Titans run against grain in playoffs

Old-school attack vs. talented young quarterbacks

Friday, January 21, 2022, Vol. 46, No. 3

Despite the absence of Derrick Henry, who is expected to return this week, the Titans ran to the top of the AFC this season with the same bruising ground game they ran with Henry.

-- Photo By Wade Payne | Ap

The Tennessee Titans are a different breed – an outlier, if you will.

Of the four AFC playoff teams still standing, most of them are built around a quarterback whose success – or lack thereof – is the key to whether they advance in the postseason.

No disrespect intended toward Ryan Tannehill, but the Titans are rooted in the run game and quite proud of it. And how effective that run game is will likely determine how far they go in the playoffs.

That’s not how the other AFC teams are built. The Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills and this week’s opponent, Cincinnati Bengals, are all keyed by young quarterbacks in their prime with rocket arms and receivers who make explosive plays.

The Titans have some of that, but more than the other three they are old school. They proved in the regular-season finale they can play the type of vertical passing game that is today’s NFL. But if it’s all the same, they’ll take the downhill running style of the 1980s and ‘90s any day.

A large part of the success Tannehill has experienced in his three years as Tennessee’s starting quarterback has come via his ability to make accurate, tight-window throws off play-action, which of course is connected to the running game.

As the Titans prepare for Saturday’s AFC Divisional Playoff Game, coach Mike Vrabel says it’s no secret that the running game has to be firing for Tennessee to be at its best.

Of course, that run game is about to get a big boost with the return of Derrick Henry from a broken foot suffered on Halloween against the Colts. How well Henry can do and how much the Titans put on his plate after two and a-half months off bears watching.

Henry’s past success is well chronicled, and his mere presence in the backfield often changes how opposing defensive coordinators attack the Titans. Henry at tailback makes life much easier for Tannehill, which in turn makes life easier for his receivers and the entire offense.

The big questions for Henry this week will be how close is he to his old form and how rusty he will be coming off that fifth metatarsal injury 10 weeks ago. Henry has been practicing for two weeks in preparation for his return, and that work will ramp up even more Saturday’s first playoff game looming.

“We’re gonna need to run the football,’’ Vrabel says. “We’re gonna need to do that to be who we are and to be at our best and not be one dimensional. To be able to run it to set up things, to run our offense. That’s always been critical.

“This will be a big week of practice for us to continue to get Derrick back and get him out there and getting him acclimated to running the football and seeing blocking schemes and seeing where guys are and seeing where the cuts are.”

The good news for the Titans is that D’Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard have filled in admirably in Henry’s absence. So well, in fact, there might not be an appreciable dropoff when Henry is on the sidelines.

The other good news for the Titans is that several other starters who have been in and out of the lineup during the regular season are returning. We have already seen the impact A.J. Brown has on the lineup, and finally Julio Jones seemed to be ready to contribute as the regular season ended.

The offensive line is finally back intact, and the Titans – after using a record 91 players during the season – now are healthier than they have been in months heading into the most important game of the season.

“It’s good to have everybody together,” Vrabel says. “It’s good to have some continuity, but we’ll have to have guys ready to go, because we know how quickly those things can change during the week or during the course of a game.

“But it’s been great that we’ve had some continuity over the last couple of weeks.”

Terry McCormick publishes TitanInsider.com and appears 2-4 p.m. weekdays on the George Plaster Show on WNSR-AM 560/95.9 FM.