NASHVILLE – When Dontrell Hilliard burst through a beaten Miami Dolphins defense and sprinted 39 yards into the end zone last Sunday, it capped yet another big rushing performance for the Tennessee Titans without Derrick Henry.
The Titans ran for 198 yards against the Dolphins, meaning three of the team’s biggest five rushing days this season – New England (270 rushing yards) and Pittsburgh (201 rushing yards) – have come since Henry was sidelined with a broken bone in his foot.
It’s one thing to say the Titans’ running game didn’t fall apart in the absence of Henry, who, according to a source, is trending toward a return to practice on Wednesday.
It’s more mind-blowing, however, to realize that the ground game over the past eight games has posted numbers that, in many categories, are every bit as impressive as the first eight games.
Again, Henry -- the NFL’s reigning Offensive Player of the Year and one of only eight backs to top 2,000 yards in a single season – was the lead back for the first eight games of the season. D’Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard – two who didn’t have contracts at the start of this season – have led the charge for the past eight. Jeremy McNichols, who’s been on five teams over five years, has chipped in as well.
Here’s a comparison of some key Titans offensive categories -- a look at the numbers with and without Henry:
(It’s worth noting, of course, that other factors have to be included as well in the comparison. Wide receiver A.J. Brown, for example, played in seven of the first eight games, but just five of the last eight. His presence likely helped Henry in the running game. On the other hand, the Titans faced a more rugged stretch in the first eight contests when Henry was playing. Injuries to offensive line members at various times played a part in the numbers, too.)
• The basics – Here are the meat and potatoes numbers: In the eight games Henry has played this season, he’s run 219 times for 937 yards, an average of 4.3 yards per carry. That’s Henry’s lowest yards-per-carry figure since 2017. In the eight games featuring Foreman, Hilliard and McNichols, the Titans’ rushing numbers are nearly identical – even a bit better. They’ve run the ball 193 times for 908 yards, an average of 4.7 yards per carry.
• Big-chunk gains – If you were surprised by the previous category, this one may be even more shocking considering Henry’s well-earned reputation for big gains. Henry posted 20 carries of 10 yards or more. In the last eight games, however, the trio of Foreman-Hilliard-McNichols posted 22 carries of 10 yards or more – two more than Henry.
Want to look at just the higher numbers? Henry had three runs of 20-plus yards this season, two of 40-plus. The Foreman-Hilliard-McNichols combination has six runs of 20-plus yards, one of 40-plus.
• First-down runs – When it comes to keeping the chains moving, Henry holds the edge. He totaled 49 rushing first downs in eight games and produced a first down on 22.4 percent of his carries. The Foreman-Hilliard-McNichols trio totaled 37 rushing first downs over the past eight games and posted a first down on 18.5 percent of their carries.
• Points – This is obviously more of a team stat than the three previous categories, but it’s fair to say running backs play a big role in teams’ point production. With Henry in the lineup, the Titans were cranking out 28.4 points per game, thanks in part to his 10 rushing touchdowns. Over the last eight games, however, Tennessee has averaged only 20.5 points per game. The Foreman-Hilliard-McNichols trio has combined for five rushing touchdowns during that stretch – half of Henry’s production in the same amount of contests.
• Red-zone performance – It would seem, based on Henry’s touchdown production, that the Titans would be much better in the red zone with him than without him. But there hasn’t been much difference when the team gets inside the 20-yard line. In the first eight games, the Titans scored touchdowns on 20-of-32 trips inside the red zone, a 62.5 percent success rate. In the eight games since Henry’s injury, the Titans have scored touchdowns on 15-of-25 trips inside the red zone, a 60 percent success rate.
• Play-action passing – There’s long been a debate as to whether the quality of a running back impacts the play-action. In other words, does a very successful running back make for better play-action success, or will play-action work well no matter what running back is involved?
In the two eight-game comparisons of the Titans, it appears Henry’s presence did make a difference in play action.
With Henry in the lineup, quarterback Ryan Tannehill earned a play-action passing grade of 91.6 from Pro Football Focus, second only to Seattle’s Russell Wilson. He threw for 773 yards on play-action passes, the fourth-highest total in the NFL, and averaged 16.1 yards on his completions.
Over the last eight games, (keeping in mind Brown has missed three contests), Tannehill’s PFF play-action grade dropped to 73.3. His 440 yards in play-action situations has been 18th-best over those eight contests, and he’s averaged only 9.8 yards on completions.
“I think you give credit to our offensive line and tight ends and receivers, the quarterback, all the people that are involved,” running backs coach Tony Dews said. “We always talk as an offense that it takes all 11 guys, and so even though the back is the one with the ball in his hand, there’s 10 other guys doing their jobs to help him to be successful in the run.”
But the running backs who have stepped up in Henry’s absence – especially Foreman – have probably earned themselves some postseason work, even with a healthy Henry back in the lineup.
Count Dews among those who thinks a one-two punch of Henry and Foreman might be especially effective.
“D’Onta has done a really good job with his opportunity,” Dews said. “Sometimes as a coach, you get to where you develop trust within each specific player or a couple different players, and unless you’re forced sometimes to make a change or do things differently, you kind of get used to the way things are because of the trust factor.
“There’s been some guys that stepped up and done some really good things ... I think this has allowed us, and particularly me, to have to trust other people, and these guys have certainly earned that trust.”