Ryan Tannehill has dramatically shifted the trajectory of his career over the last year and a half since taking over the starting job in Tennessee. That’s due in part to being free from Adam Gase. With some cleaner mechanics, Tannehill’s transformation has lifted the Titans into the playoffs for two consecutive seasons. He has cleaner deep ball mechanics, is better under pressure, and most importantly, the system with Arthur Smith in Tennessee was an actual functional timing and rhythm-based system that integrated boot action off of outside zone to Derrick Henry.
To understand Tannehill’s growth, we have to look at his time in Miami first. While Tannehill wasn’t busting out of the league by the end of his seven seasons there, he was playing inefficiently, struggling with deep ball mechanics, and was in an offensive system that can only loosely be called a system.
The biggest issue with Gase’s offense in 2018 and Tannehill’s fit in it, is the lack of cohesion between the route concepts and the quarterback’s footwork. Footwork operates as a timing mechanism for quarterbacks and is a way to get them to their base at the same time that they should be looking at each individual read. That wasn’t happening in Tannehill’s time with the Dolphins.
It’s 3rd and 4 and there isn’t a single route called here that’s under 10 yards. The Colts are in Cover 1 with one safety deep and man coverage underneath. The routes end up popping open, but the problem is that the Dolphins have no outlet for Ryan Tannehill to throw to if he encounters quick pressure.
What’s more, not a single route is at their breakpoint by the time Tannehill is at the top of his drop. The out and up double move at the bottom can’t be thrown until they’re into the vertical section or the route, the dig is breaking at 15 yards but the receiver is only 5 yards downfield, and the seam is capped by the man defender and safety. As a result, Tannehill has to hitch forward two separate times before anyone is even ready to get the ball. Those hitches have also moved Tannehill forward in the pocket and into interior pressure.
Due to the interior pressure, Ryan Tannehill bails from the pocket and is sacked. It all comes back to the play call, footwork, and protection.
All those are depressingly common themes for the 2018 Dolphins. The Dolphins had the 31st ranked offensive line by PFF that year and Tannehill was absolutely terrible under pressure with a QBR of 49.1. That year, Tannehill was under pressure 40% of snaps. However, when he was in a clean pocket, his QBR rocketed up to 116.6.
The source of those issues can be directly tied to the footwork, lack of hot routes, and missing rhythm and timing within the offense. Gase had an astonishing lack of hot routes and solutions for pressure. Teams playing the Dolphins weren’t at all scared of their receiving corps. They also knew the offensive line was shaky and would blitz the hell out of them while manning up behind it. And it worked.
The Dolphins are in 3rd and 8 against the Vikings who had been blitzing them all day and Miami is running 15-yard curls and a seam against their man coverage. Again, too, the Dolphins are using a 7-man protection. By the time Tannehill gets to the top of his drop, not only are no receivers ready for the ball, but there is already pressure. Even if Tannehill could get the ball off, there’s no back leaking out or underneath route to hit hot. As a result, the Dolphins take the sack and the drive is over.
To combat some of the pressure and struggles on the offensive line, Gase went to a heavily RPO and zone read based offense early on in the season. Those concepts actually did have some success. It got the ball out of Tannehill’s hands, held defenders in the run game, and helped the Dolphins move the ball.
The problem was, Gase abandoned the RPO and zone read stuff for… outside zone and boot. Except nobody was threatened by the Dolphins outside zone, so nobody cared to crash on it. Working play-action off of outside zone is a staple for Shanahan, LaFleur, McVay, and even Arthur Smith. It’s incredibly effective, but it’s most effective when run from under center and a small oversight by Gase was that he just didn’t run much outside zone from under center. So, when Tannehill did get under center and fake the outside zone, nobody bit. Now combine that with Gase’s apparent distaste for short throws to combat pressure, and you’ve got a bad combination of things going on.
Lastly, as we conclude the issues in Miami, this one is on Tannehill. Tannehill had problems sequencing his deep balls and as a result, had some accuracy issues. It starts with the feet. Mechanically, quarterbacks want to keep their shoulders closed to their target until they get weight onto their front lead foot. That helps them sequence the throw, stay balanced, and maintain power and accuracy. A common issue is to open the hips and separate the off hand from the throwing hand too early. That’s what was happening to Tannehill and it caused some accuracy problems. To compensate for being slightly off balance, he would also use a large arm throw with his off hand that would cause further issue. Ideally, the off arm is tight to the body because it can cause over rotation and imbalance.
You can see in this frame where Tannehill finally has weight on his front foot and his upper body and hips have already started to open early. You want to maintain contact with the ball and separate only as weight is being transferred. That helps to keep your shoulders closed and maintain the throwing sequence. There needs to be upper and lower body disassociation to create tension. That tenison is then released during the throw. By opening up the hips and upper body early, that eliminates the tension and forces Tannehill to use more of his upper body and arm to generate power and accuracy rather than his lower body.
So, that’s a lot that went wrong in 2018. The good news for Tennessee and Ryan Tannehill fans is that almost every single one of those issues is resolved two years later in 2020. The footwork got cleaned up and tied to route concepts, the outside zone with Henry was an actual threat and forced defenses to respect it, and Tannehill’s mechanics also got a tune-up. It’s not perfect, but the system and footwork has made a world of difference in Tannehill’s efficiency and his ability to deal with pressure as well. By tying in rhythm-based throws, the ball is coming out faster, Tannehill knows where to look based on where he is in his drop, and he has answers for dealing with pressure looks.
As we did with 2018, we’ll start with Tannehill’s footwork and how it’s tied to routes – especially in the quick game. Arthur Smith saw Tannehill’s ability to quickly diagnose and read defender keys in the RPO game from his time in Miami. That led him to install some similar single defender reads in his quick game in Tennessee.
The Titans are running Lion, a Cover 2 beater to the bottom of the screen. The Bills are in Cover 2 man, with the middle linebacker taking the back in coverage. Tannehill is taking a shuffle drop and as soon as he hits the top of his drop, he diagnoses that the middle of the field has been vacated with the linebacker coming down on the running back and immediately hits his receiver in stride.
Having his footwork tied to the routes allowed Tannehill to throw with greater anticipation as well. He knows his receiver’s route is linked to where he is in his drop. With that timing, he can now throw to spots with anticipation instead of waiting to see guys break open. He does that here on a Sail route to AJ Brown. He’s now taking a 3-step drop. Tannehill hits his back foot and begins his throwing motion before Brown has broken on his route. Against man coverage, that’s almost impossible to defend and the ball is already in the air by the time AJ Brown has turned to look for the ball.
The same rhythm and footwork also takes him to his second and third reads via hitches in his drop. A lot of people think that throwing in rhythm just means hitting the top of your drop and letting the ball go, but you can still be in rhythm throughout the duration of the play if your footwork is matching where you’re looking. At the top of his drop here, Tannehill is looking to the quick out at the top of the screen. However, the route is capped outside by the corner. Next, he hitches forward and moves his eyes to his second read which is the dig in the middle of the field. That’s open, he’s on rhythm with his footwork, and he throws the ball.
That footwork also helps him deal with pressure. If he feels a collapsing pocket, his feet will tell him where in the timeline of the play he is and where the ball should end up. Especially on blitzes, that keeps him within the rhythm of the play and able to find an outlet to dump the ball off to. In fact, in 2019, he had the best rating under pressure in the NFL and a lot of that is due to the design of the plays with hot reads, outlets, and tying those routes to his footwork.
The system as a whole in Tennessee just flat out operated in a more linear and cohesive manner. The Titans utilized Henry in an outside zone scheme and that started everything that they wanted to do off of play-action. When you have a guy that can demand attention in the run game like Henry can, defenses have to respect and collapse on run fakes and that leaves space for Tannehill to get out on boot action.
That has a trickle-down effect not only of alleviating pressure on Tannehill, but also opening up routes in the flats that offer yard after catch opportunities.
The Titans are running similar Sail concepts to what Gase was trying to get to except Tennessee gets someone in the flats immediately for an outlet and can actually sell the outside zone going the opposite direction to pull defenders out of passing lanes.
Lastly, let’s look again at Tannehill’s deep ball mechanics. This throw against the Lions is a great example of Tannehill keeping his shoulders closed and square to the throw for as long as possible. His foot is in the ground before his hands separate and he’s maintaining tension which allows him to generate power from his lower body.
He can still get a little wild with his off hand and throwing himself open, but he’s done a much more consistent job at keeping that arm tight and preventing over rotation there. His throwing motion is more condensed, and he’s becoming a much more accurate deep ball thrower as a result.
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There’s a lot of things that went into Ryan Tannehill’s transformation – a new system, work on his footwork, cleaning up his mechanics in an off-season where he didn’t have to be the Week 1 starter, and just flat out getting a change of scenery. The growth has been great and with the weapons that the Titans have in AJ Brown, Derrick Henry, and Julio Jones, the sky is the limit for the Titans on offense and with some more consistent play from the defense, they might just get over the hump and make it to the Super Bowl.