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Three benchings that changed the course of the Titans season

The Titans wouldn’t be in the playoff race without these three moves from Mike Vrabel.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

In every NFL season there are turning points for both teams and players. Sometimes they’re positive (Marcus Mariota shedding the glove and returning to full health after the bye week), sometimes they’re negative (the #ForTheBoys chest thumping following the Eagles game). The Titans have seen plenty of them in 2018, but I’d argue that none tell the story of how we arrived at the current version of the team better than the fallout from three benchings.

Week 6: Malcolm Butler is benched for Adoree’ Jackson

Malcolm Butler was the Titans crown jewel of their offseason free agency class, but his struggles early in the season are beyond well-documented. He was roasted for touchdowns by Kenny Stills, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, and Jordan Matthews within his first four weeks as a Titan and generally looked lost. By the time he got replaced in the starting lineup by Jackson, Butler had allowed 23 catches on 32 targets (71.9%) for 405 yards and 4 touchdowns in just five games. His passer rating allowed on throws in to his coverage was 140.6. He had allowed more yards than any corner in the NFL and the second most touchdowns (behind Marcus Peters). It was bad.

Baltimore Ravens v Tennessee Titans Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Since he became a part-time player — coming in on nickel packages at an outside corner spot with Logan Ryan bumping inside to cover the slot — he’s allowed 28 catches on 47 targets (59.6%) for 321 yards and 3 touchdowns. His passer rating allowed is 92.6. Those aren’t necessarily elite numbers, but they’re very good and they’re a massive leap better than what he did over the first five games.

There have been games when Butler has appeared to be the best defender on the field for the Titans — the Jets and Chargers games stand out to me — and that’s a big step forward from what we saw early in the year. With Logan Ryan’s season ending injury, Butler will be pressed back into a full time starting role. The Titans will be hoping that he continues to play at a high level with that workload, but I think it’s fair to wonder whether he would have broken out of his early season funk without the push from getting demoted by the coaching staff.

Week 8: Derrick Henry benched for Dion Lewis and possibly shopped at trade deadline

Derrick Henry was officially listed as a starter in Week 9 and Week 10, but that’s just a technicality because the Titans started both those games in a two-back set with both Henry and Dion Lewis on the field. In reality, Henry was most certainly demoted from an RB-1A/RB-1B situation to the clear RB2 behind Lewis when the Titans took the field in Dallas coming off their bye week. That demotion coincided with rumors that Henry was “made available” at the trade deadline.

Right or wrong, the team was clearly frustrated with him his snap counts reflect that. Prior to their Week 8 bye, Henry was pretty consistently getting the 40 end of a 60-40 snap split with Lewis. In the three weeks following the bye, that ratio changed to 75-25 in Lewis’ favor. While it wasn’t necessarily an out-and-out “benching”, it was a clear demotion.

That move seemed to wake something up inside of Henry though. In the seven games before the bye week, he had 273 yards on 84 carries for a 3.3 yards per carry average. Since the bye week, he’s gained 609 yards on 94 carries for a 6.5 yards per carry average. That’s nearly double the yards per carry since he got benched. Even if you remove the massive Jacksonville game, Henry is averaging a healthy 4.8 yards per carry since Week 9.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

To the coaching staff’s credit, they have also responded to Henry’s second half resurgence. After averaging a 75-25 snap split from Week 9 to Week 11, the Titans backfield has shifted to a 50-50 split from Week 12 to Week 15. Henry got 68% of the running back snaps against the Giants and I would expect him to continue to get a big workload over the next two weeks as the Titans push for the playoffs.

It’s probably not fair to pin 100% of Henry’s emergence on the extra motivation from being benched. Getting comfortable in the new zone blocking scheme is certainly a factor as is the fact that the offensive line has started to play better recently. However, it’s impossible to deny that Henry has looked more hungry since his demotion. There has been a clear uptick in the ferocity and urgency with which he carries the ball and I have to think that losing snaps and hearing trade rumors might have something to do with that.

Week 13: Quinton Spain benched for Corey Levin

This may have been the strangest benching of the three that we’re covering here because it seemed like the wrong player got benched even if the results afterwards were good. Quinton Spain has been one of the Titans three best linemen consistently all season and while he did struggle a little bit during the first half of Titans-Jets, he certainly wasn’t any worse than what we saw from Josh Kline, Ben Jones, or Jack Conklin at times in 2018. However, Spain was replaced in the starting lineup at halftime in that game as Ben Jones kicked over to left guard and Corey Levin came off the bench to play center.

Tennessee Titans v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The results since that point have been somewhat stunning though. The Titans were trailing the Jets 16-6 at halftime when the move was made, but came back to win 26-22 while producing 302 yards of second half offense. Spain would return to the lineup for the Jaguars and Giants games, but the line as a whole has performed at an entirely different level since he was temporarily benched.

Week 1 through halftime of Jets game:

  • Sacks allowed: 40 (rate of 3.5 per game)
  • PFF OL Pass Blocking Efficiency: 84.4 (19th)
  • Average yards per carry: 3.94
  • Rushing touchdowns: 7 (rate of 0.6 per game)

Since halftime of Jets game:

  • Sacks allowed: 4 (rate of 1.6 per game)
  • PFF OL Pass Blocking Efficiency: 91.7 (1st)
  • Average yards per carry: 6.37
  • Rushing touchdowns: 7 (rate of 2.8 per game)

Before we get too carried away here, there are a few things about these stats that have to be pointed out. First, the sample size since halftime of the Jets game is small and maybe influenced by level of opponent to some degree. Second, while there is little doubt that the line is creating more room for him, some credit is due to Derrick Henry’s improved play and increased opportunity for the bump in rushing efficiency over the last few weeks. Finally, it should be noted that Dennis Kelly coming in at right tackle midway through the Jacksonville game has been a net positive for the Titans.

Despite all of those qualifiers, I find it impossible to believe that a fire wasn’t lit under the entire offensive line — not just Spain himself — when they saw their teammate sat down for poor play. Since that moment, the Titans offensive line has been bullying their opponents and looking much more like the unit that was considered one of the NFL’s best in 2016. Whether this level of performance is here to stay or merely a temporary burst remains to be seen, but again, it certainly seems like a little extra motivation helped lift this group.

Nobody ever wants to think that motivation is a factor with professional athletes. Most fans will point to the giant paychecks or the fact that they’re getting to play a sport for a living as motivation enough, but money isn’t a motivator for everyone. In fact, most studies show that money is great for attracting and retaining employees, but not motivating them to perform at a high level. Professional sports aren’t exactly the same as desk jobs, but it’s important to remember that these are still jobs for these guys and sometimes a simple reminder that jobs — or snaps — aren’t guaranteed can go a long way towards getting the best out of your players. The Titans have three great examples to point to from 2018 and I’d argue that those decisions are a big part of why they’re still in the playoff race with two games to go.