Now what? In less than 24 hours, the Tennessee Titans climbed to the top of the AFC playoff standings and learned running back Derrick Henry – the primary factor in getting there – would be undergoing foot injury.
The Titans offense flows through Henry and has for the past two and a-half seasons, but now the Titans will have to find another way to get through the next several weeks – and possibly the rest of the season – with their workhorse running back now on the shelf.
“We will have to move on,’’ head coach Mike Vrabel said after learning of the reversal of fortunes. “We will have to move on unfortunately without him here in the short-term and not look back.’’
That much is certainly easier said than done. Henry was racking up carries at a record rate this season, 219 after getting 28 Sunday against the Colts, even after being injured.
The Titans have signed future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson, but at age 36 he is a shadow of the dominant running back who starred for the Minnesota Vikings several years ago.
While Vrabel says the Titans won’t alter their scheme greatly to compensate for the loss of Henry, the truth is the offense has to change and adapt in order to survive Henry’s absence.
Running back carries are likely to be by committee with Peterson, once he gets up to speed and in football shape, sharing with Jeremy McNichols and either Dontrell Hilliard or Mekhi Sargent.
Not the most exciting scenario for Titans fans.
But there is still some star quality available on offense. Wide receiver A.J. Brown appears healthy again and has been a beast the past two weeks, hauling in 18 passes for 288 yards. Of course, much of that was accomplished with Henry’s presence in the backfield. Without Henry, Brown will likely see more double coverage with safeties bracketed over the top rather than single matchups that have made the slants and skinny post routes so effective.
“I don’t know how much we are going to change. It is just by adding some things and doing some different things with who we have in there,” Vrabel said. “I am not ready to commit to anything or to a wholesale change. There are a lot of teams that rely on multiple backs to run the football within their same scheme.”
To keep Brown effective, that running back committee will have to produce, and it should be able to against more seven-man boxes than the eight- and nine-man boxes Henry routinely faced.
The other wild card is Julio Jones and what the Titans can get from him as a complement to Brown. Jones has been in and out of the lineup with a hamstring issue, and the sooner he can contribute, the better off the Titans’ chances without Henry become.
But the key going forward is probably the man Brown credits for the team’s success so far – quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
“I think he settles down everyone,” Brown says. “When I’m in the huddle, I’m looking at Tannehill. I ain’t really looking at the O-line or what everybody else is doing. He’s always calm. He’s a general. He leads us. He runs the team.
After Sunday’s win at Lucas Oil Stadium – which essentially wrapped up the AFC South by Halloween – Brown was heaping praise for his quarterback, who shook off two first-half interceptions to help spark the Titans to a 34-31 overtime win.
“It’s really not me; it’s Tannehill,” Brown said of his success with 10 receptions for 155 yards and a touchdown. “Some of the throws today, he couldn’t have put it in a better place. I was more hyped about the throws than what I did with the catch. He’s been spot on. He’s always been accurate, but he’s been balling.”
The numbers for Tannehill might not be as sparkling as those put up by Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Josh Allen, but Tannehill provides the toughness and the calm that keeps the Titans afloat in bad times and has them focused on how to steer the team back to prosperity.
On Sunday, he guided the Titans to the victory despite leaving the game for a play with a neck issue sustained at the end of regulation.
In the end, it was Tannehill’s calm that helped the offense recover from a terrible start and eventually claim the win.
“That’s part of being a leader,’’ Tannehill points out. “You can’t be too high or too low. We want to be a steady force that drives the offense and pushes that belief that we’re gonna make something happen and that we’re going to go win the game.
“I do feel the emotions of the game, but at the same time I try to be steady not only for myself but for everybody in the huddle.”
Tannehill deflects a lot of the credit and success to his teammates, saying that the team is battle tested.
“We’ve been in these tough battles before, and we’re going to be in more as the year goes on. There’s no shake, there’s no quiver from anybody on our team, I don’t think. We’re able to respond and find a way to win,” he adds.
On Sunday, Tannehill’s resurgence came after the Titans’ struggles were part of his own making. An early interception by the Colts’ Kenny Moore helped put the Titans in a 14-0 hole. But Tannehill says he knew he had to turn the page and stay focused on righting the ship.
“Guys will come say something to me, but at the end of the day, it’s personal,” he says. “You have to turn the page and get ready for the next play.”
And while the Titans control the AFC South and hold the conference’s top seed for the playoffs, Tannehill acknowledges they cannot afford any letdowns, especially now with Henry gone.
It was a quote from Tannehill’s postgame news conference against Kansas City last week that still echoed throughout this week and for the season.
“I think it’s always the same thing, right? It’s a week-to-week league. You can’t bank on what you did last week or two weeks ago. It doesn’t matter, frankly. If you don’t show up each and every week, you’re going to get beat,” he said.
“As a team, we enjoy the win. We hopefully build on it and get that confidence and build on that confidence, but at the end of the day, you have to be able to reset and come out and play each week and play good football.”