While the Titans have won three straight, that doesn’t mean they are without problems. These days the run game doesn’t matter as much as it used to, but it hasn’t been able to get going in Tennessee. The logical explanation might be that the Titans have faced defensive lines such as the Eagles and Jaguars, two of the best in football, and the injuries to the tackles haven’t helped either.
Still, on the ground, it hasn’t been a successful year for Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis, who are averaging a combined 32 yards per carry. It’s a bigger issue for Henry because he’s a liability in the passing game, only putting up 12 yards on 3 receptions. Lewis, on the other hand, is a much more reliable option in the passing game, and is coming off a 9-catch, 66-yard day against the Eagles.
This is no longer a rushing league; Things have changed. When your team is trailing, you need to pass the ball, making Dion Lewis a much better fit for today’s NFL than Derrick Henry. Does that mean Tennessee should pull the plug on the Henry experiment and trade him? Not necessarily—not yet anyway—but Lewis, to me, should be getting more touches in this offense.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were able to thrive together in 2016 (when LaFleur was an assistant with the Falcons) because both brought a lot to the passing game. To this point, Henry has brought nothing as a receiving back, while Lewis has been able to do that.
Lewis’ quickness and shiftiness are massive for what Matt LaFleur wants to run. Here, Lewis is able to use his size and agility to make a 2nd and 12 turn into a 3rd and 1. Whereas the Eagles’ defense would crowd players in the box because they would know if a handoff to Henry was happening, Lewis’ versatility allows him to be schemed in the backfield, in the slot, or outside.
Late in third quarter, the Titans trailed 17-3 when facing a 2nd and 22. This 17-yard play from Lewis was one of the biggest of the day; He’s one of the toughest backs to tackle due to his size and pad level, and spins by an ankle tackle to create 17 yards and give the Titans offense a much more manageable 3rd and 5. This was important because on the next play Marcus Mariota converted the first down on a 16-yard pass to Tajae Sharpe.
You don’t call Henry in on these plays unless you want to get some chunk yardage. Sure, Lewis got chuck yardage here, if by “chunk” you mean 17 of the 22 yards needed to convert a first down on 2nd and 22. You want Lewis over Henry in moments where the team is trailing because of his superior receiving ability.
Finally, let’s not forget the most important play of the entire game. 4th and, head coach Mike Vrabel can elect to play for the tie and kick a field goal with less than 1:20 left, or he can go for the win and convert the 4th down. Vrabel chooses wisely and picks the latter option, and LaFleur puts Lewis in the driver’s seat.
First of all, this is a phenomenal, gutsy call from Vrabel that has no doubt earned him well deserved praise and has made him a possible candidate for Coach of the Year. Second, plays like this show you how much the Titans respect Lewis in these situations. While getting the first down itself was easy, it’s what he does after that makes it count. Lewis spins and breaks by a tackler while using blockers to pick up even more than a simple first down conversion.
Eventually, this set up the game winning touchdown from Mariota to Corey Davis.
While the backfield has faced some tough tests, one thing remains clear: Dion Lewis is the better player than Derrick Henry. Henry is a big, powerful back with an excellent cutback ability, but as a receiver he adds little and has yet to impress this season outside of a certain touchdown run that was called back due to holding. Lewis has also had his issues as a runner, but his receiving ability has not disappointed.
Henry certainly offers value late in the game with the lead, but very little when Tennessee is trailing. Whether leading or trailing, Dion Lewis adds value. The Titans model their offense on a quick scheme that favors yards after the catch, and there’s little doubt that Lewis fits that mold perfectly. And yet, it feels like he’s not getting the ball as much as he should.
I’ve said in the past that Lewis is a game changer for the Titans offense, and he has been this season. Eventually the coaching staff should recognize who the more reliable player is and use both in the situations that put them at their best. Henry should be used to pound the rock in the red zone and late in the game with the lead, while Lewis needs to be featured on all three downs more prominently.
In short, feed Dion Lewis.