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Opponent Scout: Titans’ offense starts and ends with Derrick Henry

Tennessee has no hesitation to pound the rock with the NFL’s best running back.

Kansas City Chiefs v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

In this weekly opponent scout series, I’ll break down the Kansas City Chiefs’ upcoming opponent by examining their strengths, weaknesses and tendencies — and how those things affect their matchup with the Chiefs.

In Week 7, the Chiefs have a matchup with another AFC contender: the Tennessee Titans. They have a strong lead in the AFC South, as well as a one-game lead over the Chiefs in the AFC playoff race.


Overview

Tennessee enters the game with a 4-2 record, losing games to the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets — but beating the Buffalo Bills on Monday Night Football in Week 6.

The Titans have scored the eighth-most points in the NFL this season, while gaining the 11th-most yards. They rely on their running game, leading the league in rushing attempts and rushing touchdowns. As a result, they have the sixth-fewest passing yards and fifth-fewest touchdown passes. In Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA, they are ranked 14th; specifically, they’re ranked 21st in passing and fourth in rushing.

On defense, Tennessee allows the eighth-most points and total yards in the league. They allow the sixth-highest rate of yards per play and the fifth-highest yards per passing attempt. They’ve forced the sixth-fewest turnovers in the NFL this season — and are ranked 28th in defensive DVOA.

Offense

It’s no secret what Tennessee wants to do: feed the ball to running back Derrick Henry. Only five other running backs see a higher percentage of their team’s offensive snaps — and no one has seen nearly as many carries: Henry leads the league with 162. The second-highest mark is 111.

The damage comes in bursts; despite leading the league in rushing, Henry ranks 32nd among qualified running backs in Success Rate, a Football Outsiders statistic that represents a player’s consistency by measuring how successful each carry is relative to down and distance. In short: Henry can be stuffed when the running lane is cloudy — but when the hole is there, he hits it hard and doesn’t look back; he leads the NFL with nine carries of 15 or more yards.

While the volume of Henry’s touches is as large as it’s ever been, the rest of the offense is simply not as efficient as it was when former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith was calling the plays; Smith is now the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

One tendency that has changed with this coaching switch has been the team’s use of play-action passes. In 2020, quarterback Ryan Tannehill used a play-action fake on 36.2% of his dropbacks; in 2021, the rate has fallen to 26.8% — and it has hurt the efficiency of their passing attack.

When they do use play-action to attract linebackers and safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, they have the perfect duo of big-play receivers to take advantage of spacing in the secondary: A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. While both have been playing through injuries that have hampered their seasons, each has a unique blend of size and speed to be a mismatch for any defensive back.

The less effective play-calling has also made pass protection more difficult for an offensive line with average individual talent and injuries. Tannehill has been sacked on 9% of his dropbacks, which is the league’s fourth-highest rate.

Defense

Tennessee’s defense is strongest at the front, where young, play-making defensive linemen Harold Landry III and Jeffery Simmons make their presence felt against both the pass and the run. Landry is tied for third among all NFL players with 6.5 sacks, while also leading the team in tackles for loss and pass-rushing pressures. He’s had two sacks in each of their last two games.

Against the Bills, in fact, Tennessee’s entire defensive line was disruptive. They pressured quarterback Josh Allen on 37% of his dropbacks, earning three sacks, batting down two passes and forcing two throwaways.

The second level of the Titans’ defense has athleticism but lacks playmaking ability. Starting linebackers David Long and Rashaan Evans will play most of the game, with Long staying in during one-linebacker sets. Neither is trusted to blitz frequently — and neither have made a play on a pass this season, either. Per PFF, Long is tied for the NFL lead among linebackers with 11 missed tackles this season.

Right from the start of this season, the Titans’ secondary wasn’t playing well — but injuries have made things worse. Second-year starting cornerback Kristian Fulton was placed on the team’s Reserve/Injured list this week, while first-round rookie Caleb Farley left their Monday night’s game with a torn ACL.

Besides veteran Jackrabbit Jenkins — yes, that’s his name on the Titans’ official website — they’ll rely on third-year, undrafted cornerback Breon Borders, 2020 seventh-round pick Chris Jackson and third-round rookie Elijah Molden — who primarily plays in the slot.

Former All-Pro safety Kevin Byard is still the leader of the secondary; he will be moved all around the formation to make plays. All three of the passes he’s defended this year have turned into interceptions. He has also returned a fumble for a touchdown.

The bottom line

The Chiefs’ defense will have its hands full dealing with Derrick Henry; in the past, the unit has had mixed results against the running back. In 2019, Henry ran wild for 188 yards and two scores during the regular-season matchup — but was held to just 69 yards on the ground in the AFC Championship. The latter is what the Chiefs will hope to replicate on Sunday — while being wary of play-action passes.

Meanwhile, with the talent and depth of Tennessee’s defensive front, the Chiefs’ offensive line will have another challenge. If the Titans’ defensive line can be neutralized, the back end of the defense will be very exploitable.