The Tennessee Titans were running the ball toward the sideline — again — which left New England’s defense flowing quickly to its left. It looked like a panel cribbed from a Stan Lee comic: the Titans running back beating all 11 Patriots to the edge, pushing forward with a full head of steam.
With his No. 22 jersey perpetually riding up to show a wide swath of his abdomen, and shoulder pads that barely reach his massive arms, Derrick Henry has the look of a running back hit with gamma radiation, suddenly finding himself too big for his equipment, not unlike Lee’s Incredible Hulk.
And, in their A.F.C. wild-card game last week, the Patriots appeared to have made him angry.
The only thing in Henry’s way on that fourth-quarter play was J.C. Jackson — a fairly large player by defensive back standards, but one who still gives up two inches and almost 50 pounds to the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry. Jackson delivered his best attempt at a hit, but Henry knocked him backward and dragged him for nine extra yards, securing the 10th of his 11 first downs on the way to 204 yards from scrimmage in the Titans’ 20-13 upset of New England last week.
If you had not been paying attention over the last few months, Tom Brady’s season ending on a wild-card Saturday — to a team that appeared to run the same play on nearly every down — may have been a shock. But to anyone who watched the Titans’ transformation over the final 10 games of the regular season, the result hardly qualified as a surprise.
“When you can run it when the other team knows you’re going to run it, that says a lot about your running game,” Coach Mike Vrabel said afterward of Henry, who had dominated the best defense in football on his 26th birthday.
Can Henry and the Titans (9-7) can deliver another upset, this time in the divisional round of the playoffs against the No. 1-seeded Baltimore Ravens (14-2)?
Tennessee is a justifiably large underdog in Saturday’s game, but reaching the divisional round at all is a triumph for a team that looked lost in a 2-4 start to the season.
The formula for their success certainly starts with Henry, who built on a legendary high school career — his 12,124 yards for Yulee High School in Florida are still a national record — to win the Heisman Trophy for Alabama in 2015. But progress at the pro level had come in fits and starts for Henry, and to truly unlock his potential and save the team’s season, the Titans did something drastic: They benched Marcus Mariota, the quarterback they had drafted with the No. 2 overall pick in 2015 to be the face of the franchise.
Mariota won the Heisman a year before Henry, and tantalized during his first four pro seasons. But he was inconsistent — and sometimes downright bad — over this season’s first six games, and in the third quarter of a Week 6 loss to Denver, Vrabel finally pulled the plug.
He was replaced by Ryan Tannehill, who had signed as a backup after seven mediocre seasons in Miami. Tannehill moved the ball with some confidence in that loss and the understated Vrabel shocked plenty of people by quickly naming him the starter for Week 7, saying, “It just felt like now was the time.”
The results have proved Vrabel right. With Tannehill as starter, the Titans led all N.F.L. teams in passer rating (119.5), net yards per passing attempt (8.19), and yards per rush (5.64). And that suddenly-potent offense, combined with an opportunistic defense, went 7-3 over its final 10 games, earning the A.F.C.’s second wild-card spot on the final day of the season.
Tannehill struggled against New England’s otherworldly secondary last week, and was largely written off as a non-factor this week by Baltimore safety Earl Thomas, who said the Ravens were mostly preparing for Henry, since trying to pass the ball wouldn’t “go in their favor.” But Tennessee’s symbiotic relationship between quarterback and running back had been undeniably effective during the regular season.
Henry went from barely breaking 1,000 rushing yards last season, and only topping 100 yards once in this season’s first six games, to leading the N.F.L. with 1,540 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns. Tannehill, who came into the year with a 42-46 career record and a career passer rating of 87, finished the regular season with the highest rating in the N.F.L. (117.5) and set himself up to potentially cash in on free agency this off-season. And along the way, A.J. Brown, a rookie wide receiver out of Mississippi, developed into one of the game’s premier vertical threats, averaging 20.2 yards a catch and tying Henry for the N.F.L. lead with four touchdowns of 50 or more yards.
If there is something striking about Tennessee’s approach (beyond Henry’s ability to wear out a defense), it is the strategy of having Tannehill throw far fewer passes than most of his contemporaries, but making sure each of those passes counts by airing the ball out.
Once Tannehill took over under center, the Titans’ offense — led by coordinator Arthur Smith, the son of the FedEx founder Fred Smith — attempted the second-fewest passes per game of any team, but gained the 10th most yards per game through the air. Tannehill’s passes this season traveled an average of 9.7 yards — third-longest in the N.F.L. behind Matthew Stafford and Jameis Winston — but according to the N.F.L.’s NextGen statistics, his 70.3 percent completion rate was an N.F.L.-best 8.1 percentage points higher than he should have been able to produce based on the riskiness of his throws.
That combination of a high volume of runs and a few deep passes got more effective as games progressed: The Titans averaged just 10.3 first-half points over the 10 games Tannehill started, but pushed the average to 20.1 in the second half.
All of that has led to a matchup against a Ravens team that does many of the same things — often with much more explosive results. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is both a devastating runner and a hyper-efficient passer. Running back Mark Ingram II, who is hoping to come back from a calf injury, can churn through defenses, and wide receiver Marquise Brown can nearly keep up with A.J. Brown in producing highlight-reel touchdowns.
No matter who wins, though, the game will serve as proof that teams at the vanguard of the N.F.L.’s offensive revolution do not have pass the ball on every down to thrive. And while Tennessee may have finally met its match, the Ravens will need to keep their collective foot on the gas all game to avoid the Patriots’ fate. Under Vrabel, the Titans keep playing until the final gun, and any play in which Tannehill, Henry and Brown are involved has the potential to turn into a touchdown.