Tennessee Titans Coach Mike Vrabel could not ignore the obvious one week ago. After yet another virtuoso performance by the 247-pound freight train that is Derrick Henry, bulldozing the Buffalo Bills on “Monday Night Football,” he admitted the team’s overreliance on its running back.
“We continue to jump on Derrick’s back,” Vrabel said, “and he’s willing and able to carry us.”
Yet we have also seen how far one player can take this Titans team: to the conference title game.
With their eyes on something greater, the Titans (5-2) acquired the seven-time Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones in June, but began the regular season with the same formula. Jones and A.J. Brown have not been healthy, the defense was getting gashed and quarterback Ryan Tannehill is not in anybody’s top 10. Through six games, Henry was again on a pace to set the N.F.L.’s season rushing record after falling 100 yards short in the 2020 season.
On Sunday, Tennessee dominated Kansas City, 27-3, in a statement game that announced the Titans as potential title contenders for one simple reason:
There’s more to the Tennessee Titans than Derrick Henry.
Henry is special, and any offense with any dreams of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy had better feature such a game wrecker.
But this win panned a magnifying glass over the rest of Tennessee’s roster, starting with the quarterback. Six of the other seven N.F.L. teams to produce a 2,000-yard running back had terrible to below average players under center. The 1973 Bills (Joe Ferguson), the 1984 Rams (Jeff Kemp), the 1997 Lions (Scott Mitchell), the 2003 Ravens (Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright), the 2009 Titans (Vince Young and Kerry Collins) and the 2012 Vikings (Christian Ponder) had minimal passing threats. Eventually, it didn’t matter how good Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson or any of those other backs were. Defenses loaded the box, and the rushers essentially rammed into brick walls.
The one exception in the 2,000-yard club, of course, was the Broncos’ Terrell Davis, who had a 38-year-old John Elway at quarterback to balance out Denver’s Super Bowl run in the 1998 season.
Against Kansas City, Tannehill proved again that he is no dink-and-dunk placeholder, completing 21 of 27 passes for 270 yards with a 105.3 passer rating.
This is the best receiving corps Tannehill has had in Tennessee, too. Brown and Jones, struggling through hamstring injuries to begin the season, are starting to exploit one-on-one coverage outside. On his 24-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter on Sunday, Brown boxed out Kansas City cornerback Mike Hughes and torqued his body around at the last moment. The drops that plagued Brown through September felt like a distant memory as he finished with eight catches on nine targets for 133 yards.
Jones isn’t close to 100 percent, but he proved with a circus catch against Buffalo that he is also not close to being finished. In all, Tannehill completed passes to nine different players against Kansas City (3-4).
These receivers will allow the Titans to follow some simple math. Opponents may load up the box to stop the 2,000-yard running back and Tannehill can make them pay through the air, turning games into breezy, backyard pitch-and-catch affairs.
The Henry Effect was also evident in the red zone in the second quarter. When Henry was stuffed on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Tannehill glided in on third down for an easy touchdown run off a fake pitch to Henry, and celebrated with an Air Jordan finger roll.
Getting over the hump will take one more ingredient, too. It was clear in its A.F.C. championship game loss to Kansas City two seasons ago that Tennessee, like every other team in the N.F.L., had no clue how to stop Patrick Mahomes. He made a mockery of the Titans’ defense then, prancing into the end zone on a too-easy, 27-yard touchdown run that will forever loop on Mahomes’s highlight reels.
Since then, however, the Titans reset their secondary and added a Mahomes antidote in the edge rusher Bud Dupree, whom the Titans signed to a five-year, $82.5 million deal this off-season. That’s the cost of finding a player who can single-handedly harass Mahomes and flip the momentum of a game.
Dupree tore an anterior cruciate ligament with the Steelers in December 2020, and admitted recently that he tried returning from surgery too soon. On Sunday, he was worth the investment.
With Tennessee leading, 7-0, midway through the first quarter on Sunday and Kansas City facing third-and-7 from midfield, Dupree embarrassed left tackle Orlando Brown, speeding around the two-time Pro Bowler to track down Mahomes for a strip sack that forced Kansas City to punt.
While this Titans offense cruises, the Chiefs are suddenly lost in 2021. Mahomes has had to play at a ridiculously extreme pace to keep Kansas City alive, and it is proving to be unsustainable. We now know the Chiefs’ defense is bad — really bad — but the 27-point deficit Mahomes faced at halftime was the largest in his career. He’s been part of the problem.
Mahomes, the 2018 most valuable player, threw an interception in his sixth straight game and Sunday’s contest ended in cruel fashion. On a final fourth-and-18, he was sandwiched between two Titans defenders. Jeffery Simmons, all 6 feet 4 inches and 305 pounds of him, went airborne over the top and caused Mahomes’s head to crank upward at an awkward angle. Mahomes cleared the concussion protocol, but, down, 27-3, Coach Andy Reid decided to keep him out of the game.
Trying to compensate for a sieve of a defense, Mahomes is now tied for the league lead in interceptions.
On the other sideline, Henry didn’t need to do much, thanks to help from the other Titans. Henry threw a touchdown pass out of the wildcat formation, and ran for only 89 yards on 29 tries (a 3.1 yards per carry average).
For one game, Henry was merely human, and the Titans were still dangerous.
The Bears are wandering aimlessly.
Chicago is the third-largest city in the country, which presumably is why the Bears are constantly put in prime time television slots, as CBS did by plugging Buccaneers-Bears in at 4 p.m. Eastern. That way the rest of America got to see the defending champions embarrass a franchise that continues to display zero direction.
This should come as no surprise to Bears ownership. Their team has beaten bad teams and been run out of the building by good teams for what feels like a generation.
While the McCaskey family provided General Manager Ryan Pace and Coach Matt Nagy one more chance to get the quarterback position right — and the duo were in the mix to acquire most of the available big names all off-season — Sunday’s 38-3 road loss to Tampa Bay exposed an organization pocked throughout with flaws.
Rookie Justin Fields played poorly, again, but the team’s problems are likely too deep-rooted for any quarterback to succeed. The quarterback Pace and Nagy truly coveted, Seattle’s Russell Wilson, probably would not have changed the outcome in this one. Bears receivers dropped passes. The offensive line cratered. The defense, supposedly a bright spot, was no match for Tampa Bay (6-1). The 35 points the Bears allowed in the first half is the most they’ve conceded in a first half since their loss to Green Bay on Nov. 9, 2014.
At the end of that season, when the Bears went 5-11, Chicago Coach Marc Trestman was fired. It looks doubtful that Pace and Nagy can keep their jobs into 2022.
Tampa Bay had four touchdown passes — including the 600th of Tom Brady’s career — in the first half. Chicago has had three all season.
Frustration among players and fans reached an apex Sunday.
As the blowout raged into the second half, Bears defensive tackle Bilal Nichols threw a right hook at Bucs’ lineman Ryan Jensen and was ejected. And when the fourth quarter began, many fans in attendance headed for the exits in droves because this game frankly wasn’t worth watching.
In truth, this team bottomed out in 2020 when Pace and Nagy started Nick Foles week-in and week-out for some reason and lost six straight. Wins over Houston, Minnesota and Jacksonville in Weeks 14, 15, and 16, however, allowed the Bears to sneak into the postseason at 8-8 and ownership trumpeted the virtues of continuity in bringing Pace and Nagy back.
That continuity, losing in prime time, will continue when the Bears play the Steelers on Monday Night Football in two weeks.
Quarterback’s no man’s land is a scary place.
Last off-season, several teams acted out of pure desperation at the most important position in football. The San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams threw away first-round picks to acquire new franchise quarterbacks the way Oprah Winfrey gave away cars.
Yet there were a few teams in win-now mode that took more half-baked approaches to the position. It cost the Carolina Panthers a mere pittance — a sixth-round pick in 2021 and second- and fourth-round picks in 2022 — for the former third overall pick Sam Darnold. The Washington Football Team signed Ryan Fitzpatrick and Taylor Heinicke on the cheap. Denver mortgaged little for Teddy Bridgewater.
Where has it left those teams? On the outside looking in.
Week 7 highlighted exactly why teams go for broke at quarterback in the spring. Trying to get by with B-minus talent does not fly.
Darnold continued to regress in a 25-3 loss to the Giants. Clearly affected by the lingering absence of running back Christian McCaffrey, the former Jet threw for a meager 111 yards and was benched. The Panthers have lost four straight.
Heinicke is fun to watch in Washington. A poor man’s version of the quarterback he idolized, Brett Favre, Heinicke sprints and dives all over the field and has come up with game-ending heroics this season. But against Green Bay, his limitations were exposed and his touchdown (and Lambeau Leap) was negated.
Bridgewater mustered only 14 points Thursday night against a stiff Browns defense and seemed benchable for Drew Lock.
Taking a big swing in the off-season doesn’t always pan out. We’ll know soon if Matthew Stafford can get the Rams over the hump, and it will take years to determine if the rookie Trey Lance was worth the heavy price in San Francisco. But such swings at least give their teams a chance.
Around the N.F.L.
Raiders 33, Eagles 22: Right when it looked like Derek Carr had plateaued, he completed 31 of 34 passes for 323 yards with two touchdowns. A remarkable seven different players caught at least three passes, despite Las Vegas playing without running back Josh Jacobs and tight end Darren Waller. While Kansas City has nosedived in the A.F.C. West, the Raiders have rolled to the top of the division.
Cardinals 31, Texans 5: The Cardinals technically did not need another receiving threat but upgraded anyway last week, adding tight end Zach Ertz, who caught three passes for 66 yards with one touchdown in his first game with Arizona. Ertz out-raced three defensive backs to the end zone on the score.
Rams 28, Lions 19: A fake punt provided Detroit some hope. On fourth-and-8 in the third quarter, Lions Coach Dan Campbell rolled the dice, the Lions converted and dreams of a colossal upset seemed real. That drive ended without a score, though, and the discrepancy in talent eventually caught up with Detroit. Matthew Stafford’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp at the start of the fourth quarter proved to be the difference. Lions quarterback Jared Goff wasn’t bad in his return to Los Angeles, but threw an interception in the red zone to cornerback Jalen Ramsey with five minutes left.
Bengals 41, Ravens 17: It’s official. The Bengals are for real. Against the same defense that stifled Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert one week ago, Joe Burrow threw for 416 yards and three touchdowns. Nearly half of that production (201 yards) went to his former college teammate, Ja’Marr Chase. This connection alone should scare everyone else in the A.F.C.
Packers 24, Washington Football Team 10: Who says Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have weapons? Wide receiver Allen Lazard and tight end Robert Tonyan combined for 123 yards and two touchdowns, and Green Bay cruised with ease at home.
Falcons 30, Dolphins 28: Miami suffered another heartbreaker, losing on a walk-off field goal. Tua Tagovailoa’s two interceptions did nothing to silence the Deshaun Watson trade rumors.
Patriots 54, Jets 13: Dates with the N.F.L.’s worst teams always seem to come at the right time for Bill Belichick’s club. After another devastating loss, the Patriots faced the hapless Jets and rolled to 31 first downs and 551 total yards. New England did not turn the ball over and punted once.
Giants 25, Panthers 3: After tearing through the soft part of their schedule early, the Panthers have come crashing back to earth. This is about as pathetic as it gets on offense in today’s N.F.L. Sam Darnold averaged 4.4 yards per pass attempt, Chuba Hubbard averaged 2.3 yards per carry and Carolina converted 2 of 15 on third downs. Against, uh, the Giants.