NASHVILLE – Amidst the wreckage of the Tennessee Titans’ loss to the Houston Texans on Sunday came at least one potentially good sign: The team showed a semblance of a running game for the first time since losing Derrick Henry in Week 8.
Three running backs – Adrian Peterson, D’Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard – and quarterback Ryan Tannehill produced a combined 25 carries for 103 yards, topping the 100-yard plateau for the first time in Henry’s absence. The Titans had been held to 69 and 66 rushing yards against the Rams and Saints, respectively, in the previous two contests.
Granted, the increase in yards came against a Texans team now ranked 30th against the run, giving up an average of 134 yards per contest on the ground.
But hey, any progress is welcome considering the team is without its top three ball carriers, Henry, Darrynton Evans and Jeremy McNichols. Keep in mind, too, that none of the three running backs who played against the Texans had participated in a single NFL contest this season up until a few weeks ago.
“There was some good clips in the run game,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “There was some good production.
“Then with the way the game was going, it pretty much dictated, unfortunately, that you couldn’t stick with it. (But) I thought the run game was headed in the right direction.”
Each of the three backs contributed with Peterson totaling nine carries for 40 yards (4.4-yard average), Hilliard seven carries for 35 yards (5.0-yard average) and Foreman seven carries for 25 yards (3.6-yard average). The Titans’ overall rushing average against the Texans was 4.1 yards per carry, which was actually their highest since the Week 6 victory over Buffalo (6.6 yards per carry).
“There are always going to be cuts we can (improve) and talk about split-second decisions that could have been better,” Vrabel said of the running backs. “I really believe that it was on the right track and the game dictated that we couldn’t really run it more than we did.”
Hilliard played 51 offensive snaps, far more than both Peterson (15) and Foreman (15). Part of the reason was that the Titans – who never led – threw more often than normal. The 5-foot-11, 202-pound Hilliard showed a good ability to catch passes out of the backfield, totaling a team-high eight receptions for 47 yards.
The 26-year-old, who was playing in his 34th career NFL game after entering the league in 2018, also made a hustle play following Tannehill’s first interception. He ran down Texans linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill inside the Titans’ 10-yard line, giving Tennessee’s defense a chance to hold Houston to a field goal.
“It looked like he played hard,” Vrabel said of Hilliard. “It looked like he played fast ... He's going to earn more opportunities. He really is. You know, he's only going to get better.”
Added Hilliard, who hadn’t played an offensive down for the Titans before Sunday: “We all have a job to do when we get here. The standards are the same. You have to come in and be ready and be prepared and ready to play.”
All three running backs have work to do heading into Sunday’s game at New England.
Hilliard, for instance, fared poorly in five pass-blocking situations, allowing one pressure and posting a Pro Football Focus grade of just 12.1.
Foreman went the wrong direction on one running play, moving past Tannehill to the quarterback’s left as Tannehill was turning to his right.
“I don’t think he had many more (mental errors) other than that,” Vrabel said. “That one was unfortunate. That is bad football. Nobody wants to put that on tape.”
Then there was Peterson, who fumbled without contact on one carry -- on a play that appeared to have potential.
“We had a play that was really well blocked,” Vrabel said, “and we dropped the football.”
Still, four runs of 10 yards or better in 25 attempts at least gave the Titans optimism the ground game can make an impact, even with Henry sidelined indefinitely.