Tennessee Titans Ryan Tannehill hands off to Derrick Henry

The Gameplan Mistake That Explains Why The Titans Lost To The Ravens

  • AFC Playoffs
  • analytics
  • Arthur Smith
  • baltimore ravens
  • Derrick Henry
  • playoffs
  • Ravens
  • Ryan Tannehilll
  • Success Rate
  • Super Wild Card Weekend
  • Tennessee Titans
  • Titans
  • Wild Card
By Yossi Khebzou January 14, 2021 0 Comment
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After scoring thirteen points in perhaps their worst offensive performance of the year, the Tennessee Titans lost to the Baltimore Ravens on Wild Card Weekend. Many factors contributed to their elimination during the game, but I want to highlight one specifically: they ran too much on first-down.

Success Rate

For this article, I’m going to use Sharp Football’s Success Rate stat. Their website considers a play successful “when it gains at least 40% of yards-to-go on first down, 60% of yards-to-go on second down and 100% of yards-to-go on third or fourth down.”

Running on First Down 

In recent years, the analytics community has strongly advised against running on first-down. On average, a team gains more yards when passing the football than when running it. By getting more yards on first down, they can open up the playbook on later downs. As they become more unpredictable, they have a wider variety of play options, increasing their efficiency. 

Titans’ Tendencies in 2020

During the regular season, the Titans passed on first down 175 times for 8.4 yards per play and a 57% success rate. Meanwhile, they ran on 324 occasions for an average of 4.9 yards and a 53% success rate. None of those numbers are precisely low, but the passing game was significantly more fruitful.

The Wild Card Game

On Sunday, the difference was much more notorious. Ryan Tannehill threw the football on six first-down instances for 5.0 yards-per-attempt. On five of those times, he was successful. His 83% success rate was the best among all teams playing Wild Card Games. Admittedly, it was a small sample size, but passing on first down proved beneficial for all we know. On the other hand, the Titans ran the ball 13 times on first down, averaging 2.3 yards with a 31% success rate. 

The discrepancy between first-down passes and runs made the difference on Sunday. Arthur Smith’s unwillingness to move through the air on early downs hampered the Titans’ chances to advance later. Looking at the ten plays that followed the not-successful first-downs, it’s possible to appreciate how the efficiency diminished. When faced with second-and-seven or longer, Tennessee passed on nine occasions and ran on one. The only rushing instance failed, and just four of the nine passing plays were successful. The lowered success rate is to be expected. Years of data show that failing on first downs can hinder entire drives.


Running on first-down is almost always less efficient than passing on first-down. However, the Titans had been more successful than most teams while doing so this year. The Ravens stacked the box on 72% of Derrick Henry’s carries, resulting in less efficiency (1.8 YPC in such plays) from the star Titans RB. That didn’t seem to change Arthur Smith’s gameplan. Ultimately, that failure to adjust was a factor in Tennessee’s lackluster offensive effort.

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Titans fan. Mathematician and Mechathronical Engineer in progress. A host of Batalla de Titanes and Los Tiempos de Canton. Writing for Enlace Judío, El Informal, and The Brawl Network.


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