Can the Titans really win the AFC with *this* offense?
The Titans keep winning. But under the hood of five-straight wins is an offense that is wheezing
So, is anybody good? I mean, seriously? Now that the injuries are starting to mount, we’re being treated to a rotating morass of mediocrity on a weekly basis. Should-be contenders are struggling. The league’s middle class has never looked so broad yet muddled.
One outlier: The Titans. Tennessee has ripped off five-straight wins against 2020 playoff teams despite key contributors falling down all over the place.
Heading into Week 11 at 8-2, the Titans are the surest thing in the league. FiveThirtyEight gives the Titans a 99 percent chance to make the playoffs, a 99 percent chance to win their division, a 75 percent chance to clinch the AFC’s first-round bye, and a 16 percent chance to with the Super Bowl, tied for the highest mark in the league.
That says as much about the AFC South and the AFC as a whole as it does the Titans – given that the Titans should cruise to the South title they, by definition, will have the highest percentage chance of sealing the first-round bye and winning the AFC, what with them being the only sure-fire division winner in the conference and all.
The Titans are as advertised: Smart, ultra-confident, totally comfortable in their own skin, and a damned pain to play against. They zoom on defense. They hit you on offense. In the age of pace-and-space, they embrace the physical side of the game like few other teams at the very top level. Playing against the Titans looks like it hurts.
Tennessee’s defense is the real deal. They rush four and play coverage behind, a simple formula in theory but difficult to sustain in reality. Jeffery Simmons is playing as well as any defensive lineman in the sport. Denico Autry is playing as though every opposing lineman has said nasty things to his family. Harold Landry is finally adding the extra juice off the edge. Kevin Byard and Armani Hooker are as talented a safety tandem as any in the league – the two help cover up any coverage issues on the outside.
But the Henry-less offense is coughing and wheezing. The defense has carried a beleaguered unit for two weeks. With Henry out of the lineup, the run-game has looked constipated. Now, with Julio Jones on injured reserve, the quick, spread passing game that was slated to absorb some of the creative burden has taken a hit.
In terms of scoring alone, the Titans offense has put up 44 points over the span of the past two weeks. You can chalk seven of those up to their defense handing them the ball at the Rams’ two-yard alone. Another one we can wipe off the board altogether: The officials in the Titans-Saints game handing Ryan Tannehill a do-over for a grim redzone interception with one of the most egregious flags of the season:
Still: Even if we’re harsh – and for the sake of argument, let’s be – and we take those 14 points off the board, 30 points against the Rams and Saints isn’t so bad. Pop the hood, though, and all of the warning lights are blinking.
It’s hard to overstate the impact Henry has on the Tennessee offense. He is the keystone – a one-man offensive architecture; everything is formatted around his excellence. Does that make sense in the era of Running Backs Don’t Matter TM? Perhaps not. But who cares? It’s different, and it works.
The Titans’ stylistic divergence has helped. As defenses have steadily pivoted to more spread sets, here comes an old-fashioned, jumbo, big-boy offense ready to cram the ball down your throat. Oh, and as you shuffle to fit the run, there goes a pair of receivers flying past you on play-action or in the intermediate dropback game, the Titans cherry-picking plays from the Shanahan-McVay-style offense like some sort of Best Of cover album.
In many ways, Henry’s injury feels like some kind of Pro Football Focus fever dream. All those questions about whether backs are replaceable, how much the threat of the running game influences play-action, and whether a run-oriented offense can be sustainable in the modern era have bubbled to the surface.
But that’s the thing about Henry. He isn’t just another back. The Titans demand so much more from Henry than any other team demands of their number one, not only in terms of the overall workload but within specific designs. Henry doesn’t get much help from formations or motions or crafty pin-and-pull designs. Over time, the structure has become increasingly simplified. The Titans run a series of tried-and-true basics. They hand the ball to their superstar, and they bet that his excellence can overcome any scheme deficiencies.
That worked when, you know, that superstar was still back there in the backfield. Through eight weeks, Henry was averaging 3.32 yards after contact per carry season and had 728 total yards after contact, the chunkiest total in the league by 200 yards. But with Henry gone, things have cratered. The team’s Expected Points Added (EPA) per play has dropped from the top-ten to league average. The team’s rush EPA has fallen from top-ten to below leave-average. More importantly: The Titans can no longer run the ball out of 11 personnel:
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