Time for Titans to recommit to bread-and-butter running game

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans gave Derrick Henry two carries in the first half of their loss to the Carolina Panthers. Henry's meager workload was one of the significant ways the Titans got away from their winning formula.

Tennessee's best chance for success rests with relying on their stingy defense (allowing 18.3 points per game, ranked seventh) and establishing the running game.

That same blueprint fueled the Titans to a four-game winning streak toward the end of last season that almost got landed them a playoff berth. It's no coincidence that Henry went on a tear during that stretch, rushing for 532 yards and eight touchdowns in four games.

When the Titans get a lead, they turn to Henry late in games to close the door on their opponent. In the Titan's 24-10 win against the Falcons, Henry carried the ball 11 times for 27 yards in the fourth quarter allowing Tennessee to erase extensive time off the clock.

Successfully running the football also sets up play-action. A.J. Brown's 55-yard touchdown catch against the Falcons provided a good example of how Henry's presence impacts a defense. It helped create space in the middle of the field for Brown by pulling a box safety and linebacker toward the line of scrimmage in run support.

Facing the Panthers' 27th-ranked run defense that had been giving up 135 rushing yards per game on Sunday would seem like an obvious time to feed Henry the ball and let him carry the offense.

On Monday, Vrabel acknowledged that Henry is a large part of the offensive identity the Titans want to establish. But in his words, "Because of the way things went in the first half, that made it hard [to establish the run]."

One of the issues Vrabel pointed to were penalties that put the team in unfavorable down-and-distance situations, although it worked out for running back Dion Lewis, who managed to gain 22 yards on three carries in the first half. (Although his fumble in the second quarter ended a drive.) Lewis gained 15 yards on first-and-20 and picked up seven yards on first-and-15 in the first half.

"There are certain plays that we liked and in this case with Dion [Lewis] knowing there might be some space in there for him with his skill set to take advantage of that," Vrabel said. "I felt confident, handing the ball off to him in those plays that we had up for him were good options."

As a team, the Titans ran the ball only a six times (one of them was a Ryan Tannehill scramble) in the first half. They were also held scoreless in the first half for the fourth time this season. They've lost all of those games.

The Titans turned to Henry to start the second half, but they were already behind 17-0.

On their first drive, they went 67 yards in eight plays with Henry carrying the ball seven times for 47 yards. He capped off the drive with an 8-yard touchdown run. He finished the game with 13 carries for 63 yards and the score. He also added a 23-yard touchdown catch on a screen pass.

Even though Henry didn't get a lot of touches, his primary focus was on the team getting momentum and not having a slow start.

"I wasn't frustrated at all," Henry said. "I just wanted us to get going. Put some plays together and get some momentum going. We shot ourselves in the foot one too many times. We got going late in the second half, but we've got to put plays together early to give us a chance."

This week, the Titans face another opponent that is struggling to stop the run. The Kansas City Chiefs defense is allowing 139.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks 29th in the league. Establishing the run and controlling the clock would also help the Titans defense by keeping the high-scoring Chiefs offense off the field.