This is continued from Part One.
Weeks 9 - 13
Over the next month, Mariota would go on to take full advantage of the attention the run game was drawing. After riding DeMarco Murray for the first half of the season, the Titans started to lean on Mariota to lead the offense, and he responded by winning the AFC Offensive Player of the Month award for the four games in November.
Marcus Mariota is the AFC Offensive Player of the Month: https://t.co/DEN2IskO0U#TitanUp pic.twitter.com/dPr1AqBEg9— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) December 1, 2016
In Week 10 against the Packers, Marcus Mariota had a stellar performance, throwing for 295 yards on just 26 pass attempts with 4 touchdowns and zero turnovers for a near-perfect QB rating of 149.8.
But it was again DeMarco Murray who got the ball rolling for the Titans offense and opened things up for the passing game. With the defense so focused on stopping the rushing attack (including the threat of Mariota), the Packers set up consistently in single-high man-to-man coverage, and Mariota was able to use pre-snap reads to decide whether to run or pass, and which area of the field to attack, based on match-up advantages, counting the number of blockers vs. the number of defenders.
As I wrote shortly before Week 10 when discussing how the Titans should attack the Packers defense:
Playing a single-high free safety man-to-man coverage is designed to stop the run but take away the chance for a home run play. However, when the run game is working early against this kind of defense, it opens up the passing game, and makes the defense especially vulnerable to play-action fakes.
DeMarco Murray ran for a 75-yard touchdown on the Titans’ first play from scrimmage.
On the Titans next possession, the Titans got downfield quickly with a 42-yard strike to Delanie Walker, made easy by a play-action fake to Murray. A few plays later, Murray himself threw a touchdown pass to Walker.
Mariota played extremely well against the Packers and I don’t mean to take anything away from his performance. But I also feel it necessary to highlight the important role DeMarco Murray played in the success of the Titans’ offense.
Though the Packers did reign in the Titans’ rushing attack after the long touchdown, Green Bay’s focus on stopping DeMarco Murray meant lots of loaded boxes, and even resulted in a completely blown coverage on Tajae Sharpe’s long touchdown when the cornerback covering him was distracted by Murray leaking out of the backfield.
Murray accumulated 166 total yards and two total touchdowns in Week 10 to go along with Mariota’s excellent stat line in bringing the Titans record back to even at 5-5.
Murray’s outstanding performance included this one-handed catch on a 3rd-and-3 in the 2nd quarter to keep the pressure on the Packers:
The next game against Indianapolis in Week 11 was another heartbreaking defeat.
The Colts defense was not going to let Murray run all over them again. They frequently loaded the box with 9, 10, even 11 defenders, daring the Titans to throw over the top.
The Titans were able to take advantage and even scored a 34-yard touchdown off a play-action fake that allowed Tajae Sharpe to run straight past Vontae Davis.
Murray’s failure to convert a 4th-and-1 was about the only play he failed to make all season long. At this point in the year, Murray was 9/12 converting attempts on 3rd or 4th down with either 1 or 2 yards to gain.
But Murray made a mistake on this play when he tried to bounce it outside and run through a player, rather than the hole, to gain the first. Instead of following the block set up inside by Matthews, Murray attacked the edge, where he was stonewalled by Colts safety Clayton Geathers.
Perhaps Murray had trouble planting and exploding off of his injured toe, preventing him from reaching the first-down marker, or perhaps the Colts’ defenders simply made a better play.
Regardless, the Titans were swept by the Colts for the fifth consecutive year. The saddest part is that the Titans had already picked up this first down on a Mariota run to the 7-yard line, but the play was called back on a weak holding penalty against Anthony Fasano.
This penalty effectively cost the Titans the game, as it completely stalled the offense in the midst of a potential game-tying drive, and three plays later was the failed fourth-down attempt. Aspiring playoff teams can’t make those kinds of mistakes.
Murray finished the game with just 70 yards on 21 carries, good for only 3.3 yards per attempt.
After the game, Murray’s abilities in short-yardage were questioned. The numbers didn’t matter; through 11 games, Murray was 9/13 converting short yardage opportunities, a conversion percentage of 69.2%. Henry was 3/5, a 60% conversion rate. Nonetheless, fans wanted to see more Derrick Henry.
One final #Titans thought there is no excuse for Derrick Henry not to be on the field in short yardage/GL situations especially on 3rd down!— Jonathan (@JonathanVolsFan) November 27, 2016
It wasn’t just the fans. In the post-game press conference, media members asked Mularkey about such questions, as Jim Wyatt reported:
Mularkey said the @Titans have discussed using @KingHenry_2 more in short yardage situations— Jim Wyatt (@jwyattsports) November 28, 2016
Murray’s struggles continued the next week against Chicago, as he carried 17 times for just 43 yards. Many wondered if his toe was perhaps bothering him too much. Were the Titans overworking an injured player?
Although the Titans were able to beat the Bears, the rushing attack struggled when the Titans tried to lean on the ground game to run out the clock and prevent the Bears’ comeback. The Titans nearly blew the game, and would’ve, if not for a dropped pass by a wide open Bears’ wide receiver, Josh Bellamy, in the end zone.
The bye week could not have come at a better time, giving the Titans an opportunity to rest up over Week 13 and prepare for the final month of the season.
Weeks 14 and 15
Perhaps the toughest stretch on the Titans schedule was the back-to-back matchups with AFC West opponents, the Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Titans didn’t shy away from the run game, or from DeMarco Murray. By halftime, the team had run 26 times for 138 yards. Murray was gashing the soft Denver run defense, carrying a struggling passing attack on a day where Mariota completed just 6/20 passes against the NFL’s best passing defense.
The Titans continued to ride Murray in the second half, using his legs to ice the game away. And Murray delivered.
He finished the game with 92 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, good for 4.4 yards per attempt. Henry had 42 yards of his own on 12 carries, but only averaged 3.5 yards per rush.
The next game was critical to the Titans season. Beat the Chiefs at Arrowhead, and the Titans would control their own playoff destiny.
The temperature at kickoff was a shocking 1 degree with a wind chill of minus-19, making it the coldest game in Kansas City since the franchise began keeping records in 1994. The conditions would favor whomever emerged as the tougher, more-physical team.
It was tough-sledding for the Titans early, as the Chiefs jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead after a 68-yard Tyreek Hill touchdown run. The Titans drove down the field, ready to respond, but Rishard Matthews was stripped inside the Chiefs ten-yard line and the Titans lost possession.
Down 17-7 as the 4th quarter started, the Titans didn’t abandon the run, instead allowing DeMarco Murray to do what he had done all season: grind the Titans back in the game.
Murray helped lead the Titans from behind with tough runs in the frigid cold, including two crucial short-yardage 3rd-down conversions on a drive that cut the Chiefs’ lead to 17-10, directly addressing the questions about Murray’s ability to convert in these situations.
The Titans defense got a much-needed stop, forcing a punt with just under eight minutes to play.
The Titans started the next drive with a 12-yard shovel pass to Murray, continuing the momentum from the previous possession. As the Titans approached the end zone still needing a touchdown, an incomplete pass on 3rd-and-5 set up the biggest snap so far of the 2016 season.
4th-and-5 from the Chiefs 16-yard line, under four-minutes to play with no timeouts left. Mariota placed his trust in the Titans most consistent and valuable player on the most important play of the season.
Murray was ruled out of bounds inside the one-yard line, and Derrick Henry punched it into the end zone on the next play. The Titans went on to win the game on Ryan Succop’s miraculous field goal after one of the worst two-point conversion attempts imaginable - from the decision to go for two, to the questionable playcall (Harry Douglas was the first read), and finally the pathetic execution (Mariota struggled to find an open target and was tackled as he threw the ball in the turf).
Weeks 16 and 17
Having reviewed the Titans’ 2016 season multiple times, I’m compelled to compare the feeling to that of riding a familiar roller coaster; although I know exactly when the ups and downs are coming, the steep drops still make my stomach churn...
The Titans had a chance to make the playoffs. All they had to do was beat the third-worst team in the league, a team they had already embarrassed once that season, a team so bad they had just fired their head coach...
The Titans came out aggressive - maybe too aggressive.
After two punts, the Titans had thrown 7 pass attempts compared to just 3 runs.
The Titans got the ball back trailing 10-0 and returned to their bread-and-butter, once again feeding DeMarco Murray.
Murray carried the Titans down to the three-yard line before Mariota found Matthews for his final touchdown pass of the season.
But after the Jaguars scored again on their following possession, the Titans again tried to attack through the air, failing to pick up more than two first downs before Mariota’s disastrous injury.
The freak accident essentially ended the Titans’ season. An inspired Jaguars team, playing motivated for their recently-appointed interim head coach, marched up and down the field on the Titans defense while stifling the passing offense.
Week 17 was a meaningless game played by backups. Murray played a season-low 33 snaps and recorded just one carry, on which he lost two yards.
Though meaningless in the standings, the win over the Texans certainly meant something to the Titans’ players and coaches in that it decided whether the team had a “mediocre” or a “winning” season. In fact, it was the Titans first winning season since Mike Munchak’s first year as head coach in 2011.
DeMarco Murray far exceeded all expectations as a Tennessee Titan.
He won the AFC rushing title and joined four teammates in the 2017 Pro Bowl.
His final statistics on the season: 293 carries, 1,287 yards (4.4 YPA), 9 rushing touchdowns; 53 receptions, 377 yards (7.1 YPC), 3 receiving touchdowns; 1/2 passing, 10 yards, 1 passing touchdown.
What keeps Murray on the field on third down in addition to his receiving ability is his pass blocking prowess. ProFootballFocus, which can sometimes provide an interesting perspective, so to speak, rated Murray highly as a pass-blocker:
Top pass-blocking grades among RBs:— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 21, 2016
1. Jonathan Stewart, 87.0
2. DeMarco Murray, 85.1
3. Robert Turbin, 84.2
4. Latavius Murray, 82.4 pic.twitter.com/vDPkQK0o8K
Mike Mularkey and Terry Robiskie crafted an offense that perfectly fit the strengths and running style for DeMarco Murray to seamlessly become the Titans’ lead back.
Murray was instrumental in comebacks vs DET and KC, and key in building leads vs MINN, MIA, CLE, JAX (W8), GB, CHI, and DEN.— Titans Film Room (@titansfilmroom) July 9, 2017
In addition to the games mentioned in the above Tweet, Murray helped lead comebacks against Oakland, Houston, and Indianapolis, as well, but the team was unable to pull out victories in those games.
Marcus Mariota had an impressive 2016 campaign, and I have no doubt that he will continue to ascend into one of the league’s top signal-callers, but there is an equal lack of doubt in my mind that DeMarco Murray was the Titans’ 2016 Most Valuable Player on offense.
His importance to the team, as a locker room presence, as an example in practice, and most importantly, as a tone-setter on the field, cannot be overstated.
A year ago today I made one of the best decisions of my Football Career and became a Tennessee Titan... We have improved on a consistent basis but know as a team that our brightest days are ahead of us and the best is yet to come! I'm grateful to be part of the resurgence of this City and it's Football! Thanks to all the fans who made it possible to have fun again! #TitanUp #GATA