NASHVILLE – All eyes were on Adrian Peterson on Sunday night. And D’Onta Foreman. And Jeremy McNichols.
The football world wanted to know which one – or ones – would replace Derrick Henry as the centerpiece of the Tennessee Titans’ run-heavy offense. And how effectively he or they would do so.
No one really paid attention to quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Perhaps they should have. His performance in the 28-16 victory over the Los Angeles Rams showed just how effective – if economical – the 33-year-old can be as a runner.
It was Tannehill who scored Tennessee’s first rushing touchdown in the first game since Henry was sidelined by foot surgery. His 1-yard run gave the Titans a 21-3 lead over the Rams with 2:10 to play in the first half.
It was Tannehill who had as many first downs rushing in the contest (two) as those three running backs combined. Both were fourth-down conversions on a night when the offense converted a season-worst 33 percent of the time on third down.
And he did it all with two carries that produced a total of three yards.
“Nobody here has any problem, especially me, with (Tannehill) with the football in his hands,” coach Mike Vrabel said Monday. “He has proven that. The ability to scramble and extend plays, get downfield and run, get us yards on a sneak or any kind of movement play.”
Make no mistake, the Titans are not the Baltimore Ravens and Tannehill is not Lamar Jackson.
When all the Ravens’ meaningful depth at running back was lost to injury during the preseason, Jackson, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 2019, became even more important to their ground game.
With 120 yards rushing in addition to 266 yards and three touchdowns passing in a come-from-behind victory Sunday over Minnesota, Jackson is the first player in NFL history with at least 2,000 passing yards and 600 rushing yards through his team’s first eight games. He is also the first quarterback ever with multiple games of 100-plus rushing yards and at least three touchdown passes, and he is tied with Cam Newton for the most games ever (three) with at least 250 passing yards and 100 rushing yards.
Tannehill has 168 yards rushing in nine games, ban average of 18.7 per game, and his season-high is 56 yards. But the impact of those runs goes well beyond the actual numbers. Of his 25 carries, 17 (68 percent) have gone for first downs and four have gone for touchdowns.
Since the start of 2019, Tannehill is one of four NFL quarterbacks with at least 15 rushing touchdowns. Over that span, he has one fewer than Jackson on 321 fewer rushes. He set a career-high with seven in 2020, and the Titans have won twice as many games (eight) as they have lost (four) when he has carried the ball across the goal line at least once.
Tannehill’s 6.7 yards-per-carry average thus far this season is on pace to be the best of his career and puts him first among the top 15 quarterbacks in rushing yards.
“You don’t play for stats. You play for wins,” Tannehill said. “Sometimes they correlate together, but in other situations, in other games, it’s just a matter of finding a way to win.”
Tannehill won’t make anyone forget Henry. And he won’t cause anyone to reconsider whether Jackson’s place as the preeminent dual-threat quarterback at the moment.
He will, however, do his part to make sure he won’t have to throw the ball on every play.