NASHVILLE – It didn’t take Derrick Henry too long to realize something was wrong.
Just four offensive series – four failed offensive series – into Sunday’s debacle against Arizona, the Tennessee Titans running back gathered his offensive teammates on the sideline and tried to inject some life into them. The 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry, who’s generally more of a lead-by-example type than a vocal motivator, animatedly urged his fellow starters to snap out of their collective daze.
“Looking lackadaisical, just walking around, not playing how we play,” Henry said of an offense that produced minus one yard in those first four drives. “You haven’t seen me do something like that. (But) I pride myself on being a leader on this team, and if this is what it takes, that’s what I’ll do.”
In a perfect scenario, Henry’s teammates would have been so inspired by a verbal dress-down from the team’s heart and soul that they would have kicked it into gear, roaring through the Cardinals and rallying to victory.
But unfortunately for the announced crowd of 67,216 at Nissan Stadium, there was no such fairytale turnaround for the high-powered Titans’ offense – not even close. Outside of two touchdown drives – one of which was just 32 yards long – the offense sputtered, stumbled and fizzled throughout much of its highly anticipated 2021 debut. The Titans scored just 13 points, fewer than they totaled in any regular-season game last year and fewer than any regular-season game that quarterback Ryan Tannehill had started for the team.
More ugly offensive numbers? Tennessee converted just five-of-14 third downs. Henry’s 58 rushing yards were the lowest he’d produced since gaining 57 yards against Buffalo last October. Wide receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones combined for just seven catches – on 14 targets – for 78 yards and a touchdown.
It was, in no uncertain terms, a stinker.
“We didn’t come out and execute in any phase of offense,” Tannehill, lost two fumbles and threw an interception, said. “Missed opportunities, turnovers, the whole thing. We didn’t execute the way we expect to and the way we need to, to win football games.”
We’re not about to let the defense off the hook, on an afternoon in which quarterback Kyler Murray threw four touchdown passes, ran for another, and guided the Cardinals to 416 total yards in the 38-13 rout.
The Titans stunk on that side of the ball as well.
But here’s the thing: We knew the defense might struggle, based on the awful things we saw last year, like an inability to stop teams on third down and in the red zone. We might have hoped for better, based on the team’s overhaul of defensive personnel and the change in defensive coordinator Shane Bowen’s responsibilities. But there were no guarantees we’d see improvement, at least in the opener.
It was a supposedly electric offense, however, that Titans fans were drooling over during the offseason, especially following the June trade that brought Jones – a seven-time Pro Bowler – to Tennessee. Who could stop this group, was the thinking? Pick your poison, defenses. If you wanted to concentrate on trying to stop Jones and Brown, Henry would steamroll the rest of the undermanned defense. If you loaded up the box against Henry, Tannehill would shred the defense with big-play passes to Jones and Brown.
The Cardinals, though, didn’t swallow any of the poison.
In shutting down Henry, Arizona did what every Titans opponent wants to do, but few accomplish. The Cardinals held Henry in check, including nine first-half carries for a whopping eight yards. On five of those attempts, Henry was held to zero or negative yardage.
When Henry runs for 100 or more yards in the NFL, Tennessee has gone 21-2. But the flip side of that coin is dreadful. Since the start of the 2019 season, the Titans are 6-12 – including two playoff losses – when Henry has been held under 100 yards.
“Like everyone knows, that’s what they take pride in,” Cardinals linebacker Isaiah Simmons said. “They are a ‘downhill, they are going to keep running at you, running at you’ team. I feel like that’s just taking away their main thing that they do and try to make them beat us in a way that is probably unorthodox.”
Indeed, the Titans looked inept when forced to rely on their passing game. Tannehill was pressured on the majority of his dropbacks, sacked six times, tied for the most of his Titans tenure. When the quarterback did find time in the pocket, his receivers rarely offered separation downfield. Tannehill tried forcing at least one tight-window pass into Jones, resulting in a tipped ball that Simmons intercepted to end a Titans series.
It was hardly the one-two punch we’d expected to see from Jones and Brown, outside of the two swings Jones took at Arizona cornerback Byron Murphy, resulting in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
“Julio has got to take advantage of his opportunities,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “We had some drops. He dropped some passes. Those are contested catches, but those are the ones that we have to come up with.”
There were plenty of guilty parties when it came to the unexpected struggles. You can start with Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan, who was torched repeatedly by the Cards’ Chandler Jones. Lewan, playing for the first time since suffering a torn ACL last year, gave up what appeared to be three sacks. He also missed two offensive series in the second half due to cramps, riding a stationary bicycle on the sideline as his replacement – Kendall Lamm – took two false starts and surrendered a sack in short order.
But Lewan’s struggles were consistent with a Titans offensive line that couldn’t budge an Arizona defense packing the box and couldn’t protect Tannehill. This was an offensive line, remember, that returned four of five starters from last season, an offensive line that opened enough holes for Henry to top 2,000 yards in 2020.
“I think it was on us just as far as being technically sound, it just wasn't there today,” left guard Rodger Saffold said. “We had little hiccups here and there.
“It is a wakeup call for us. You can't just show up and win a game. So, I am hoping we take this, and we come out with our hair on fire next week.”
Are there excuses to be made for the awful offensive showing?
To be fair, yes, there are a few.
The offense had been hit particularly hard in training camp by injuries and COVID-19 cases. Jones missed three weeks of camp during one stretch, Brown was in and out of practice, and three starters – Tannehill, Ben Jones and Nate Davis – were sidelined by the virus. The first-team offense as a whole had little time to practice together as a unit. Throw in the fact that offensive coordinator Todd Downing was calling his first game since 2017 (for Oakland) – replacing Arthur Smith -- and you can understand some of the Titans’ many miscues.
But everything – from Downing’s play-calling to the shoddy offensive line play and the tepid passing attack – needs to be upgraded in a hurry.
In 2020, the Titans’ prolific offense averaged over 30 points and nearly 400 yards per game, carrying this team to an AFC South title despite an embarrassingly bad defense.
Judging by Sunday’s contest, the Titans’ defense still has a long (add a few Os for emphasis) way to go before it can claim any improvement.
So, if the Titans can’t put points on the board like they did last year, they’re going to be in big trouble.