The Tennessee Titans can run the ball without Derrick Henry after all. The challenge now is to show that they can hang on to the ball.
Led by Dontrell Hilliard and D’Onta Foreman, the Titans had their best rushing performance of the season – one of the best ever under coach Mike Vrabel – with 270 yards against the New England Patriots, who started the day as a top 10 defense against the run. That was more than they had in the first three games combined (238 yards) after a broken foot sent Henry to injured reserve.
Three different backs – Hilliard, Foreman and Khari Blasingame – lost fumbles, however, and Tennessee lost 36-13, its worst defeat since the Week 1 debacle against Arizona.
“We never want to put the ball on the ground as a running back group and (Sunday) we did that,” Foreman said. “We’ve got to do better with protecting the football. I think we ran the ball pretty well. But at the end of the day, [when] we put the ball on the ground, it’s not good.”
New England only turned those three takeaways (the Patriots also had an interception) into three points.
Yet on a day when quarterback Ryan Tannehill connected on just three of his final 13 passes, the offense needed everything it could get from the ground game. And it got a lot.
Hilliard rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries, and Foreman added 109 yards on 19 attempts. Both set career-highs for carries and yards and showed big-play ability. Hilliard’s 68-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was the longest gain of his career, and Foreman had a 30-yard gain in the third quarter. The downside of it was that Hilliard’s long run came on his first carry after he lost a fumble, and Foreman’s ended when he had the ball knocked from his hands.
The last time Tennessee had two 100-yard rushers in the same game was Nov. 27, 2008, when Chris Johnson (125 yards) and LenDale White (106 yards) did it. That day the Titans whipped the Detroit Lions 47-10.
“As far as the turnovers, we’re definitely better than that,” Hilliard said. “It was just mishaps on our part. … Kind of disappointed about the loss. Feel like we left a lot on the field and could have (done) more about it.”
This was the 12th time under Vrabel, who took over as head coach in 2018 that the Titans ran for more than 200 yards in a game, and 10 of the first 11 were victories. The only time during that span with more rushing yards was when the offense piled up 288 in the 2020 finale against Houston.
Until now, the constant in such performances had been Henry. He had at least 112 yards in each of the first 11, 170 or more in nine of them and 200-plus on his own in five. Henry fumbled just eight times since the start of 2018 and lost just five. Only one of those lost fumbles came in conjunction with 200 rushing yards by the offense.
“We had all three backs fumble (Sunday),” Vrabel said. “So, we have to take care of the football. … Give our guys credit, but this game is about points, not stats.”
For his career, Henry has fumbled 11 times on 1,401 carries – once every 127.4 carries.
In the first three games without him, it was not a problem. The Titans fumbled five times and lost one. They ran it 39 times against New England and lost three fumbles.
“Speaking on myself, I got to do better for securing the ball and finishing my runs,” Foreman said. “… I have to do a better job of protecting the ball in the open field. It’s just stuff we have to clean up.”