The first week in which we featured Ryan Tannehill in the Bottom-Up Build on the Angles Pod, I had a conversation with my buddy Pat (hi, Pat!) in which I presented my theory that Tannehill (while certainly nowhere close to elite) is a much better quarterback than he ever looked like in the broken-down, talent-deficient offenses he had with the Dolphins — though even with that thought, there was no way we could have predicted this. Since taking over from draft bust Marcus Mariota (who “just needs a system built around his strengths and some stability in his coaching staff”), Tanny has posted fantasy point totals of 23.18 (20.18 FanDuel) // 19.42 // 28.04 (25.04 FanDuel) // 19.94 // 33.36 — with this offense scoring 20+ in every game with Tannehill under center, while going for 27+ in three of their last four. With Tannehill presenting an actual player to account for at quarterback, rushing lanes have also been opened up for Derrick Henry, with seven touchdowns in five games, three games of 90+ rushing yards, and yards per carry marks of 4.1 // 4.7 // 4.8 // 8.2 // 8.4 (after finishing under 4.0 yards per carry in four consecutive games heading into this stretch).
This week, the Titans will enter an important “playoff implications” clash against the Colts — with this game giving us two teams that “know how to win” (i.e., these teams have the same record as the Cowboys — and there is no one who would argue that these are more talented rosters; instead, these teams know how to scheme for wins, and are able to remain in the thick of the playoff hunt deep into the season as a result).
The Titans offense will continue to operate through the ground game first, with this team ranked 25th in pass play rate, and with Henry picking up recent carry totals of 22 // 16 // 13 // 23 // 19 (on this team that plays slow and ranks 30th in plays per game). The matchup isn’t great (the Colts rank 19th in DVOA against the run, but as noted over the last several weeks, they are a different run defense with Darius Leonard on the field — and they have been steadily climbing in DVOA ever since he returned), and Henry is the only back who has posted anything resembling a notable stat line on the ground against them (15 carries for 82 yards and a touchdown). While those elements should obviously be kept in mind, you can also keep in mind the fact that Henry typically shines around this time of year — when defenses are worn down, and when he somehow still has the strength of a grown man times two.
As we branch beyond Tannehill and Henry in this offense, the first thing we should note is that Tannehill has floated his personal fantasy value lately with rushing lines of 38 // 37 // 40, and with three touchdowns on the ground in his last three games, while his pass attempt totals as the starter in this offense have hit 29 // 33 // 39 // 19 // 18. As such, his pass catchers have generally required big plays (rather than relying on volume) in order to produce — with A.J. Brown seeing target counts of 8 // 3 // 7 // 4 // 5, Corey Davis going 7 // 6 // 5 // DNP // 3, and Jonnu Smith going 3 // 7 // 5 // 6 // 0.
As you are well aware, Indy does a solid job with their Tampa 2 defense of limiting wide receiver targets (eighth fewest in the league this year; fewest in the league last year), and players who have hit against them through the air have largely done so on volume, with the following notable stat lines allowed through the air ::
All of this conspires to lower the chances of a top-of-slate score from Tennessee wide receivers who don’t see much volume, requiring a big YAC gain or a busted play against a disciplined Colts defense that is shaving 12% off the league-average YAC/r rate (the fifth best mark in the league).
While the Colts filter targets away from wideouts, they increase targets to tight ends, with the ninth most tight end targets allowed. If Delanie Walker misses again, Jonnu will be in the “ugly cheap TE” discussion, while Delanie will take his place in that discussion if healthy.
Last week, the Colts replaced Marlon Mack with Jonathan Williams as their yardage-and-touchdown back and didn’t miss a beat, with Williams carrying the ball 26 times for 104 yards and a touchdown (adding some dumpoff-driven pass game work to the tune of 3-17-0). There is a chance Williams will get exposed if teams are able to gather enough film on him, but we’ve liked Williams in this space going back to his days with Buffalo, as he’s a solid all-around back with an ability to get more than just what’s blocked for him. Regardless of who is in the backfield this week for the Colts, the matchup won’t be great (the Titans rank fifth in DVOA on the ground and are allowing a respectable-low 4.04 yards per carry to enemy backs), and the pass game role for the lead back in this offense isn’t big — but unless the game somehow gets out of hand, the volume should be there. The Colts’ lead back is a “bet on home favorite and hope for consistent volume or touchdowns” play.
When T.Y. Hilton has missed time for this passing attack, they have been a “serviceable, without slate-breakers” unit — which may be the position we find ourselves in this week once again after Hilton aggravated his calf injury on Sunday and played limited snaps. The matchup is not scary against the Titans (this defense ranks 23rd in DVOA against the pass and has allowed the 10th most yards to the wide receiver position), though the Colts somewhat hold themselves back (from a “compiling stats” perspective) with their short-area attack and run-leaning tendencies (29th in pass play rate). If Hilton misses, Zach Pascal // Jack Doyle (with Ebron now out for the season) are the pieces who will be leaned on first and foremost, with “hoping to hit on lower volume” the bets to make behind them. If Hilton plays, he’ll operate as the alpha, though he’ll also carry risk of playing limited snaps and/or playing at less than 100%.
JM’s Interpretation ::
This game happens to be one of only three on the slate with a game total north of 41.0 and a spread under 6.0 — though at 43.5, it’s not exactly a light-the-world-on-fire spot, and absent this likely being a tight game, there isn’t a ton to love between a pair of slow-paced, run-heavy teams that limit big plays on defense and “look for ways to keep the game close and strike late for a win” on offense.
On the Titans’ side, Henry is a yardage-and-touchdown back who is priced near the top of the slate as a road underdog against an above-average defense. Recency bias may drive his ownership higher in low-dollar tourneys — though we should see his ownership go fairly low in higher-dollar contests if you’re looking for an angle there. He’s overpriced on paper, but he can still hit. His 12 touchdowns on the year give him paths to ceiling.
Elsewhere on Tennessee, it’s easy to see one or two solid scores emerging, but it’s difficult to see slate-breakers. I’d be likeliest to bet Tanny Naked with a small percentage of my bankroll over using one of his pass catchers myself — knowing that if Henry misses and Tennessee doesn’t bomb, Tannehill’s legs and/or arm will get it done.
On the Colts’ side, it’s tough to get behind things at the front end of the week in a low-total game with some solid production likely, but with thin tributaries to slate-breakers. Same as the other side: you could bet on running back volume or Jacoby Brissett, though I expect to leave this side alone. The one possible exception for me will be the tight end position — where Doyle will likely operate as something of a low-cost alpha if Hilton misses this game, and where still-raw but athletic Mo Alie-Cox will be given a few opportunities as the Ebron replacement.