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Texans at Titans: Trusting - and Fearing - The Run, Even Without Injured Derrick Henry

Tennessee's replacement backfield trio is still a load for Texans to deal with

HOUSTON -- Derrick Henry or not, the Tennessee Titans (8-2) are run-first offense. It's the bread-and-butter that keeps this team trending towards the top seed in the AFC. 

Henry, who was on pace to become the first back-to-back 2,000-yard rusher in NFL history, suffered a foot injury that is expected to sideline him for the remainder of the regular season. That hasn't stopped Titans coach Mike Vrabel from trusting the ground game with a group approach in the backfield. 

Tennessee is on a two-game winning streak without its MVP running back and face of the franchise. Over those two games, play calling remains balanced with 55 run plays and 54 passing. 

This is what works for Tennessee. The Houston Texans (1-8) have to be ready for the ground and pound style heading into Nissan Stadium Sunday despite Henry remaining sidelined. 

“The thing about him is this: they are who they are,” Texans coach David Culley said Wednesday. “With him, obviously, (Henry’s) a special player, probably the only one of his kind in this league right now. But since he’s been out, what we’ve seen is instead of them giving the ball to him, they’re giving it to two or three other guys.” 

The trio of Jeremy McNichols, Adrian Peterson and former Texans third-round pick D'Onta Foreman now make up a majority of the snaps that Henry would occupy. The singular numbers have decreased, so have the total numbers and average. 

Henry was averaging 117.1 yards per outing. McNichols, Foreman and Peterson don't come close to the output, but they're keeping defenses honest.

The biggest difference? Quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Since Henry's departure, Tannehill has become a running threat in the red zone. Over the past two games, he's recorded four touchdowns — two have which have come via his legs. 

"You have a philosophy," Texans defensive coordinator Lovie Smith said Thursday. "You don’t change your philosophy based on one player, even though it’s an MVP-type player. They’re set up a certain way, and its next guy up, and that’s what we’ve seen."

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Instead of trusting Henry to carry the load, Vrabel has moved into more of a running back-by-committee approach. Peterson, 36, remains a red zone runner who picks up the tough yards and scores. 

Foreman, who was waived by Houston in 2019, sees the bulk of carries, leading the team in snaps over the past two games. McNichols, a former fifth round selection from Boise State, is the change-of-pace runner. 

Does the production match the carries? Not entirely. Have the Titans lost since Peterson took the roster spot of Henry? Nope. 

"Adrian Peterson is a heck of a player, and not just Adrian Peterson," Smith said. "Their entire stable of running backs fit what they do, so they won’t change it much.”

Even with a makeshift three-man front, Houston's inconsistencies in stopping the run bodes well for the Titans at home Sunday. The Texans' run defense ranks 31st (136.9 yards allowed per game) and has seen its fair share of low points in 2021. 

Of the nine games played, Houston has allowed more than 150 yards five times. 

Henry or not, the Texans must be the ready for the run,. It doesn't matter who gets the call, Vrabel isn't changing the game plan due to one player. 

“If you’re not lined up right, lined up correctly, not doing your job correctly, that’s how you end up giving up big plays in the run game," linebacker Neville Hewitt said.