'My eyes light up when I hear those calls': How play-action has been an equalizer for Titans

Week 3 Whiteboard Wednesday: Titans vs. Browns (2:19)

Week 3 Whiteboard Wednesday: Titans vs. Browns. No Nick Chubb vs. Tennessee's third-ranked run defense will require some creative playcalling. Here's an example using Elijah Moore. Video by Turron Davenport (2:19)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The boos rained down from the fans at Nissan Stadium after a Los Angeles Chargers touchdown put the Tennessee Titans behind by an 11-0 score early in the seFcond quarter Sunday.

Titans fans were tired of the anemic offensive outputs from a team that had scored 20 or more points only once since Week 12 last season.

New Titans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly knew a big play was needed from his offense after back-to-back three-and-outs seemed to have the team on the path to another low output on the scoreboard.

"I felt like we needed a spark," Kelly said. "It was one of those things where you look at the call sheet and say, 'Hey, let's give it a shot.'"

That's when Kelly dialed up a play-action call that led to Ryan Tannehill finding Treylon Burks for a 70-yard completion. The Titans went from their 25-yard line to five yards away from getting six points.

The crowd erupted as Burks got up and flexed after making the big play. Derrick Henry plowed his way into the end zone for the Titans' first touchdown of the season.

When Tennessee's offense seemed lifeless, Kelly went to play-action, something that Tannehill does best.

"Throughout his career, he's done a great job using the play-action game to his benefit," Kelly said. "He's a great ball handler. It's been something he's had a lot of efficiency and success with."

Kelly wasn't lying.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, since Tannehill joined the Titans in 2019, he leads the league in both QBR and yards per attempt on play-action passes. Tannehill completed seven out of nine play-action passes for 168 yards and a touchdown in the 27-24 win. Overall, Tannehill was 20 of 24 passing for 246 yards and a touchdown.

What makes Tannehill so good at play-action?

"He's got a really good feel for it," quarterbacks coach Charles London said. "A lot of guys aren't comfortable turning their back to the defense and then turning back around and seeing if the picture has changed."

Having Burks in the mix gives Tannehill a dangerous option when he wants to throw the ball deep. In addition to the 70-yard reception Sunday, Burks has two 51-yard receptions in 13 career games, all of which came via play-action.

But it's not just Burks.

Tannehill's 49-yard completion to Chris Moore in the fourth quarter set up a play-action pass to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine for a 4-yard touchdown.

"He does a good job with the ball handling and hiding the ball with the mesh points then flipping around and finding the receivers," tight ends coach Tony Dews said.

Although he only has one reception by way of play-action this season, it may be safe to say veteran DeAndre Hopkins, who joined the Titans in the offseason, will get his chance to contribute as well. Since 2019, Hopkins has recorded 99 catches off play-action (eighth-most), and that’s despite missing 16 games in that span.

It also doesn't hurt that Henry is one of the NFL's best running backs and draws heavy attention from opposing defenses. Stopping the run is typically what opposing teams focus on the most when facing the Titans.

Faking the run with Henry helps make it easier for the passing game because it moves defenders out of areas the Titans want to attack.

"Linebackers have to step up and fill those holes," Tannehill said, "and it creates some space behind them."

Whether it be a deep pass or a throw across the middle, players know the value in a successful play-action call.

"My eyes light up when I hear those calls," Westbrook-Ikhine said. "It creates bigger windows, more space and chances for [yards after the catch]."

London credited the overall group effort for their success on play-action passes. That includes the offensive line, as well.

Play-action could be vital in Week 3 for the Titans, as they hit the road to face the Cleveland Browns on Sunday (1 p.m. ET at Cleveland Browns Stadium, CBS), where All-Pro edge rusher Myles Garrett awaits. The Browns also allow the second-fewest yards per game (198.5).

"[The Browns have] very much an attacking front," Kelly said. "Probably different than what we've seen the first couple of weeks with the Saints and with the Chargers."