NASHVILLE — On October 17th, the Tennessee Titans (9-7) boasted an abysmal record of 2-4 on the heels of a 16-0 road loss to the Denver Broncos (7-9). The sky had fallen, the offense was anemic and the second overall pick at quarterback sat comfortably on the bench.
The opposition did not fear Tennessee’s passing game and were stacking the box against running back Derrick Henry to stifle them on the ground game. Coach Mike Vrabel and offensive coordinator Arthur Smith had to make lemonade out of lemons.
Now, the ability to figure out those things at their lowest point carries the Titans through the postseason
“Pretty good. I mean, actually pretty good,” Vrabel said in October of how his team was adapting to the real life version of Madden’s Engage Eight defense their foes were presenting them with. “It hasn’t been great. We understand that you’re going to have to run the football, but we’ve had ways to read guys, to block them, to put players in positions to block support, to run on corners so that every time we get post safety, which is prevalent defense in this league, we don’t have to just drop back and throw the ball like a lot of teams. When we see runs defensively when we’re in post-safety defense, you’ve got to get down there and block the safeties, so they don’t end up throwing it 55 times a game because majority of the league is now working and trending towards some post-safety defense.
“So, I mean there are going to be times where we’ve had X play runs versus post-safety defense, and there’s been times where we haven’t. There’s also been times where we haven’t run the ball well against split safety, but I think as long as you give the players answers to be able to manipulate and find a way to operate some of those gapped up defenses where if you’ve got seven in there, they’ve got seven. I mean, seven gaps, they’ve got seven guys. If you’ve got eight gaps, they’ve got eight gaps and the post safety is in the middle of the field, he’s got the quarterback. So, we just try to give them answers and try to figure out ways to either get into a different play or execute the one that we have called.”
Adapt or die.
On the strength of Henry, improved offensive line play and a fundamental understanding of how teams would try to stop them, Tennessee toppled the NFL’s top scoring defense in New England against the Patriots to advance. Another road bludgeoning of the top-seeded Ravens to the tune of 195 yards rushing helped propel them to their first conference championship game in 17 years.
The Heisman Trophy-winner from Alabama became the first player in the Super Bowl era to rush for 180 or more yards in three consecutive regular season/postseason games.
“Well, I think the guys try to finish, I think they’re playing with a lot of confidence, I think our receivers are willing to go in there and get that extra player,” said Vrabel on Wednesday. “There’s different ways to run the football against post-safety defense. So, we’ll continue to try to do that. We’ll continue to try to stay balanced, to try to throw the football. I think everybody’s buying in that it takes all 11 to run the football, whether that’s the quarterback executing the call at the line of scrimmage to get us in the right play to give us the angles that we need, the line working in unison to get to the second level, and then certainly the receivers — Corey (Davis), Tajaé (Sharpe), A.J. (Brown) to go in there and dig out the guy that we’ve got to get dug out.”
Opening their year with an upset of the much-hyped Cleveland Browns and then losing four of their next five dug Tennessee into a hole few thought they could climb out of. What a lack of passing offense did for them early on, though, taught Vrabel, Smith and the offense how to counter the way that defenses played them. When New England and Baltimore loaded the box against him, Henry gained more rush yards after contact (233) in these playoffs than Ryan Tannehill had passing yards (160), per ESPN Stats & Info.
Making the Titans a one-dimensional running team plays directly into their strengths.
Featured Image: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports.