NASHVILLE – Anyone who watched the Tennessee Titans in recent seasons knew that no one player could replace Derrick Henry when he was sidelined by a foot injury.
Thus, in the last three weeks the running back duties have been divided among three players. It was Adrian Peterson, D’Onta Foreman and Jeremy McNichols against the L.A. Rams and New Orleans Saints. Then it was Peterson, Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard last Sunday against Houston.
In short, the Titans turned to a running-back-by-committee approach because they had to.
The New England Patriots do it because they want to.
Damien Harris has a team-high 143 rushes while Rhamondre Stevenson has 67 carries and Brandon Bolden – the leading receiver among the three – has 26. All three average better than four yards per carry, and the distribution of carries likely would be even more balanced had Stevenson not missed four games in September and October.
“I think all three of them are really good players,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Shane Bowen said. “I think Harris runs the ball really hard. I think Stevenson runs the ball really hard. You see them fall forward. One guy isn’t bringing them down. They’re running through arm tackles. Then you mix in Bolden, and I think he’s playing really well right now too.
“… It’s going to be a big challenge for us. I think that group is pretty good top to bottom with who they’ve got. You can plug them all in, and they can all do a little bit of everything.”
Whichever team does it better Sunday when the Titans (8-3) and Patriots (7-4) meet at Gillette Stadium is likely to fare well in the big picture. Under coach Mike Vrabel, Tennessee is 27-8 when it has more rushing yards than the opponent. Only one of those was in the last three weeks, and it was the loss to Houston.
New England ranks 13th in the NFL in rushing yards per game and 20th in yards per attempt but is effective when it does hand it off. The Patriots are fifth in rushing touchdowns with 16 and are among the top 10 in first downs rushing.
The multi-back approach is nothing new for them. Only once in the last five-plus seasons has one player accounted for at least half of their rushing attempts. That was in 2019 when Sony Michel had 247 of their 447. It was, however, their worst season over that stretch in terms of rushing yards per game (106.4) and per attempt (3.8).
“The running game is great if it's effective,” New England coach Bill Belichick said. “Everybody likes to call running plays, but if you're gaining a yard, two yards, how many can you call. You can't just be 2nd-and-10, 2nd-and-9, 3rd-and-8 all day. The running game's great if you're making yards, and if you're not making yards, then it's hard to keep going. I think it's really a factor of production, and certainly having balance in that your attack makes it difficult for the defense to just stop one thing.”
There is no question about the effectiveness of the Titans’ run game when Henry is involved – and how central he is to it. Even with the time he missed, the two-time rushing champion and 2020 NFL Offensive Player of the Year is the only player with at least 200 rushing attempts thus far this season. His 219 account for 64.4 percent of Tennessee’s total runs and his 937 rushing yards are 66 percent of the team’s total.
The Titans still rank fifth in rushing offense. Without Henry, though, they have averaged 79.3 rushing yards per game. In the eight games he played that average was 147.6. Not coincidentally, the offense’s success on third down has dropped in the last three games, and Tennessee has not scored 30 points in a contest without Henry (it got there in half of the games with him).
Peterson was released this week, and McNichols has been ruled out with an injury. That leaves Foreman and Hilliard – and perhaps fullback Khari Blasingame – to run the ball against New England, which ranks in the top 10 in yards per carry allowed (4.1) and has given up fewer rushing touchdowns than any team other than Indianapolis.
“All (our backs) can do is be ready to go when (their) number is called,” Vrabel said. “That is the situation that we are in. I am sure we can look around the league and see that the teams in the different scenarios that run the football with other guys. … Hopefully we can block when we call the runs and whoever the running back is in the game can execute it and make good cuts and break a few tackles and take care of the ball.”