By John Glennon
Moments into the fourth quarter of Sunday’s one-sided win over Jacksonville, the Titans took the field without running back Derrick Henry.
The big man had already steamrolled the Jaguars for 195 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries at that point, leading the Titans to a 31-10 advantage. So with the game safely in hand, Titans coach Mike Vrabel made the prudent call, choosing to rest the NFL’s most physically imposing talent. Why risk injury or exhaustion at that point, given how vital Henry is to the Titans’ cause?
But that, apparently, is when Henry’s teammates intervened, alerting Vrabel to the fact that Henry was just five yards shy of the fourth 200-yard game of his career.
“So I gave him one opportunity,” Vrabel said. “And he took advantage of it.”
Henry did just that, taking his final carry of the afternoon for 20 yards, then retiring to the bench for a well-deserved rest during much of the fourth quarter. In a season full of tremendous achievements, the run served as the latest example of Henry making the difficult look easy, using his unique blend of power and speed to dictate his will upon NFL defenses.
Henry’s effort in the 31-10 win over Jacksonville left him with 1,532 rushing yards in 13 games, just eight yards short of the 1,540 he totaled last year – in 15 contests. That means Henry would have to average 156 yards over his final three games – about 10 more than he’s averaged over the last four contests – to become the eighth runner in NFL history to hit 2,000 yards.
It’s often times more interesting to hear the opposition talk after the kind of performance Henry put together, in front of some family and friends near his hometown of Yulee, Florida.
“I don’t think we can get any more people up there and have it covered like that,” said Jaguars coach Doug Marrone, who packed eight or more defenders in the box on nearly half of Henry’s carries per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. “So, again, it’s not from a lack of effort, it’s just sometimes those other guys win, too. They win on those plays and they cost us.”
“I mean, he’s the best running back in the league for a reason and obviously, we put everything on the table to try to stop him today and we weren’t able to get that done.”
We could go on for paragraph after paragraph about Henry’s accomplishments this season, but here are a couple of stats that seem especially impressive:
- Henry is the first player in NFL history with four career games with at least 200 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns.
- Henry is now one of just seven running backs in NFL history with more than 1,500 rushing yards and 14 or more touchdowns through 13 games. The others, per Pro Football Reference: Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Terrell Davis and Ricky Williams. That’s some pretty good company.
- Henry has recorded at least 100 rushing yards in nine consecutive road games, the second-longest streak in NFL history behind Barry Sanders’ 10.
And the best news for the Titans, of course, is that Henry sounds rested and refreshed after toting the football 297 times in 13 games, thankful for getting a little breather in the fourth quarter – once his teammates helped push him over 200 yards, of course.
“I love my teammates,” Henry said. “I appreciate those guys every day for what they do. The unselfishness that they have for me – I’m truly blessed to have teammates and the team that I have.”
“Coach Vrabel was just trying to look out for me (so I wouldn’t) take extra shots. But my body feels good.”
Number nine – The Titans’ ninth win of the season clinched the team’s fifth straight winning record, the longest for the franchise since it put together seven straight from 1987 to 1993.
But the victory also gives the Titans three more shots at improving upon the 9-7 mark the team has finished with for four consecutive seasons. Just one more win would give the Titans their first double-digit win season since 2008, when they went 13-3. That also happened to be the last year the Titans won the AFC South, and the last time they hosted a playoff contest.
“Yeah, it’s great,” Titans tackle Dennis Kelly said of a fifth straight winning season. “We’ve been consistent in winning but obviously the theme of this year is that we had a great end of the year last year, but it wasn’t enough. So, it’s just taking the next step and being able to build on it and put ourselves in the best position to play deep into the playoffs.”
Everything clicking — There have been spells in the team’s last four games where the offense has been sluggish, but the overall product has been outstanding.
The Titans’ win over the Jaguars marked the fourth straight game in which the team’s offense had produced more than 400 yards and scored at least 30 points, the first time that has happened in franchise history.
In those games, Henry has run for 586 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 146.6 yards per contest. Meanwhile, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill has posted four straight quarterback ratings over 100.0, the second time he’s recorded such a stretch for Tennessee. Tannehill has thrown for a combined eight touchdown passes in those four games.
“We’ve done some good things,” Tannehill said. “I think we’re heading in the right direction. We want to play clean and play our best football here late in December. I know we had some penalties today that really hurt us. We’ll have to go back and look at those and see how we can fix that, but I feel like if we clean those things up then we would’ve scored a lot more points … We need to keep progressing and playing our best football in December.”
Peeking ahead to the playoffs — The Titans won’t do any looking ahead at playoff possibilities, but we can.
Per fivethirtyeight.com, the Titans’ win over the Jaguars gives them a 95 percent chance of reaching the postseason, and a 61 percent chance of winning the AFC South. If Tennessee beats Detroit next week, those numbers rise to 99 percent and 68 percent, respectively.
The New York Times playoff simulator follows a similar path, noting the Titans improved their playoff chances from 87 percent to 95 percent by beating Jacksonville. The Times gives the Titans a 99 percent chance of the postseason if they beat Detroit next week, with an 82 percent chance of winning the division.
Who are the Titans most likely to face? According to ESPN’s playoff machine, with Buffalo’s victory over Pittsburgh, the Titans are most likely to earn the AFC’s fourth seed and open against the fifth-seeded Browns.
A grain of salt — The grain of salt the Titans had to take following their one-sided win was that it came against Jacksonville, which lost its 12th straight game.
Jacksonville hasn’t won since beating Indianapolis on opening day, a result that ultimately may pay big dividends for the Titans in the AFC South title chase.
Still, Jacksonville isn’t quite the patsy the team’s record would indicate. The Jaguars had lost four of their previous five games by a grand total of 11 points – a stretch that included an overtime loss to Minnesota. Jacksonville had only been whipped once in those games, 27-3 by the Steelers.
And Vrabel wasn’t about to push aside a three-touchdown win in Jacksonville, especially considering six of the team’s previous eight wins had been by seven points or less.
“Every time we come to work there is something to be learned from practice or game,” Vrabel said. “Whether you win or lose, there is a lot to be learned from about where you execute the keys and do a good job. There are certain things in situations that we do and taking advantage of things they did, mistakes that we can clean up or fix. We will do that after a win and a loss.”
Another 100-yarder — With wide receiver A.J. Brown topping 100 yards receiving on Sunday, the Titans have now totaled nine games of 100 yards receiving or more this season – four by Corey Davis, three by Brown, one by Kalif Raymond and one by Anthony Firkser.
That’s the most 100-yard receiving games for the franchise since 1987, when the Houston Oilers had 10.
Brown’s first-quarter touchdown was a thing of beauty, as he reached up for a one-handed, 36-yard grab in the end zone despite tight coverage. It was his ninth receiving touchdown of the season, one more than he had as a rookie last season.
“I didn’t really see anything until I got to the sideline, that I caught the ball with one hand,” Brown said. “We dream of catches like that, but we don’t try to do that. Well, at least I don’t. But he was holding my left hand and I just tried to make a play on the ball.”
Oddly enough, Brown dropped an easy pass on the Titans’ next series, failing to pick up a first down on third-and-two. It was the seventh drop in his last five games, per Pro Football Focus. But it wouldn’t overshadow his overall afternoon, as he caught seven passes on nine targets for 112 yards, averaging 16 yards per reception.
“I go back and watch my drops,” Brown said. “I’m ready to run after the catch so that’s what happens with most of my drops. Like the one today, I knew the guy was coming out, I knew the guy was breaking on me and I was just trying to catch the ball and then make sure I get the first down, but I have to do the little things. I have to make sure I secure the ball with my eyes first and then I can do everything else after.”
Smooth operators — The Titans had frustrated themselves for much of the first half offensively, despite scoring on the team’s first drive for the fourth time in five weeks.
The next three drives after the opening TD ended in a punt, a failed fourth down in the red zone, and a lost fumble by Davis. But all that sputtering came to an end when the Titans took over with 3:27 left in the opening half. The Titans marched 75 yards on five plays (all Henry carries) in 2:43 for one touchdown, then – following a 35-second possession by the Jags – Tennessee moved 28 yards in just nine seconds for a field goal that put the visitors up 17-3 at halftime.
When the Titans took the opening kickoff of the second half and drove 75 yards for a touchdown in just 2:36, it meant Tennessee had scored 17 points in 5:28 – all but putting the game away with a 24-3 advantage.
In those three consecutive scoring drives, Henry carried eight times for 123 yards and a touchdown, while Tannehill went five-for-five for 55 yards and a touchdown to Geoff Swaim.
“We were moving the ball, (but) we just weren’t playing clean enough in order to finish drives in the end zone,” Tannehill said. “(But) we were able to execute there at the end of the half, had a huge stop there by the defense backing them up, and then two plays getting in field goal range and then Stephen (Gostkowski) obviously with the kick. That was a huge play for us in order to come into half getting that last few points.”
Butler the blanket — The Titans were even more short-handed than usual in the secondary on Sunday, with starting corner Breon Borders out with a hip injury – replaced by Tye Smith.
Whether that situation factored into Vrabel’s decision or not, he chose to have cornerback Malcolm Butler shadow the Jags’ top receiver – D.J. Chark – all over the field. Butler didn’t necessarily cover Chark on each and every play, but he was on him for the vast majority of the contest. And Butler played one of the best games of his career – helping hold Chark to two catches on nine targets (for just 16 yards), knocking away two pass attempts and posting his third interception of the season. The Titans scored a touchdown following that third-quarter pick by Butler, putting Tennessee up 31-3.
Butler sounded as if he was carrying a bit of a grudge against Chark, who – in three previous games against the Titans – had caught 13-of-16 targets for 198 yards and a touchdown.
“That’s what I do — I like the challenge,” Butler said of tracking Chark. “I like to take on the best of the best, but whatever coach tells me to do, that’s what I’m going to do. I owe Chark from the past. Great player, great young player, but whatever coach tells me to do, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Two defensive keys — The Titans came into Sunday’s game ranked last in the NFL in defensive third-down percentage (53.6%) and second-to-last in red-zone defense, allowing opponents to score touchdowns on over 72 percent of their trips inside Tennessee’s 20-yard line.
Jacksonville’s offense is certainly nothing special outside of rookie running back James Robinson, but still, the Titans made strides in both of those defensive categories in Sunday’s win.
The Titans held the Jaguars to just five-of-14 on third-down conversions (36 percent) and kept Jacksonville out of the end zone on two of their three trips into the red zone. Tennessee turned the Jaguars away twice on downs in the red zone in the fourth quarter, forcing Gardner Minshew incompletions on consecutive drives.
Fast break falls short — Give the Titans credit for an especially aggressive mindset in the first half of Sunday’s win.
Facing fourth-and-two at their own 30 with five minutes left in the first quarter, the Titans ran a fake punt, with Amani Hooker taking a short snap and gaining four yards for a first down. Unfortunately for the Titans, the drive stalled at midfield.
One series later, the Titans went for it on fourth down once again, this time needing two yards at the Jaguars’ nine-yard line. They hurried to the line following a 10-yard completion and – trying to catch Jacksonville unprepared – quickly ran Jeremy McNichols off left tackle. But the play went nowhere, resulting in a loss of two yards, a missed opportunity at points and a one-score lead at 7-0.
“We went for it in the red zone and I thought we could catch them,” Vrabel said. “To their credit, they made a really nice play and that falls on me and the ability not to get it.”