Tennessee Titans: The Running Game is Not Good Anymore

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 16: DeMarco Murray /

The Tennessee Titans can’t run the ball well, which is a problem since their offense is based on and relies on an effective running game.

When “exotic smashmouth” became a thing, it was as a joke. The words uttered by new Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Mularkey to describe how he wanted his offense to run was taken by media members and turned into a bit of a laughingstock.

Following a year in which the Titans ranked third as a team in total rushing yards, fourth in yards per carry and 10th in rushing touchdowns, the media was no longer laughing at the Titans. They sported arguably the best offensive line in the league, a unit which blocked for two running backs that ripped off chunk gains on the ground often.

The effectiveness of the running game and the ability to control clock and tempo made life easier for QB Marcus Mariota and the passing offense, and it also kept a talent-deficient defense off the field for the majority of games. Going into the sophomore season of Mularkey and OC Terry Robiskie’s offense, nothing was expected to change much. The Titans were going to lean on their offensive line and running backs and be efficient through the air.

Somewhere along the lines, the plan went awry, and the entire offense is a shell of its 2016 self.

As it stands, the Titans are 12th in the league in rushing yards per game and second in total rushing touchdowns. They’re also 10th in yards per carry. Those numbers actually seem pretty good, right? On the surface they do, but let’s consider some facts here.

Mariota has contributed four of those rushing touchdowns. Delanie Walker also contributed one. Mariota’s 37 carries for 186 yards, Taywan Taylor’s six carries for 30 yards and Adoree’ Jackson’s five carries for 55 yards combine for 271 yards on 48 carries. That 5.65 yards per carry number to go along with those attempts drastically skew what would be a 3.98 yards per carry number if we only counted the running backs. That number would rank 23rd in the league.

Then there’s this sobering stat from Rotoworld’s Rich Hribar.

DeMarco Murray has been arguably the worst starting running back in the NFL this season, and the numbers are backing it up. He’s averaging 3.8 yards per carry and looks slower and less decisive than he ever has. Derrick Henry hasn’t exactly been a savior, as he’s below league average in percentage of runs to go 10+ yards. But at least he hasn’t been terrible, and his 4.4 yards per carry aren’t all that bad.

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The running backs have a lot to do with the lack of success on the ground, but the offensive line has taken a slight step back after being one of the most dominant units in the league last season. In 2016, the Titans ranked 13th in TFL% Value, which measures how many runs are going for zero or negative yards. That number was above league average. In 2017, the Titans have been average, ranking 15th in TFL% Value. That doesn’t seem like a huge drop-off, but the overall number value is worse. Couple that with the running backs not being as solid as they were a season ago, as well as a midseason injury to G Quinton Spain, and you have a recipe for regression.

What am I trying to accomplish with all of these stats? Nothing in particular. I just found it worthwhile to take a look at why the Titans have struggled, and continue to struggle, running the ball. The offensive line hasn’t been the same unit as it was last season, but it hasn’t been all that much different or worse. The running backs seem to be the main culprits. Murray and Henry both need to play better in order for the running game to get going.