The Tennessee Titans walked through perhaps the toughest stretch of their 2021 schedule unscathed, and even without Derrick Henry, look to have a direct path to the playoffs.
Now the Titans may catch a break this week against the New Orleans Saints, who could potentially be without their do-it-all running back Alvin Kamara. The former Tennessee Volunteer star sat out practice the last two days.
Kamara has accounted for 530 rushing yards, 310 receiving yards and seven total touchdowns this season. While the Saints recently brought back Mark Ingram to back up Kamara, he has tallied only 15 carries for 70 yards in two games and likely doesn’t pose much of a threat for a Titans defense that allows the eighth-fewest rush yards per game (100).
The storyline of the week for the Titans is which running back will step forward and into the role of the bell cow back. It’s no secret Tennessee’s offense works best with a good pass-run balance.
Jeremy McNichols’ job as a third-down back is all but set in stone. The team needs to keep using him at what he does best — catching the ball out of the backfield and standing his ground as an extra blocker.
At 36, its unreasonable to expect Adrian Peterson to be a 20-carry kind of running back. But with the 10 carries he got last week, he proved he could still be a serviceable ball-carrier. Many contend D’Onta Foreman should get a few more carries to prove what he can do with an expanded role.
Foreman is the closest to Henry in terms of size and violent running ability, and if the Titans have any chance of breaking through New Orleans’ NFL-best run defense, it’ll be through sheer physicality. And the Saints recognize that.
"I think their coach does a great job of ... keeping their mindset on the right thing,” Saints linebacker Pete Werner told reporters on Thursday. “…They are still going to have that same mindset and same goal as to being very, very physical trying to dominate and out-compete their opponents. And that is obviously something that we can't let happen. There is a difference (without Derrick Henry), but definitely not a [different] mindset on their team."
Here's a further look at Sunday’s matchup:
Why the Titans can win
After watching what they’ve done to the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Rams, why bet against them?
New Orleans’ pass defense ranks in the bottom six of the NFL, and the Saints have allowed 240 or more pass yards in six of their eight games. Without being able to rely on Henry to carry the ball 30 times per game, what better time for the Titans passing game to get in sync than this week?
“Being able to throw the football is going to be key for us for the rest of the year, just as it would be if Derrick was here,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “This team is going to try to have balance no matter what the situation is. Whether Derrick is back there or not, we are going to try to establish the run. That is our foundation and [we] build from there.
“When we do get opportunities in the pass game, we have to execute. We have to be able to get open on the outside, I have to hit them, and the offensive line has to be able to hold up.”
Tannehill has completed 70 percent of his passes in three consecutive games and thrown for 265 yards or more in two of them. Facing poor coverage corners such as Paulson Adebo, Marshon Lattimore and P.J. Williams, Tannehill could have a big day — and A.J. Brown and company could be the beneficiaries.
Why the Saints can win
New Orleans has the best run defense in the NFL, allowing just 73.8 yards per game. And it’s no secret that running the ball isn’t exactly Tennessee’s strong suit without Henry.
Last week, Peterson, Foreman and McNichols combined for just 69 yards rushing on 26 carries. And their collective 2.6 yards per carry average didn’t exactly inspire much confidence that the issue could be solved quickly.
Vrabel said more effective blocking is needed as a start to an improved Tennessee run game.
“Then trying to, again, get these running backs some speed behind the line. That was the challenge last week. The guys that are maybe blocking for them aren’t quite ready to go to be able to give them some full-speed reps in practice.
When asked if one running back will get the bulk of the carries, Vrabel said he does not know yet.
"I don’t think the body of work was enough," he said. "I don’t think we did enough offensively to determine that. We will kind of see here as we progress into the second week with having some new faces [in the backfield].”
If the Titans struggle to run the ball like they did last week against the Rams, the Saints defense should force plenty of three-and-outs and stymie Tennessee’s offense. To this point in the season, Tannehill and the receivers haven’t proved they can carry the offense alone in Henry’s absence.
Last week the Titans’ defense lent the offense a huge helping hand. And if Tennessee doesn't get the same contribution this week, a one-dimensional offense may not be enough to beat the Saints.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_