The Tennessee Titans finished with 2,187 rushing yards in 2016, the third best total in the league. The NFL record for team rushing yards in a season is 3,165, set by the New England Patriots in 1978.
If things fall their way then the Titans could find themselves with a realistic shot to break the 39-year-old record this season.
And here’s why.
The offensive line should be even better in 2017
Tennessee’s o’line was arguably the most productive and consistent position on the team last season, and all five starters return this year. All Pro right tackle Jack Conklin should improve in his second year, as should his veteran Pro Bowl bookend on the left side in Taylor Lewan…who is rapidly approaching a contract extension and huge payday. Center Ben Jones should be more comfortable in his second year in Tennessee’s system, and the chemistry and confidence with this unit should make the bigs up front even better in 2017.
The lead dog is back
DeMarco Murray, the reigning AFC rushing leader, returns to defend his crown after rushing for 1,287 yards in 2016. The Titans will likely spare Murray the boring details of the preseason, keeping the soon to be 29-year-old workhorse back fresh for the long haul. A slow start prevented Murray from possibly leading the entire league in rushing last season, but that shouldn’t be the case this year as the Titans’ smash mouth identity is now firmly entrenched and clicking on all cylinders.
The backup is no backup at all
Not only did the Titans boast the AFC’s leading rusher in 2016, but their back up could actually start for 20-25 teams this season. While Murray took the lion’s share of the carries last year, Derrick Henry still amassed nearly 500 yards rushing at just under five yards per carry as a rookie. And as hard as it is to imagine, Henry reported to camp this season even bigger, stronger, and faster than he was last season.
The former Heisman winner has also been unstoppable while filling in for Murray the last week of training camp, so you have to figure that coach Mike Mularkey will find ways to get Henry more touches in 2017. And if the split is closer to 50/50 between Thunder & Thunder this season then Tennessee could reasonably boast two 1,200 plus yard backs in 2017.
More weapons on the outside
What makes the Titans’ success at running the ball last season even more impressive is the fact that opposing defenses didn’t fear the receivers on the outside, so they stacked extra players in the box.
With the addition of receivers Corey Davis, Eric Decker, and Taywan Taylor, simply stacking the box could cost teams dearly this year. As a result, Murray and Henry should see fewer defenders at the line of scrimmage. And that should lead to more explosive plays in the run game.
Nine of the Titans’ sixteen opponents finished in the bottom half of the league in run defense last season (Los Angeles Rams – 16, Jacksonville twice – 19, Oakland – 23, Indianapolis twice – 25, Miami – 30, Cleveland – 31, San Francisco – 32).
It will take more than great seasons from Thunder & Thunder to eclipse the 78 Patriots, breaking this team record will take a team effort. Luckily for the Titans they have a quarterback in Marcus Mariota (600 plus career rushing yards) that can beat you with his legs. They also have an array of speedy new weapons in Adoree’ Jackson, Taywan Taylor, and Khalfrani Muhammad that can tack on hidden yardage via the exotic play packages (reverses and gadget plays).
Last but not least, the overall roster has improved to a point where the offense should be able to put up more points while the defense holds their opponents to fewer points. This will allow the Titans to take the air out of the ball in the second half of games to protect leads, something they were unable to do on a consistent basis last season.
If everything falls into place then Tennessee’s 2017 rushing offense could be one for the record books.