Titans lean on Henry to take AFC South lead
It all starts and ends with Derrick Henry. This team, this offense, and, heck, even this column. The fate of the Tennessee Titans rests on 22’s shoulders, and perhaps that’s just how it should be.
With first place in the AFC South hanging in the balance, the Titans traveled to Indianapolis and ran their way to a 45-26 victory. I hesitate to even call this a statement win, since a victory this dominant can only be capped off with an exclamation point.
Henry was sublime. Equal parts physically and mentally crushing to the Colts defensive front, he accounted for 140 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns in the first half alone, guiding the Titans to a 35-14 halftime lead that rendered the second half a formality.
While Henry’s supernatural performance is the obvious headline, this game also showed the type of team the Titans can be when they’re clicking on all three phases of the game. Following their embarrassing Week 10 loss against the Colts, which saw back-breaking gaffes on offense, defense, and special teams, the Titans played their most complete game of the season at the most important time.
Ryan Tannehill produced a solid game and played behind an offensive line that gave him as much time as they gave Henry rushing lanes. AJ Brown and Corey Davis combined for 168 yards, with Brown adding a stunning 69-yard touchdown in the first-half highlight reel. Geoff Swaim got involved in the passing game, too, hauling in all three of his targets for 30 yards.
After giving up two touchdowns on Indianapolis’s first two drives, the defense settled and held the Colts down long enough to let the offense extend their first-half lead.
Will Compton and David Long combined to replace Jayon Brown, with Compton being particularly aggressive and active. Physicality and effort are the greatest equalizer for lesser defensive talent, and Compton certainly brings that to a unit that lacked in both at times throughout the year.
Perhaps the defensive MVP of the game, though, was Harold Landry. It’s easy to be critical of Landry looking at sack numbers alone, and I’m guilty of that myself. However, perhaps he’s Shane Bowen’s saving grace. Landry is active all over the field, rarely misses a snap, and he might be the team’s most well-rounded defender. He had a sack on Sunday to cap off a great performance.
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The special teams nightmare that the Titans suffered two weeks ago became a distant memory the moment Brett Kern stepped on for the first of his 4 punts, all of which were placed within the 15-yard line and reminded fans of how important of a weapon the All-Pro is. Stephen Gostkowski was, as kickers ideally are, an afterthought in this game, scoring on his one field goal attempt and making all 6 of his extra points.
Even A.J. Brown got involved in the special teams fanfare. On the hands team for a Colts onside attempt, Brown caught the ball on a high bounce and waltzed untouched to the end zone for a return score.
It was the type of performance that Mike Vrabel has been preaching since his arrival in Tennessee, a physical three-phased tornado full of swapping punches before landing a haymaker. While impossible and impractical to expect such a dominant win every week, fans must appreciate it coming against a division rival and the remainder of the high level this team is capable of competing at.
The challenges do not stop for the Titans who, after disposing of Baltimore and Indianapolis in back to back weeks, will host the 8-3 Cleveland Browns on Sunday. We’re at the point of the season where consistency is key, and the anticipated highs and lows of a season must start plateauing. This was a convincing win against a thorn-in-our-side-opponent, but how the Titans respond to an emotional win may set the tone for the remainder of the season.
It’s easy to remember the 1-3 skid that followed the Titans overtime thriller against Houston, the last time they broke the 40-point threshold prior to yesterday. Suffering a similar setback at this point in the season may quickly dissipate their hopes for a division crown. A successful response, however, may lead this team into the January they hoped for. Playing playoff football and riding Henry as far as he’ll take them.