playoffs, even in a weak division. But it does show both the Titans and Tannehill have improved and adjusted to make the best of the situation they’ve been presented. Given what’s gone on in Tennessee and the state of quarterback for a number of other teams across the league, it’s not a terribly poor place to be.