Why the Titans have been so bad running the ball on early downs

The success of Derrick Henry and the Titans over the last few years has been witnessed by about every football fanatic you could come across.

His big frame — which usually corresponds with a punishing running style — isn’t strictly for running over smaller defensive backs and running through arm tackle attempts by exhausted defensive linemen, although it’s used to do just that a good bit as well.

Henry is more of a finesse runner in a big back’s body, as his very quick feet, willingness to jump into track races, and his absurd straight line speed stand as very strong pieces of evidences to back the claim up.

The abnormal combination of size and speed has certainly given Henry an advantage, the statistics back it up. But no advantage has been greater than Henry’s success on early downs, or first and second round.

The Titans love to run Henry on early downs, even when opposing defenses are expecting it. The results for the most part have been positive, which is still an insane piece of wording to say given how many stacked boxes Henry faces on early downs.

This season though, there hasn’t been as much success on early run downs. Henry has been stifled way more times than not, which in turn has left this offense struggling to move the football on second and third down and distance situations.

What are the reasons for this sudden decline in early down run efficiency?

Well, there are a few.

Blocking has been subpar

One of these reasons is due to the blatant lack of consistency the Titans have when they’re run blocking.

We knew coming into the season, that this offensive line just wasn’t going to be the same compared to previous years. There were more questions up front, including plenty unknowns at right tackle and left guard, as well as a questionable outlook for left tackle given the health situation there.

But many still expected Henry to put up his usual numbers, in spite of his offensive line being porous. Well that hasn’t been the case this year, as Henry has struggled to find consistent success from week to week, especially throughout the last month of the season.

You could chalk that up due to defenses finding better ways to slow him down, Henry himself not being able to put together superhuman performances, or even the scheme itself being so reliant on less thinking and more doing.

But, if there’s one factor you can definitely mention, it’s the true lack of consistent impact along the offensive line.

Aside from the usual examples of excellence — E.G. Ben Jones and Nate Davis — no other Titans offensive lineman has stood out in the run blocking aspect this season. We already went into detail with the poor play of both Dennis Daley and Aaron Brewer, but we haven’t even mentioned the up and down play of Nicholas Petit-Frere, whose run blocking grade sits just above average according to Pro Football Focus.

That isn’t going to cut it if you want to run the football well, run it consistently well, and without as many problems as possible.

But run blocking hasn’t been the only issue for the Titans on early downs, matter of fact this problem is only scratching the surface.

Another problem that has killed the Titans’ run effectiveness on early downs, has been the normal amount of stacked boxes opposing defenses have lined up in, and how effective they’ve been.

Titans are being dared to pass

Opposing defenses have longed to slow down Henry over the years, obviously due to the game breaking trait Henry possesses.

One thing defenses have done, is stack the box as much as possible so multiple players can try to contain Henry and the Titans’ run game.

In previous years, this method didn’t matter, as Henry ran all over defenses — stacked box and all — regardless of the pre-snap run look he received. This year though, that’s been an entirely different story, well, at least over the last few games it has.

This season, barring any breakout games and based on his recent output, Henry is about on track to put together his second worst amount of rushing yards against stacked boxes on early downs. That figure doesn’t sound so bad, especially when you consider just how many running backs find it difficult to even find room against stacked boxes.

But the kicker here, is that Henry’s current total against stacked boxes on early downs — which is 407 rushing yards — is only one yard short of his entire 2019 total and over 100 yards short of his total for the 2020 season.

This all according to SportsInfoSolutions.

To add more context, Henry currently has more carries against stacked boxes this year, than he did all of 2019, in less games to boot.

To sum this up, Henry is rushing more against stacked boxes on early downs than his 2019 self, and his rushing total against stacked boxes on early downs is way behind his 2020 pace. He’s simply not finding as much success against stacked boxes on early downs this year, which in part has severely hampered this offense, which rides on his ability to churn out yards on first and second down.

Add in the fact that from Week 10 to Week 14, Henry is running against stacked boxes on 1st/2nd down and 7 yards or more on 71% (!) of the time — this against big and base defensive personnel — and you get the idea even further.

These are a lot of numbers, but to sum it up, defenses are shoring up on the run game on early downs. Or in other words, they’re daring the Titans to throw the ball against these personnel heavy looks.

But that can only be successful when you have receivers capable of helping you beat these looks. Which if you haven’t noticed this season, the Titans don’t have one.

At least they haven’t had one consistently.

No receiver to take pressure off run game

Not having a receiver to help take pressure off the run game, has been one reason why the early down run efficiency has been so poor for the Titans.

In the past, it was A.J. Brown who significantly helped the Titans in this aspect, by getting himself open on early down play action snaps and forcing defenses to have second thoughts about stacking the box.

This year though, without Brown on the team, the offense has struggled to force defenses to second guess. How so? Well, you have to take a look at a key stat that tells you just how open receivers can get down the field.

And that stat, is basically separation.

NextGenStats charts average separation weekly for receiving targets across the NFL, which is a stat that basically charts just how much separation a receiver or tight end can generate. Throughout 14 weeks, only one Titans receiver has been able to generate at least three yards of separation on a somewhat consistent basis.

Treylon Burks.

Nov 27, 2022; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Titans wide receiver Treylon Burks (16) takes the field to face the Cincinnati Bengals at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: George Walker IV-USA TODAY Sports

That’s extremely impressive, in both a good and bad way. In a good way because Burks has been able to give this passing game a pulse whenever he’s been on the field, which has been his only problem as he’s struggled to stay healthy throughout his rookie season.

Bad in a way because without Burks, there’s simply no other receiver out there that can create separation like he does.

We’ve seen just how awful this passing game has looked without him playing, so it’s no surprise that defenses are licking their chops whenever Burks isn’t able to stay on the field.

Burks’ absence has in part played a role in the downfall of the Titans’ early down run efficiency, which as we’ve noted many times so far, has been a total catalyst for why this offense has looked so bad over the course of the season.


The Titans depend on early down success, preferably with their run game. If they don’t find it, they’re forced to transform into an offense needs to consistently throw the football.

They aren’t built for that, even if you want them to be.

So relying on Henry to find more success on early downs will have to be your best bet, at least in terms of this offense finding a pulse moving forward.

Odds are they won’t find early down success with their run game, unless their problems magically disappear like some sort of cheap street magic trick. Which doesn’t spell good news for a team that needs to find its footing soon, if they want to walk into the playoffs with some form of confidence.

Featured image via George Walker-USA TODAY NETWORK

All stats via SportsInfoSolutions and ProFootballFocus

Author: TreJean WatkinsTre Watkins is a writer who has covered the Titans since 2019 for BlackSportsOnline, The Brawl Network, and now Broadway Sports Media. FC Barcelona and Yankees baseball are his two loves, Forca Barca!

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