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Front Page - Friday, November 20, 2020

Titans receivers love chances with 50/50 balls

Tennessee wide receiver A.J. Brown pulls down a touchdown pass against Houston’s Bradley Roby earlier this season. “I look at it as my ball or nobody’s ball,” Brown says of jump ball. - Photo by Mark Zaleski | AP

Some of it comes from the basketball court – boxing out, if you will – creating space like a power forward going for a rebound.

Who knows who invented it? Maybe Lynn Swann, catching that memorable pass against Dallas way back in Super Bowl X. A generation later, Randy Moss certainly perfected it in his Hall of Fame career.

But one of the bigger plays that takes place in the NFL is the jump ball – the 50/50 ball, if you will – when a receiver, usually holding a height and size advantage compared to the defensive back, uses that edge to make a big play down the field for the offense.

With today’s liberalized passing rules that guys like Swann could have only dreamed about, the 50/50 ball can be a major weapon. The play even has a variation with the quarterback intentionally underthrowing the ball and his receiver going back to it, leaving the defensive back almost helpless to defend it. Even if there is no catch, the receiver will often draw a pass interference penalty.

Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill says the most important aspect is the matchup. If his guy has the edge, then the 50/50 ball is in play.

“That’s pretty much everything in those types of situations,” Tannehill says. “Who our guy is, who their guy is, where the safety is, and then what’s the situation in the game? Is it a got-to-have-it situation? Is it a place in the game where you can be a bit more aggressive? It all matters, no doubt about that.”

Titans safety Kevin Byard, who makes his living on the other side, admits it’s tough for defensive backs to defend in those jump ball situations.

“Usually in those situations, depending upon where you are on the field, if it’s a red zone fade, a lot of times, if you’re in man coverage, you’ve just got to keep your eyes on your man. When his eyes get big, the ball is coming,” Byard explains. “More often than not, you want to kind of jump through the receiver and kind of play through his hands.”

But in today’s NFL, even playing the techniques they are taught doesn’t always guarantee success.

“You see a lot of pass interference nowadays, where the ball is underthrown, and if you just jump into the DB, you’ll get the flag,’’ Byard continues. “It’s actually a tough situations a lot of times, because you’re taught to play through your hands, but at the same time, you want to turn around and play for the ball.’’

Titans coach Mike Vrabel says such plays can change the complexion of a game quickly, and that while he doesn’t go into a game with a set number of times to try it, it is a weapon he doesn’t mind using repeatedly.

“I think they call it 50/50 balls for a reason, but ideally that’s probably not realistic,’’ Vrabel points out. “It’s something that we have to continue to work on, continue to defend. Whether it’s a fast guy and he’s running away from somebody or it’s a bigger guy that we’re going to have to throw open or stack him, there’s a lot of different techniques that go into those.

“They change momentum of the game. They change field position, but as far as having a determining percentage that’s going to try to figure out if we’re winning or losing, I don’t think that there’s a number. The more the better, right?”

So what is the secret to winning those jump ball situations? Tight end Tony Gonzalez, who had been a college basketball player, used his body to box out the defender like he’s going for a rebound. Other receivers with greater leaping ability simply try to outjump the defender.

That’s Corey Davis’ approach.

“I would say getting it at the highest point,” he explains. “The receivers that we have have better ball skills than the DBs, so you want to give yourself an opportunity to go up there and make a play.

“You want to get the ball at its highest point. You definitely have to time the ball, but I would say that going up and getting it at its highest point is the biggest thing.”

Titans tight end Jonnu Smith says one-on-one jump balls are a matter of your quarterback having confidence in you that you’ll make the play. Smith certainly rewarded Tannehill’s faith in him in the AFC Divisional Playoffs last year, with his juggling one-on-one touchdown catch early in the Titans’ upset win at Baltimore, where the Titans will play once again this week.

“It has a lot to do with repetition, just doing it over and over again in practice,” Smith adds. “Just having the confidence in yourself and, most importantly, the confidence of your quarterback.

“If he sees you doing it over and over again in practice, making plays, then he’s going to have confidence in you in the games.”

Confidence is something that definitely is not lacking in the Titans’ top receiver – A.J. Brown, who says matter of factly that 50/50 balls in single coverage belong to him or no one.

“I don’t look at it as 50/50,” he says. “I look at it as my ball or nobody’s ball. I try to catch every target, no matter where it is. It doesn’t matter. I never look at the defender. I look at it as either my ball or an incompletion. That’s just how I look at it.”

Smith says athletic skills definitely play into winning those mano y mano battles.

“It also comes from training and having great body control and soft hands and having great ability to look the ball in. There are so many small things that you take for granted, but that can be the difference in coming down with the ball or not coming down with that ball.’’