The Tennessee Titans had been operating the ball towards the sideline — once more — which left New England’s protection flowing rapidly to its left. It appeared like a panel cribbed from a Stan Lee comedian: the Titans operating again beating all 11 Patriots to the sting, pushing ahead with a full head of steam.
Together with his No. 22 jersey perpetually using as much as present a large swath of his stomach, and shoulder pads that hardly attain his large arms, Derrick Henry has the look of a operating again hit with gamma radiation, all of the sudden discovering himself too large for his tools, not not like Lee’s Unimaginable Hulk.
And, of their A.F.C. wild-card sport final week, the Patriots appeared to have made him indignant.
The one factor in Henry’s method on that fourth-quarter play was J.C. Jackson — a pretty big participant by defensive again requirements, however one who nonetheless offers up two inches and nearly 50 kilos to the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry. Jackson delivered his greatest try at successful, however Henry knocked him backward and dragged him for 9 additional yards, securing the 10th of his 11 first downs on the best way to 204 yards from scrimmage in the Titans’ 20-13 upset of New England final week.
For those who had not been paying consideration over the previous couple of months, Tom Brady’s season ending on a wild-card Saturday — to a workforce that appeared to run the identical play on practically each down — might have been a shock. However to anybody who watched the Titans’ transformation over the ultimate 10 video games of the common season, the end result hardly certified as a shock.
“When you possibly can run it when the opposite workforce is aware of you’re going to run it, that claims so much about your operating sport,” Coach Mike Vrabel mentioned afterward of Henry, who had dominated the most effective protection in soccer on his 26th birthday.
Can Henry and the Titans (9-7) ship one other upset, this time within the divisional spherical of the playoffs in opposition to the No. 1-seeded Baltimore Ravens (14-2)?
Tennessee is a justifiably massive underdog in Saturday’s sport, however reaching the divisional spherical in any respect is a triumph for a workforce that appeared misplaced in a 2-Four begin to the season.
The system for his or her success actually begins with Henry, who constructed on a legendary highschool profession — his 12,124 yards for Yulee Excessive Faculty in Florida are nonetheless a nationwide file — to win the Heisman Trophy for Alabama in 2015. However progress on the professional stage had are available suits and begins for Henry, and to actually unlock his potential and save the workforce’s season, the Titans did one thing drastic: They benched Marcus Mariota, the quarterback they’d drafted with the No. 2 general decide in 2015 to be the face of the franchise.
Mariota won the Heisman a year before Henry, and tantalized throughout his first 4 professional seasons. However he was inconsistent — and generally downright dangerous — over this season’s first six video games, and within the third quarter of a Week 6 loss to Denver, Vrabel lastly pulled the plug.
He was changed 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 loads of folks by rapidly naming him the starter for Week 7, saying, “It simply felt like now was the time.”
The outcomes have proved Vrabel proper. With Tannehill as starter, the Titans led all N.F.L. teams in passer rating (119.5), internet yards per passing try (8.19), and yards per rush (5.64). And that suddenly-potent offense, mixed with an opportunistic protection, went 7-Three over its remaining 10 video games, incomes the A.F.C.’s second wild-card spot on the ultimate day of the season.
Tannehill struggled in opposition to New England’s otherworldly secondary final week, and was largely written off as a nonfactor this week by Baltimore security Earl Thomas, who mentioned the Ravens had been largely getting ready for Henry, since making an attempt to move the ball wouldn’t “go of their favor.” However Tennessee’s symbiotic relationship between quarterback and operating again had been undeniably efficient throughout the common season.
Henry went from barely breaking 1,000 dashing yards final season, and solely topping 100 yards as soon as on this season’s first six video games, to main the N.F.L. with 1,540 yards and 16 dashing touchdowns. Tannehill, who got here into the yr with a 42-46 profession file and a profession passer ranking of 87, completed the common season with the very best ranking within the N.F.L. (117.5) and set himself as much as probably money in on free company this low season. And alongside the best way, A.J. Brown, a rookie large receiver out of Mississippi, developed into one of many sport’s premier vertical threats, averaging 20.2 yards a catch and tying Henry for the N.F.L. lead with 4 touchdowns of 50 or extra yards.
If there’s something hanging about Tennessee’s method (past Henry’s means to wear down a protection), it’s the technique of getting Tannehill throw far fewer passes than most of his contemporaries, however ensuring every of these passes counts by airing the ball out.
As soon as Tannehill took over below heart, the Titans’ offense — led by coordinator Arthur Smith, the son of the FedEx founder Fred Smith — tried the second-fewest passes per sport of any workforce, however gained the 10th most yards per sport by way of the air. Tannehill’s passes this season traveled a mean of 9.7 yards — third-longest within the N.F.L. behind Matthew Stafford and Jameis Winston — however in accordance with the N.F.L.’s NextGen statistics, his 70.Three p.c completion fee was an N.F.L.-best 8.1 proportion factors larger than he ought to have been in a position to produce primarily based on the riskiness of his throws.
That mixture of a excessive quantity of runs and some deep passes acquired more practical as video games progressed: The Titans averaged simply 10.Three first-half factors over the 10 video games Tannehill began, however pushed the typical to 20.1 within the second half.
All of that has led to a matchup in opposition to a Ravens workforce that does lots of the identical issues — usually with way more explosive outcomes. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is each a devastating runner and a hyper-efficient passer. Operating again Mark Ingram II, who’s hoping to come back again from a calf harm, can churn by way of defenses, and large receiver Marquise Brown can practically sustain with A.J. Brown in producing highlight-reel touchdowns.
Irrespective of who wins, although, the sport will function proof that groups on the vanguard of the N.F.L.’s offensive revolution wouldn’t have to move the ball on each all the way down to thrive. And whereas Tennessee might have lastly met its match, the Ravens might want to hold their collective foot on the fuel all sport to keep away from the Patriots’ destiny. Underneath Vrabel, the Titans hold enjoying till the ultimate gun, and any play through which Tannehill, Henry and A.J. Brown are concerned has the potential to show right into a landing.