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Without Derrick Henry, the Titans Offense Is Losing Its Identity

Despite two big wins, Tennessee’s offense has sputtered without its star back. Luckily for the team, there’s plenty of time to figure out a solution.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Should Mike Vrabel be Coach of the Year?

Coach of the Year is a tricky award to hand out—usually it goes to the flashy, exciting new offensive-minded coach, and nobody cares if that flash dims only a few seasons later (looking at you, Matt Nagy). But coaching is about establishing culture, solving problems, winning games, and making the playoffs. And the Titans have done—and will keep doing—all of that.

And they’ve done it in the face of pretty wild odds. The Titans are substantially outpacing the rest of the league not just in gritty wins, but also in games lost to injury. All this, to me, sounds like Vrabel deserves more laurels than just some nice segments on midweek NFL talk shows.

But there’s one fresh injury that has complicated not only Vrabel’s Coach of the Year case, but also the Titans’ championship hopes. Derrick Henry, who has long been the engine of the Titans offense, defied belief when he missed just one game during the 2019 and 2020 seasons, when he totaled an absurd 781 carries across the regular seasons and playoffs. After 219 carries in eight games this season—a 465-carry pace for the regular season—Henry fractured a bone in his foot, an injury that is expected to shelve him until at least early January.

Since 2019—when Tennessee traded for Ryan Tannehill and Arthur Smith installed his system, which is still largely being run by new offensive coordinator Todd Downing—we haven’t seen the Titans offense without Henry. Few players are more integral to a team’s offensive philosophy than Henry is. The NFL got its first look at a Henry-less Titans offense in the past two weeks, and it hasn’t been pretty.

To understand what the Titans are doing without Henry, we need to understand what they were doing with him. With Henry in the backfield and Tannehill at quarterback, the Titans were one of the most run-heavy teams in football, ranking fourth in early-down run rate in 2019, first in 2020, and first again in 2021 before the Henry injury. They also majored in heavy personnel, which helped their running game thrive. In 2019, they led the league in snaps from 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends) and were fifth in snaps from 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends). In 2020, things were similar: They led the league in snaps from 12 personnel, and were tied for second in snaps from 13 personnel. The Titans’ personnel changed a bit this offseason, with the addition of wide receiver Julio Jones and the loss of tight end Jonnu Smith, so their TE usage has dropped from league-leading to just above average—but still, few teams have been getting as many tight ends on the field as the Titans have been the past few years.

From this dedication to running the football, the Titans built a downfield-focused passing attack. This approach fit Tannehill’s strengths as a tall, powerful passer with an unfailingly accurate deep ball. Tannehill was third in intended air yards in 2019 at 9.6 and 15th in 2020 at 8.4. Tennessee married that downfield passing game with the running game by spamming play-action fakes, made all the more effective by the threat of Henry runs and the additional tight ends in as blocking threats. The heavy-run personnel pulled extra defenders into the box, opening intermediate and downfield passing windows. Thirty percent of Tannehill’s dropbacks in 2019 came on play-action, which was the ninth-highest rate in the league; his average depth of target was 10.7 on such attempts, and his astounding 13.5 yards per attempt led the league. In 2020, the story was much the same: 36.4 percent of his dropbacks came with a play-action fake, the highest in the league, his average depth of target was 10.7, and his yards per attempt, a measly 9.7, was still a top-five figure.

This is the identity of the Titans offense. Run the ball with Henry—run it with Henry a lot. Put linebackers on the field; pull safeties into the box. Then fake the Henry run, pull those second-level defenders even farther upfield, and throw into the space behind them.

But there are a lot of run-heavy, heavy-personnel, play-action offenses. The Browns under Kevin Stefanski put tight ends on the field and run the football at rates that rival the Titans; the Vikings, Stefanski’s old haunt, do much the same. The Bears have started to settle into this identity with Justin Fields at quarterback; the Niners follow a similar philosophy, but use fullback Kyle Juszczyk instead of an additional tight end.

What makes the Titans offense distinct is Henry. Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, and David Montgomery are all good backs, but they don’t have the same characteristics as Henry does, so they don’t affect opposing defenses or their own offense similarly. Henry is a true physical anomaly at 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds with a 4.54-second 40-yard dash and 130-inch broad jump (96th percentile for all running backs). Henry is such a mind-bogglingly big back that there are photo montages of him next to other NFL players to create a sense of scale.

Henry’s size, coupled with his explosiveness and long speed, make him the single most terrifying dude to tackle in a league full of terrifying dudes to tackle. There is nobody more aptly compared to a runaway train.

The Titans know this, so they do everything they can to keep Henry moving down the field in a straight line. Many run-heavy, heavy-personnel NFL offenses are limbs off the Shanahan coaching tree, and they major in outside zone running—a blocking scheme that sends the offensive line (and with them, the defensive front) flying horizontally. The back also presses horizontally, and once he gets sunlight, he stops his momentum and cuts upfield, taking advantage of that vertical space as defenders do their best to slam on the brakes and suffocate his running lane.

Henry can run outside zone, but a run that first goes horizontal before it goes vertical doesn’t maximize his physical gifts. Chubb and Cook can drop their weight, get low behind the offensive line, explode out of those tough cuts—Henry is an upright runner who, while still wonderfully agile for his size, isn’t as agile as smaller players who have a lower center of gravity. Accordingly, the Titans don’t major in outside zone with Henry in their backfield.

Instead, the Titans major in the duo run. Unlike outside zone, which has the offensive line work horizontally in an effort to displace the defensive line, duo has the offensive line work directly upfield, into the teeth of the defense. Multiple double-teams along the interior, as well as with the additional tight ends on the outside, ensure that the first level of the defense is controlled and pushed upfield (duo is also called double, for just this reason: multiple double-teams). This type of run fits Henry perfectly, as it lets him work directly upfield, into the line of scrimmage, instead of running to the outside and building up momentum that he’ll eventually have to kill by changing direction.

The linebackers are largely left untouched by the duo blocking scheme—seems silly, right? In reality, it’s pretty nifty. As the back approaches the line of scrimmage, he’s reading the action of those linebackers. With double-teams securing the defensive front, there are multiple gaps that the back can run through. He can be patient to the line, threatening all of those gaps, waiting for the linebackers to commit to plugging a gap until he bounces along to the next one. It’s tough for linebackers to sit, staring at an open gap with a running back working toward them, and not step forward to fill that gap—it’s especially tough when the running back who just may explode through that gap is Henry, the NFL equivalent of a medieval battering ram.

So as those linebackers fill their gaps, Henry bounces along the line, carefully picking his spot and surviving incidental contact. Once he finds a sliver of sunlight unobstructed by those pesky linebackers, he can hit those jets and explode into the second level. All of a sudden, the Titans have gotten Henry, with speed, working vertically among linebackers and safeties. This is always a win. Sports Info Solutions has the Titans as averaging 0.19 expected points added per attempt on duo runs in 2019 and 2020. Only the Packers performed better on this run during the same stretch of time.

This duo run doesn’t have the exact same effect on linebackers that the outside zone run does, but the same basic idea is achieved. Outside zone makes linebackers flow fast and horizontally, pulling them away from the middle of the field; duo pulls the linebackers downhill and freezes them in place, still opening up that middle of the field behind them. So the Titans can still get to their spots—they just do it with a different run, which better suits their star running back.

It doesn’t just suit their star back, though—it also suits their offensive identity as a whole. The Titans, coached by Vrabel and managed by Jon Robinson, have been built in the image of Henry: They’re huge, physical, and tough as nails. This year’s first-round pick, Caleb Farley, is a 6-foot-1, 207-pound cornerback—that’s 81st and 93rd percentile for all cornerbacks, respectively. In 2020, they took Isaiah Wilson, a 6-foot-6 (78th percentile), 350-pound (97th percentile) tackle from Georgia with 35 1/2–inch arms (93rd percentile). Their star receiver, A.J. Brown, is all of 226 pounds in a 6-foot body; even their quarterback, Tannehill, carries 220 pounds on a 6-foot-4 frame. They are, simply, a big team.

Duo is a more physical blocking scheme than outside zone. That’s not to say teams can’t be physical on outside zone runs—they can (just watch the Browns). But in general, outside zone teams want lighter and faster offensive linemen to get on their horses and fly, so they’ll sacrifice size for speed. The Titans have gone the other way. They play two ex-college tackles at guard—Rodger Saffold (6-foot-5, 325 pounds) and Nate Davis (6-foot-3, 316 pounds). Those two are built for power, for the vertical displacement of the duo run.

This is the unifying character of the entire Titans offense with Henry at the helm. When Brown gets play-action targets on those intermediate, in-breaking routes behind the linebackers, he becomes one of the most dangerous YAC receivers in the league because of his size and toughness; on those play-action shots, Tannehill has to sit in the pocket and take a physical beating from the pass rush while still delivering accurate passes. In Henry’s absence, the Titans have continued to play with this identity. They want to make you tackle, make you hit harder than they do. They want to out-big you.

With Henry off the field, the Titans have turned to Adrian Peterson and D’Onta Foreman, two physical, rumbling backs. Peterson and Foreman both fit the offensive philosophy in Tennessee, but they don’t have nearly the talent that Henry does—and critically, the Titans aren’t running duo with either in the backfield. Through eight weeks of the season, only Bucs RB Leonard Fournette had more rushing attempts behind duo blocking than Henry; in the two weeks of Henry’s absence, they’ve run duo only once.

Instead, we’re seeing a hodgepodge of ideas. They’re using inside zone—which can be tough to distinguish from duo, depending on the defensive front—and split zone to get the tight ends moving. They’re lining up tight end Geoff Swaim as a fullback and running iso behind him. They’re pulling guards and running traditional counter and power. They’re trying to find something—anything—to reinvigorate their running game.

That includes the passing game as well. In the absence of a reliable running game to keep the Titans on schedule and ahead of the sticks, the Titans have doubled the amount of screens in their offense: With Henry active, they called a screen on 9.8 percent of Tannehill’s dropbacks; that number is up to 20 percent in the past two weeks. Just as screens have been doubled, depth of target has been halved: Tannehill was averaging 7.5 air yards per attempt on standard dropbacks; now he’s at 3.8, second lowest in the league over that stretch.

Titans Screen Rates

Weeks Screen rate YPA (screen passes) Average depth of target (standard dropbacks)
Weeks Screen rate YPA (screen passes) Average depth of target (standard dropbacks)
1-8 9.8% 7.3 7.5
9-10 20% 5.4 3.8
Data via PFF

The Titans are still trying to out-big you. Their screens aren’t going to running backs, like traditional screens, but rather to tight ends or big-bodied wide receivers. Josh Reynolds has fallen down the receiver depth chart in favor of Nick Westbrook-Ikhine and Marcus Johnson, who also offer better blocking in the running game with their size and strength. Tannehill drops the ball to Brown, Westbrook-Ikhine, and Johnson quickly in an effort to let them turn upfield and generate yardage after the catch. After running the ball on early downs at a 55 percent clip this season with Henry in the backfield, the Titans are below 51.5 percent in the past two weeks. They’ve used the underneath passing game to support the running game.

But in all this experimentation, the Titans have surrendered the most dangerous aspect of their offense: the play-action pass. Tannehill is still dropping back with play-action at an equal rate, but his depth of target has dropped over 3 yards, and his completion percentage has flown upward. The Titans are no longer using the play-action passing game to hunt for explosive plays; they’re using it to find easy completions and keep the offense on the field. This leaves Tennessee as an offense just efficient enough to stay on the field, but not aggressive enough to rip off chunk gains. With two total explosive runs (defined as a rush of 10 or more yards) and two total explosive passes (15 or more yards) in the past two weeks, the Titans are dead last in explosive-play rate without Henry on the field.

Titans Play-Action Rates

Weeks Play-Action Rate PA Yards/Attempt PA Completion % PA Depth of Target Explosive Play Rate Explosive Play Rate (Rank)
Weeks Play-Action Rate PA Yards/Attempt PA Completion % PA Depth of Target Explosive Play Rate Explosive Play Rate (Rank)
1-8 29% 10.2 82.4 10.4 9% 19th
9-10 30% 7.5 63.2 7.2 4% 32nd
Data via PFF and Sharp Football Stats

Without Henry, the Titans have still secured two critical wins: over the Rams on Sunday Night Football, and against the Saints last Sunday. They draw a poor Houston team this Sunday, then a tough date with the ascending Patriots before their Week 13 bye, which will afford them a little bit of time to self-scout and come up with new answers. If they beat the Texans and lose to the Patriots, they’re still 3-1 in their Henry-less stretch and in the driver’s seat for the first-round bye in the AFC.

But make no bones about it: This is not a good offense. The loss of Henry is the clearest recent example of a team losing its identity as a unit. The Titans are trying to replace the most irreplaceable back in the NFL, and they have eight more weeks of regular-season football to figure it out.