Twelve weeks into the 2020 NFL season, the Tennessee Titans look as good as ever. The obvious concern facing Mike Vrabel’s squad entering the year was whether or not the Titans, who went 9-7 and shockingly reached the AFC championship game last year, could replicate that success in a COVID-19-altered campaign. During the offseason, Titans general manager Jon Robinson zigged where many other NFL teams would have zagged, handing out big contracts to a running back and a 31-year-old quarterback who looked like a prime regression candidate. Tennessee has defied anyone who thought the squad’s postseason success was a fluke to carry its late-2019 momentum steadily through the new season, and its recipe for success has the franchise primed for another deep postseason run.
Before the season started, opinions on the Titans ranged as much as Brittany Tomlinson’s famous reaction to trying kombucha for the first time. It was easy to make a case for them as AFC South champions … or a squad that would miss the postseason altogether. Their offseason strategy explains why. This summer, Tennessee doubled down on its run-heavy offensive formula, re-signing star tailback Derrick Henry to a four-year, $50 million contract ($25.5 million guaranteed) and quarterback Ryan Tannehill to a four-year, $118 million deal ($91 million guaranteed). The debate over running back value continues to rage, and some recent deals similar to Henry’s have aged like milk. Tannehill, meanwhile, took over for Marcus Mariota in Week 6 last season and proceeded to crush every career statistic Tannehill had ever posted. It was fair to question whether the eighth-year passer would revert to his old, mediocre level of play.
The results so far speak for themselves: Tennessee’s offense ranks third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metrics. Tannehill ranks among the NFL’s top-10 passers in a handful of statistical categories, including adjusted net yards per attempt (7.95, fourth), QBR (76.7, fifth), and Pro Football Focus grade (83.0, 10th). Henry’s 1,257 rushing yards lead the NFL. Most importantly, the Titans are 8-3 and enter Week 13 in first place in the AFC South after a 45-26 rout of the division-rival Colts. Momentum appears to be building around the same time it did last season. When asked about last season’s success on Wednesday, Tannehill told reporters that he felt it “kinda gives you a blueprint” for how Tennessee can once again succeed down the stretch.
“I’ve said several times, ‘What you did last year doesn’t matter this year,’” Tannehill said. “But we do have a bunch of guys that were on that team last year and kind of understand the way we like to play and how we improved late in the season and carried momentum from week to week, and were able to play well at the end of the season. That’s kind of the blueprint, but we have to go out and do it each and every week here.”
The Titans got off to a 5-0 start that included a 26-point win against the Bills. But Tennessee went 1-3 in its next four contests with an 11-point loss to the Bengals, a seven-point win over the Bears, and a 17-point loss to the Colts. The Titans have since bounced back with wins against the Ravens and Colts, which included a second-half resurgence to win in overtime against Baltimore and a first-half explosion to defeat Indianapolis. Cornerback Malcolm Butler pointed to the team’s chemistry to explain why they’re playing better.
“Just believing in each other,” Butler told reporters Tuesday. “Believing in each other, going out there, keep playing hard and try to get better each and every week. ... Just gotta play for each other, communicate.”
What’s even more impressive is that despite a fortunate 6-1 record in one-score games, the Titans have not been what you’d call “lucky.” The injury bug has bitten Tennessee. Starting cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (knee), was placed on injury reserve before the season and has not yet appeared since getting activated on Nov. 11; rookie second-round cornerback Kristian Fulton hit IR after making two starts due to a knee injury in late October; defensive back Dane Cruikshank, a core special teamer, appeared in only two games before getting placed on season-ending IR on Nov. 11; starting punter Brett Kern landed on IR with a wrist injury in early November; starting linebacker Jayon Brown is out for the remainder of the year with a fractured elbow suffered in Week 11; left tackle Taylor Lewan tore his ACL on October 18 and is out for the year; Lewan’s replacement, Ty Sambrailo, is expected to miss the season with an undisclosed injury; slot receiver Adam Humphries has missed the past four games with a concussion; Jadeveon Clowney was placed on IR November 21 with a meniscus injury.
Nonetheless, the Titans are on course to crash the playoffs once again, despite a defensive unit that has regressed after a slightly below-average performance in 2019. Last season, Tennessee’s defense finished 18th in DVOA, including 11th in rush defense. This year, the Titans have been significantly worse, ranking 28th in defensive DVOA. Part of their struggles rest with their secondary, which overcame several key absences and poor performances before recently bouncing back. The departure of veteran cornerback Jonathan Joseph and the acquisition of one-time All-Pro defensive back Desmond King has already had a positive impact. But without elite secondary play and an unimpressive pass rush (Tennessee ranks 31st in pressure rate, according to Pro-Football-Reference), it’s clear the Titans defense won’t carry them through the next few weeks. Tennessee’s efficient offense is what continues to do that.
The Titans are getting their money’s worth out of Henry, whom they’ve relied on all season and particularly late in contests. Henry is averaging 6.6 yards per carry in the fourth quarter this year and 7.8 in overtime. At 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds, Henry is difficult for defenders to handle, and his 938 rushing yards after contact (which leads the league) serves as testament. Tannehill called Henry “seemingly unfazed” as a runner, crediting him for Tennessee’s offensive success.
“Derrick’s extremely consistent,” Tannehill said. “Has been all year, the last two years, really. As long as I’ve been here, he’s been consistent. … Definitely want to keep him rolling as we get deep into December.”
Butler, who faces the former Heisman Trophy–winning back in practice, said that he’s glad that Henry is on his team and that he doesn’t have to worry about tackling him during games.
“He probably can outrun a lot of defensive backs in this league,” Butler said. “People really just don’t know how fast this guy really is. It’s very exciting to watch him stiff-arm people, hit the hole, give a team momentum and things like that.”
According to Next Gen Stats, Henry is facing fewer eight-defender boxes when running the ball this year, down from 35.3 percent to 26.6 percent. That’s likely a result of opposing defenses being forced to account for Tannehill, whose play has remained remarkably consistent, and his talented receiving corps. The Titans’ pass game is among the most efficient, ranking second in pass DVOA this season. Tannehill’s passing statistics through his first 11 starts for the Titans last season are almost identical to his numbers through this year. His proficiency in play-action situations continues to be outstanding. Tannehill’s 1,195 passing yards and 9.9 yards per attempt on play-action passes (minimum 10 starts) both rank first this year, per Pro Football Focus. The Titans have maximized Tannehill’s strengths as a passer, and in turn, he’s seen his interception rate drop (from 2.1 percent to 1.2 percent) and his no. 1 option, A.J. Brown, experience high-end success. Brown, a second-year former second-round pick, has scored in seven of nine contests. Brown ranks ninth in yards after catch (315) and 15th in YAC per reception (7.9).
“Soon as the ball hits his hands, he hits another gear,” Tannehill said of Brown. “He speeds up, actually. He’s so big and strong, guys don’t really wanna tackle him. It’s definitely a weapon for him, and he’s proved it time and time again.”
The Titans are in position to secure the AFC’s no. 3 seed, but their next challenge is the Browns, another 8-3 team that boasts a similar run-heavy offensive approach. Cleveland’s Nick Chubb (719) and Kareem Hunt (706) are each on track to cross the 1,000-yard threshold this year, and could become the first running back duo to do so since the 2009 Panthers’ Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams.
“They run real hard, man,” Butler said. “I think they’re the opposite of the Titans. They run the ball, play-action, boot, things like that. Just gotta have your big boy pants this week. They run the ball a lot. Just gotta go out there and get the win.”
Should the Titans outlast the Browns on Sunday, they’ll match their regular-season win total from a year ago. Football Outsiders projects Tennessee with a 94.4 percent chance at reaching the playoffs, proving Robinson’s decision to invest in both Tannehill and Henry as his offensive core as the right decision. Butler, whom Tennessee signed to a five-year, $61 million contract in 2018, was mentioned by reporters as a leading vote-getter for this season’s Pro Bowl on Wednesday. Butler acknowledged he’s proud of the potential accomplishment, but would rather have other plans that weekend. “Hopefully we won’t be able to attend a Pro Bowl or nothing like that, because the goal is to make the Super Bowl,” Butler said. If the Titans can keep the momentum going, perhaps it won’t be out of question.