Nashville, Tenn. – Two of the big questions for the Tennessee Titans entering training camp centered on how to perform a pass game without a bona fide No. 1 receiver after trading AJ Brown, and what running back version would Derek Henry take after missing nine games last season due to a fractured His right foot.
If Tennessee’s performance in their 21-20 loss to the New York Giants in Sunday’s season opener is the answer to those questions, things could get ugly over the next few weeks.
The Titans face a tough set of matches starting with Monday’s football game (7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) against the Buffalo Bills. They will then host the Las Vegas Raiders in a short week and then the Indianapolis Colts against the AFC South in Week 4.
Tennessee has typically relied on Henry’s big plays to win shows over the past few years. It was Henry’s 76-yard touchdown track that breathed life into the Titans during their 34-31 win over the Bills last season.
Henry’s physical attack has been the Giants’ identity over the past three seasons – without the nine regular season games he missed to finish last season – resulting in a 32-17 run and back-to-back titles in South Asia.
Henry will once again be the focal point of the defenses facing the Titans.
“They’ve been focused on Derek for the past three years,” Titans coach Mike Frabel said. “Nothing has changed there.”
But in fact there was a change.
The Titans finished with a 2-1 record in games when Henry was held at under 100 yards last season. Tennessee was able to take the AFC top seed, but a passing match featuring Brown, who has two big wins, will have to find a way without him this season.
Traded to the Philadelphia Eagles on draw night, Brown had eight catches for 133 yards and a touchdown in a win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 6. Henry had an 86-yard fast that game. Henry struggled with his injury in Week Seven against the Colts last season, but Brown’s 10 receptions, 155 yards and a touchdown helped fuel the win.
Henry opened the season with 82 flowing yards on 21 buggies. However, there was no production like Brown to save the situation.
“We just have to get better at the running game, we’re all 11,” Henry said. “It wasn’t good enough for us to win the game, for us to have the explosive stage and want to play in the style of football that we play.”
Rookie Kyle Philips led the team with six receptions for 66 yards, including a 21-yard catch that put Tennessee into a goal post at the end of the game. Running back from the two Dontrell Hilliards that received the landing were the only scores for the Titans.
Novice receiver Treylon Burks finished with three receptions for 55 yards, and the big Titans extras—Robert Woods and Austin Hopper—finished with one receiver each.
Ryan Tanehill said that the balance they found in the passing attack was related to the development of chemistry during camp. He feels that the receiving leader varies from week to week. pic.twitter.com/LJQpknfolz
– TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_NFL) September 11, 2022
“It’s going to be some matches where one player gets a little more goals than the other players,” said midfielder Ryan Tanehill. “But over the course of this season, that will shift…so we’re going to need all these guys in that room to come out for us in a big way at different times this year.”
Balancing the passing game can be beneficial in some cases, as it prevents opposing teams from being able to focus on a particular player. But having a player in clutch positions helps, especially in the third crises.
The Titans faced 3rd and 4 yards or less seven times on Sunday and were converted only once. Between 2019 and 2021, they converted 66.5% of the time in the same position, which was the second best mark in the league.
Most of the problems came in the second half of Sunday when Tennessee converted one of five chances to fall back for third. None of the three situations I encountered required more than 5 yards to move the chains.
The only transfer was a 5-yard pass from Tannehill to Philips. After five plays, Tannehill found Hilliard for a 23-yard touchdown that would be the end result of the day for the Titans.
The loss for New York cannot be put solely on the lack of dominant receivers. But, someone must emerge as a constant threat to make the opposing defenses pay to devote most of their resources to stopping Henry. All-time Titans party leader Derek Mason believes the coaching staff needs to play a role in the rise of a great playmaker to the surface.
“This NFL is now all about plans,” Mason said. “You can be a good receiver, I saw a bunch of them at the end of capturing 70-90 passes. It’s all based on a chart now. You can plan an open man. Treylon Burks, you have to plan where he gets the ball in his hands. That they do it with Robert Woods.”
If the passing game is struggling, Tennessee will likely need another big performance from Henry, who led the NFL in accelerating distances and yards in back-to-back seasons before being injured last season, and also delivered last season against the Bills when he rushed for 143 yards and three touchdowns.
But if someone doesn’t step up to make teams pay to focus on Henry, the Titans may find their way to the playoffs much more difficult this season.