NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Scoring touchdowns in the red zone usually gets more difficult because teams can't spread the field so there's less room to operate. That has not been a problem for the Tennessee Titans this season. After finding the end zone on all six of their trips to the red zone in Tuesday night's win over the Bills, the Titans rank second in the NFL in red zone TD percentage at 83%. (The Seahawks rank first at 88.9%).
Tuesday's mastery of the red zone was a case study in why the Titans are so effective. They scored touchdowns in a variety of ways -- three passing and three rushing.
It starts with Ryan Tannehill, who was 5-of-5 with three passing touchdowns and a rushing TD in the red zone against Buffalo. Since Week 7 of last season -- when Tannehill became the Titans starting quarterback --Tennessee has had a red zone TD pct of 85.1%.
For the season, Tannehill is 14-for-18 (77.8%) with nine touchdown passes and no interceptions in the red zone. His 77.8% red zone completion percentage is third in the league and continues a trend from last season, when Tannehill's red-zone percentage landed him among some of the all-time greats.
And those nine touchdowns through four games are sixth-most in the NFL. (Four of the five quarterbacks with more red zone touchdown passes than Tannehill have played five games.)
Tannehill's three TD passes in the red zone on Tuesday helped get the Titans back on course after uncharacteristically struggling against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 3, when they failed to get into the end zone on two of their four red zone trips.
"I think we're headed in the right direction," Tannehill said. "We're doing some good things. We were better in the red zone today, which I'm proud of. Going back to Minnesota, we didn't fight through the fringe and put the ball in the end zone there a few times when we had opportunities."
Titans coach Mike Vrabel credited Tannehill for making plays with both his arm and his legs in the red zone against Buffalo. Vrabel pointed to how Tannehill attacked the line of scrimmage to pull a defender off tight end Jonnu Smith on a crossing route before hitting him for the score as an example.
"Guys just make plays," Vrabel said of their red zone effectiveness. "Ryan came out of there and someone came out of coverage so he dumped it to Jonnu. The other one, there was an opening and Ryan was able to get the touchdown with his legs. The celebration left a lot to be desired."
Mike Vrabel praised Ryan Tannehill for using his legs to create a play leading to a red zone TD. Tannehill attacked the line of scrimmage drawing the defender off of Jonnu Smith before he lofted a pass to him for the easy 7-yd TD. #Titans pic.twitter.com/ZVyfoyV3WQ— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_NFL) October 14, 2020
Jonnu Smith has been one of the primary targets for Tannehill in the red zone. Smith's ability to attack the ball and use his body to ward off defenders helped contribute to his five red zone touchdowns this season.
Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith and the rest of the coaching staff have done an excellent job drawing up plays that put players in position to maximize their talent.
"It's been a strength," Vrabel said of the Titans' play design. "There are some scheme plays and some plays that have been base concepts. It's a good mix of what the players understand and trying to find some plays. Guys just make plays."
A lot of Arthur Smith's playcalls in the red zone come out of 13 personnel (1 RB, 3 TEs) and call for quick throws to the tight ends leading to six touchdown receptions at an average of five yards each. The connection that Tannehill and Arthur Smith have is reflected in the playcalling.
Smith knows that Tannehill is decisive with the football and willing to confidently fit the ball into tight windows. Tannehill completed 3-of-5 (60%) tight window throws in the red zone this season, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That is the third-highest in the NFL.
Derrick Henry is the final part of the equation, especially when they are in goal-line situations. Henry's 1-yard touchdown run against the Bills was his 18th from 1-yard out. No one has more than Henry dating back to 2017.
The Houston Texans, Tennessee's next opponent, will have their hands full trying to stop Tennessee's red zone scoring train. Interim head coach Romeo Crennel knows it won't be easy.
"I think anytime you have a runner like those guys have, you have to honor the run down there," Crennel said. "A lot of times when you try to honor that run, linebackers get sucked up and that leaves space behind them. A lot of times you can run laterally away from the underneath coverage, plus your receivers have nice size and so you can get the ball to those guys and they can use their size. A lot of times they'll cut the split down and give themselves more room to the outside. All of those things they use to their advantage, and it's been working for them."