NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Titans’ run game predictably has taken some steps backward since Derrick Henry was injured.
The five games since, though, have produced reason for optimism going forward. After producing just 69 and 66 rushing yards in the first two post-Henry contests, the Titans have topped 100 yards on the ground in their last three games – a stretch that included 270 rushing yards against New England, currently the AFC’s top-seeded team.
Overall, a Titans team that ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing at the time of Henry’s foot injury, which required surgery, has slipped only one spot in the six weeks since.
“I think we are figuring it out,” left tackle Taylor Lewan said. “Derrick is Derrick … He is the king. He was definitely a big loss, but we have guys in there that can run the ball, and they run the ball hard and they know what their skillsets are. I think (offensive coordinator Todd Downing) did a good job of putting those guys in a position to be successful.”
A closer look at the numbers shows the biggest negative change has been in volume:
• With Henry in the lineup, the Titans averaged 39.4 carries, 164.5 rushing yards and 9.6 rushing first downs through eight games. Without Henry in the lineup, the Titans are averaging 30.6 carries, 122 rushing yards and 6.8 rushing first downs over the last five contests.
That’s a noticeable difference, obviously, but 122 rushing yards per game isn’t bad either. Only 13 teams are averaging more rushing yards per game than 122 so far this season.
Even better news for the Titans is there hasn’t been a huge change in the team’s average yards per rush.
• With Henry in the lineup, the Titans averaged 4.2 yards per carry through eight games. Without Henry in the lineup, the Titans have averaged 3.99 yards per carry over the last five games.
Plenty of credit there goes to running backs D’Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard, who’ve combined for 80 carries and 419 yards, an average of 5.2 yards per rush. They’ve more than made up for the fact that the Adrian Peterson experiment (27 carries, 82 yards, 3.0-yard average) fizzled.
The return of Jeremy McNichols from concussion protocol last week added another running back to the mix, and there’s always the chance that recent practice-squad addition Jordan Wilkins – who has a career average of 4.9 yards per carries – might see some action. Wilkins was one of four practice-squad players protected by the Titans this week.
“It’s very evident that they're committed to their personality not changing in terms of them running the football,” Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, whose team must contend with that rushing attack Sunday, said. “There's been a different cast of characters over the time period that he's been out, but their commitment has been unwavering. So, we’d better get ready for their run game.”
The Titans’ offensive line deserves credit as well when it comes to making sure the run game remains a viable threat.
The unit has had its share of struggles protecting quarterback Ryan Tannehill. But it’s been much better run-blocking, earning a 76.5 grade from Pro Football Focus – eighth-best in the NFL this season. In last Sunday’s win over the Jaguars, four members of the offensive line – David Quessenberry, Ben Jones, Aaron Brewer and Nate Davis – posted PFF grades of 80.0 or above.
“I think overall we’re making strides,” offensive line coach Keith Carter said of the team’s run-blocking since Henry went down. “We’re learning the backs. They’re learning us. We’re continuing to take baby steps.
“Just like pass (protection), I think there’s a level of consistency we need to reach still, and we really stress that it takes everybody to run the football. We just need to continue to develop it and get all 11 people doing their job. I think it will continue to improve as we move on here for the rest of the season.”