The Tennessee Titans’ offensive struggles the first two months of the season was arguably the worst kept secret in all of football.
Multiple injuries to key offensive players stunted the team’s growth early on, so the fan’s ire was pointed at two healthy players that were counted on to be heavy contributors…but were producing far below their lofty draft statuses.
Running back Derrick Henry and tight end Jonnu Smith.
Both were drafted to be the heir apparent to players with Pro Bowl skins on the wall.
Henry was taken in the second round of the 2016 draft to ultimately take the reins from incumbent starter DeMarco Murray…who led the AFC in rushing Henry’s rookie year.
Smith was taken in the third round of the 2017 draft to one day replace Delanie Walker, the ageless three-time Pro Bowler and 2018 Pro Bowl MVP.
Both had clear paths to success when Murray was let go this spring, and Walker was lost for the year in the regular season opener.
And both struggled in their respective roles as lead man, combining for zero touchdowns through mid-October.
While it’s unfair to place the team’s early offensive struggles solely at their feet, it is fair to call them part of the problem and not the solution during that span.
The last two weeks, however, the Titans have looked like a completely different team offensively. They look efficient and balanced while averaging 31 points per game.
That’s more than double their season average.
And call it a coincidence, but the team’s scoring surge is in lock step with the sudden offensive surges of Henry and Smith, albeit in reduced roles.
After struggling to find cohesiveness with the running back by committee approach, head coach Mike Vrabel and his staff elected to promote Dion Lewis to the feature back role in Dallas two games ago, relegating Henry to the back up.
Henry has responded well in his reduced role, averaging 5 yards per carry (nearly double his season average) while scoring three touchdowns the last two games. The demotion must have lit a fire under the mammoth Floridian, as he is now running with the purpose and physicality reserved for a man his size.
New England had no answer for Henry when he was on the field Sunday. He gashed the Patriots defense in spot duty and sealed the deal with a physical series late in the fourth quarter. One in which he capped off with a waltz-in touchdown from the wildcat formation.
The true definition of a closer.
Smith’s inconsistency forced the Titans to promote Anthony Firsker from the practice squad, and he has responded well with timely catches.
Like Henry, the writing on the wall must have awaken the freakishly athletic Smith who saw himself on the outside of the game plan looking in.
In a reduced role himself, Smith has made a huge impact the last two weeks, hauling in all five of his targets while scoring two touchdowns. His 16 yards per catch the last two games reminds the front office of why he was drafted in the first place, to stretch the field and create mismatches in the redzone. (Both were redzone tds).
While notable names like Marcus Mariota, Corey Davis, and Kevin Byard have stolen the headlines during the Titans’ impressive two-game stretch, it was Henry and Smith that quietly accounted for 5 of Tennessee’s 8 touchdowns.
It took some time and some anguish, but it appears the Titans are finally getting a return on their investments with Henry and Smith.