Titans and Colts look to get stars RB Henry and Taylor on track – Tennessee Titans Blog
It’s been three years since a running back not named Jonathan Taylor or Derrick Henry won the NFL running title. In three games, neither is the best rusher in the NFL.
But the two top-flight backs will be front and center Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium (1 p.m. ET, Fox) when Henry and the Tennessee Titans (1-2) hit the road to face Taylor’s Indianapolis Colts (1 -1-1) in a game where both superstars will look to kick off their seasons, albeit in different ways.
Taylor’s 1,811 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns last season were the most in the league. This season, Taylor has 286 rushing yards in three games, fourth among league leaders.
But there’s context in the numbers that suggest Taylor, now in his third season, isn’t enjoying the same kind of success as he did in 2021. After a big showing in Week 1 against the Houston Texans (161 yards), Taylor was restricted by the Jacksonville Jaguars and Kansas City Chiefs. Against the Chiefs, Taylor’s paltry (by his standards) 3.38 yards per carry was his lowest since the 2021 season opener. And, after averaging just over a touchdown per game the season last, Taylor has just one touchdown.
Can the Colts, who have had surprising offensive line struggles, entice Taylor into this critical AFC South game?
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“Jonathan is a great guard, but it’s tough when you have a free hitter coming in,” Colts All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson said. “And that falls on us and also on tight ends when they are blocked. But it’s mostly on the line. We need to step it up. We know that.”
In its last two games, the Indianapolis offensive line ranked 28th in ESPN’s run block win rate. Colts coach Frank Reich added that Taylor’s now well-established reputation is attracting more attention from opponents.
“Every defense that lines up against our offense, all eyes are on Jonathan Taylor,” Reich said. “It’s just going to bring a different level of focus.”
As for Henry, his 192 rushing yards so far has a lot to do with being constantly tagged on or behind the line of scrimmage.
This year’s offensive line for the Titans is different from previous seasons. Freshman starter Aaron Brewer replaced 2021 Pro Bowl selection Rodger Saffold at left guard. Rookie Nicholas Petit-Frère is now the starting right tackle.
Tennessee is also without left tackle Taylor Lewan after suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 2 against the Buffalo Bills.
Henry has been hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 27 runs this season (11 times in Weeks 1 and 3). That’s 50% of his runs this season. He’s averaging 6.6 yards per carry when untouched or behind the line of scrimmage this season.
“He wants to get down,” Colts linebacker Zaire Franklin said of Henry. “He’s a single-cut runner who wants to put his foot in the ground, so the best thing to do is run him east-west.”
Tennessee running backs coach Tony Dews said it’s not all about the offensive line.
“The back helps set up the blocks for the offensive linemen,” Dews said of how his running backs set up the running game. “We have to make sure we’re doing everything right, we’re in the right place. This will help offensive linemen.
“[The backs] just have to be where we’re supposed to be.”
Henry has made his mark over the years by gaining yards after contact.
Last week’s game was a good sign that Henry is approaching a breakout performance. Of his 85 rushing yards, 65 of them came after contact against the Las Vegas Raiders. Henry had 71 yards after contact in the first two games.
“He was running hard. I think he’s the Derrick we all know and love,” Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “The guy who breaks tackles, runs through tackles, gets those tough yards. It’s good to see Derrick back.”
Henry has traditionally done well against Indianapolis. In fact, four of his last six games against the Colts have resulted in more than 100 rushing yards, but he expects a major challenge on Sunday.
“They always play hard,” Henry said of the Colts defense. “They are fast, physical, disruptive. They’re going to fly to the ball no matter where it is, so you have to play hard.
Indianapolis has allowed just 231 rushing yards in three games, third-fewest in the league. The Colts are giving up a record 2.6 yards per carry.
Henry’s 1,540 rushing yards led all rushers in 2019. But he averaged just 70 yards per game in the first three games that year. Note that Henry has already eclipsed 70 yards twice this year.
Henry continued his 2019 season with a league-leading 2,025 yards in 2020. He was poised to lead the NFL again in 2021 before suffering a Jones fracture in his right foot (against the Colts no less) that ended its regular season eight games. He was the NFL’s rushing leader with 937 yards at the time and still finished 10th.
Both Henry and Taylor are great explosive fullbacks. Henry’s 10 touchdowns from 30 or more yards are the most in the NFL in the last five seasons. They played a big role in balancing some of the races for a loss.
“We were close to a couple last week,” Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing said. “It’s just a matter of finishing those blocks – that last push, last push – and we’ll propel him into the secondary.”
A promising indicator for Taylor on Sunday would be a return to his explosive runs. He leads the NFL with 93 such carries (10 or more yards) since entering the league. Last season alone, he had 50, including rushes for 67, 78 and 83 yards. Taylor has just three explosive runs combined over the past two games.
“Those are always fun,” Taylor said of the explosive plays. “But it’s the NFL. These are far and few. When you get them, you have to make them count.
Taylor was hit early and often by defenders against Kansas City, which made it difficult to break away. His 1.05 yards before contact was the fourth-lowest mark of his career (35 games). There have also been missed opportunities for Taylor due to second- and third-level blocks that went unexecuted by tight ends and receivers, the Colts say.
“I think we’re definitely a big part of that, the explosive runs,” rookie receiver Alec Pierce said. “Our down block will turn those 10-yard runs into 60-yard touchdowns, or it could turn a shorter run into a 15-yard gain.”
Taylor has never rushed for 100 yards in his three previous meetings with Tennessee. But Tennessee enters the game ranked last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per rush (5.8). New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley completed a 68-yard rush against the Titans in Week 1 — the second-longest rush in the NFL this season.
Ultimately, both teams rely on their running backs to lead them, and this AFC South clash could come down to who has a better day running the ball.