Sunday, January 29 2023

The Tennessee Titans had an obvious Achilles’ Heel to their hopes of a deep playoff run. 

We’ve known what the Derrick Henry-led run game can do. And we’ve known what the defense, led by an elite front seven, can do. But we’ve also known that the passing game has struggled. The receiving production post-A.J. Brown has largely been abysmal. The talent level of their pass catchers has been a concern. The quarterback play hasn’t been great (thanks in part to that poor receiver play). 

But if the Titans can find a way to consistently get enough from their passing attack for the playoffs — which they’re on the fast track to qualifying for with a commanding lead in the AFC South — they could be a much bigger threat in the postseason. 

We saw a glimpse of that last week against an elite Broncos pass defense. And we saw even more during prime time in frigid Green Bay. 

That’s bad news for the rest of the AFC.

The Titans (7-3) scored a season-high 27 points in their victory Thursday over the Packers (4-7) at Lambeau Field. It’s largely because of their most productive passing attack of the season. 

Their 320 net passing yards marked a season high by a wide margin (their previous high on the year was 266 in Week 1). Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was incredibly efficient, completing a season-high 81.5% of his passes — the second-highest rate of his 10-year career — for 333 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. First-round rookie receiver Treylon Burks had his first career 100-yard receiving game: seven receptions on eight targets for 111 yards. 

And Tennessee’s offense wasn’t putting up strong passing numbers against a slouch of a pass defense, either. Green Bay entered the game ranked third in passing yards allowed per game and 11th in passing yards allowed per play. 

The hope of team observers was that the return of Burks, who missed four games with a turf toe injury, could make the Titans’ passing game more respectable. In his second game back, he justified that belief. 

He sealed the game Thursday on an aggressive play call by offensive coordinator Todd Downing: on first down, with the Titans holding a 27-17 lead with 2:04 left, Tannehill hit Burks deep downfield. The former Arkansas star dragged standout cornerback Jaire Alexander, one of the NFL’s best defensive backs, on his back for about 18 yards to cap the 51-yard pickup. Burks gave Alexander the “too small” gesture after the play. 

But that wasn’t his only explosive play. On the Titans’ third play from scrimmage, Burks beat cornerback Keisean Nixon on a post route for a 43-yard gain. It helped set up the Titans’ first touchdown of the game. 

Three other Titans pass-catchers had receptions of at least 30 yards. They came in the third quarter: rookie tight end Chig Okonkwo had a 31-yard catch, and Henry took a screen pass 42 yards downfield to set up Tennessee’s third touchdown. Veteran receiver Robert Woods had a 32-yard reception on the following possession. 

Henry surpassed 1,000 rushing yards for the season Thursday. He got some big first downs in short yardage situations, but the Titans’ run game was largely inefficient. The All-Pro running back gained his 87 rushing yards on just 3.1 yards per carry. 

The Titans defense made a critical fourth-and-1 stop with 2:12 left and held the Packers to 17 points overall, but injuries are continuing to mount for the unit. Standout defensive lineman Denico Autry (knee) and starting cornerback Kristian Fulton (hamstring) were hurt during the game. A pass rush that had been so great sacked Aaron Rodgers just once and hit him three times overall. 

For different reasons, the Titans’ run game and defense weren’t at their best. But they’ve done so many good things for this Tennessee team. Their track record suggests Thursday’s performance, one on a short week, will be more of an outlier than a theme. They remain the backbone of the Titans.

But in Green Bay, the passing game came alive. Again. For a second straight week. 

When that comes together with the run game and defense, the Titans look like one of the best teams in the NFL — one without an Achilles Heel. 

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.


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