Nothing ‘exotic’ about Titans’ running game

Friday, December 22, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 51

DeMarco Murray led the AFC in rushing last year with 1,287 yards, scoring nine touchdowns in the process. This year he has 611 yards with two games remaining. Derrick Henry has 668. They have five touchdowns each.

-- Ap Photo/John Hefti

The Tennessee Titans will tell you that their success is built around the run game. Don’t buy it. “Exotic smashmouth” has become a mere shell of its former self.

Under Mike Mularkey, the Titans proudly proclaimed that everything in the offense would revolve around the running game. That strategy worked last season when the Titans ran the football effectively with DeMarco Murray leading the AFC in rushing, Derrick Henry putting in solid work as his backup and the offensive line earning accolades as one of the best in the league.

But a year later, the Titans have stubbornly clung to a supposed “smashmouth” running game that is just not consistently effective. Even the statistics attached to the run game are misleading.

The Titans are 13th in the league in rushing at 115.7 yards per game on the ground. But delve a little deeper into the stats and you will find a different story.

Murray has just one 100-yard rushing game this season, and Henry has the other two. But even those 100-yard rushing efforts didn’t come the way the Titans would have preferred, chewing up four, five and six yards at a time. All three came due to one 70-plus yard touchdown run that drastically skewed the numbers.

Murray’s 75-yard TD run gave him 115 yards on 14 carries in a week three win over Seattle. That means that Murray’s other 13 carries produced a meager 40 yards.

It’s been that kind of season for the veteran, who has 611 yards on 169 carries, and aside from that Seahawks game, has not had more than 66 yards rushing in any game this year.

Last year Murray averaged 4.4 yards per rush on his way to 1,287 yards on the season. This year, he is averaging the same 3.6 yards he did for the Eagles in 2015.

And he has been held to less than 4 yards per carry in 10 of the Titans’ 14 games this year.

But lest you be deluded into thinking that this is just a Murray problem, and that more carries for Henry alone is the answer, consider this: Henry has been held to less than 4 yards per carry six times this season, and his only two 100-yard games came thanks to TD runs of 72 yards against the Colts and 75 yards against the Texans, both when the outcome was basically settled and the Titans were running out the clock.

The same trend goes for the team as a whole.

Through 14 games, the Titans have rushed for 1,620 yards on 378 attempts, or a respectable 4.3 yards per rush. But with the three long gains factored out, the Titans have rushed for 1,398 yards on the other 375 rushing attempts, just 3.7 yards per attempt, and a clearer picture of why the smashmouth philosophy has not carried the team this season.

Do the Titans still want to be a power running team first and foremost. Sure. But with their playoff life hanging in the balance, the smart move might be taking a closer look at what happened Sunday and putting more stock into Mariota operating from his comfort zone.

Almost out of desperation on Sunday, the Titans – forced to dig out of a 16-3 first-half hole – finally resorted to Mariota in a no-huddle offense and it pumped needed life into an attack that had been drab for weeks at a time.

Maybe it was just a one-game aberration, but given the spark it provided – two touchdown drives – the Titans would be wise to stay with it if it keeps Mariota in a comfort zone and keeps the chains moving.

Receiver Rishard Matthews, never one afraid to honestly speak his mind, is championing the change to allow more from Mariota and less from offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie.

“I feel more comfortable with Marcus calling the shots,” Matthews says. “That’s just what it is right now. Because anything goes.

“Marcus is back there reading the defense, you don’t know what he’s going to call, and it’s shown over the time that he’s doing that we’ve moved the ball pretty well and done it pretty easy. And I like doing it.”

The Titans have to show more creativity on offense, Matthews adds, and not just bank on the status quo.

“We’ve just got to have some more creativity, study going in to set up matchups week to week. We can’t be repetitive and doing the same thing over and over.

“The guys on the other side get paid, too. We’ve just got to do a better job of creating matchups. That’s all it is.”

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for