The Titans struggles on the offensive side of the ball in 2017 have been well-documented at this point. Year 2 of Exotic Smashmouth saw a significant drop statistically across the board from its 2016 version, but the sudden decline of DeMarco Murray may have been the most drastic.
2016: 293 carries for 1,287 yards rushing (4.4 yards per carry), 53 catches on 67 targets for 377 yards receiving (7.1 yards per catch), 12 total touchdowns
2017: 184 carries for 659 yards rushing (3.6 yards per carry), 39 catches on 47 targets for 266 yards receiving (6.8 yards per catch), 7 total touchdowns
Derrick Henry picked up some of the slack, producing a 4.2 yards per carry average on 176 carries and consistently looking like the more dangerous back. Yes, Murray dealt with a nagging hamstring injury for much of the year — who didn’t on this roster? — but even when he was healthy he was often ineffective. Murray’s age, contract situation, and 2017 performance left the Titans with a pretty easy decision to move on from the veteran back this offseason. Rather than adding a complementary back through the draft, the Titans opted to address the position by signing one of the best veteran backs on the free agent market in Dion Lewis.
A 5th round pick by the Eagles in the 2011 NFL Draft, Lewis’ career has taken a winding road to Tennessee. An assortment of talented teammates, injuries, and dumb front offices kept him off the field for a good part of his 7 years in the league, but every time he’s gotten on it, he’s been highly effective. Since 2011, only 3 backs with at least 300 carries have averaged more yards per carry than Lewis’ 4.81.
I expect Lewis to immediately be a huge upgrade over Murray. In 2017, Lewis turned 11 fewer touches in to 185 more yards from scrimmage compared to Murray. Lewis’ 5.0 yards per carry average was 2nd in the NFL behind Alvin Kamara (minimum 6.25 carries per game) and a full 1.4 yards per carry more than Murray’s 3.6. When you dig in to more advanced stats, the gap between the two becomes even wider.
PFF’s Elusiveness Rating — which essentially is a measure of how many missed tackles a ball carrier forces per touch — had Lewis ranked 3rd in the NFL with a rating of 73.2 among backs with at least 90 total touches. Henry finished a very strong 9th in the league with a rating of 60.5, while Murray was 42nd out of 53 qualifying backs at 31.8.
Football Outsiders also gives some good breakdowns of effectiveness. One of my favorite metrics is Success Rate which measures the percentage of handoffs where a back gained enough yards for the play to be considered a success for the offense — generally 40% of the yards to gain on 1st down, 60% on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd down. Lewis finished 4th in the NFL with a 55% success rate among backs with at least 100 carries. Henry ranked 15th with a 48% success rate and Murray checked in a dreadful 43rd out of 47 with only 39% of his carries qualifying as a success.
Lewis has been an efficiency metric darling every year that he’s been in the NFL. If he’s on the field, good things are usually happening for the offense.
But enough about stats — even though they are very very good stats — let’s look at what Lewis does on the field to create those numbers as well as some educated guesses at how he might be used in the Titans offense this year.
First, don’t let Lewis’ size fool you in to thinking he’s something that he’s not. At 5’-8” tall and 195 pounds, he’s a true 3-down back, capable of running between the tackles, pass blocking, and catching the ball out of the backfield. This is not just a 3rd down back. He runs with a lot of physicality and isn’t shy about taking on linebackers in the hole. Lewis should — and likely will — get plenty of work on 1st and 2nd downs as part of a rotation with Derrick Henry.
Let’s take a look at some examples of Lewis’ physicality and ability to run between the tackles. This was one of my favorite runs from Lewis in 2017. He gets a nice hole to start with, but then slips through the tackle attempt from Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones before continuing to weave his way downfield and finishing the run strong.
When I watch players I’ll clip plays and write notes about the play so that I can remember what happened. Usually my notes include a few specific traits that the player demonstrated in the play. When I did this for Lewis almost every run had the same three words: “sudden”, “balance”, “finish”. I don’t know that Lewis’ top end speed is anything special, but he’s got elite burst and quickness in short spaces. You can see that clearly here. Watch the burst each time he changes direction. You can also see the balance and finish on this one as he’s first contacted by the defenders around the 18 yard line, but powers through to pick up 9 extra yards.
I absolutely love this next run. First you have the cut up field, then he runs through two tackles, bounces outside, then “Barry Churches” Jordan Poyer on the sideline before finally getting run out of bounds. Lewis is so deceptive for defenders. He’s far stronger than he looks and it feels like defenders are consistently surprised by it.
Here’s another example of his strength as he’s contacted by two defensive linemen in the backfield, but runs through it before nearly escaping another tackle on the second level.
Here again, we’re back to those three words: sudden, balance, finish. He presses the hole, pulls a lightning quick jump cut, runs through two tackle attempts, and then finishes fighting for extra yards.
Lewis’ skill set fits well with the Titans new zone blocking-heavy run scheme. In fact, I think the NFL player that he most resembles stylistically is Falcons running back Devonta Freeman who crossed paths with both Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur and Titans offensive line coach Keith Carter during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Here’s an example of him running outside zone. Lewis’ size and quickness allows him to take advantage of microscopic holes and seams in the defense. There isn’t a ton of room here when he cuts up field, but he’s able to burst through and again show off his balance through contact to rip off a 33 yard gain.
This isn’t a zone play, but again, here you can see Lewis’ ability to get through the smallest of holes. He really doesn’t need much daylight. Once again, he shows tremendous balance through contact as three defenders take turns bouncing off of him before they finally corral him just short of the goal line.
Another thing that stood out on Lewis’ tape was his advanced ability to set up defenders. Watch him bait Keanu Neal (#22) here before exploding back inside and getting up field. And again, check the finish. That’s not a “scat back” finish.
He uses his size to his advantage when it comes to setting guys up. It’s easy for the 5’-8” Lewis to disappear behind his 6’-4” and taller offensive line before suddenly emerging. This next clip is actually fun to watch because you can’t even keep up with him from the All-22 angle. You can just barely catch his red cleat popping out to the left of the crowd before he somehow tunnels back through the mass of bodies in to the endzone.
Here’s another outside zone run from the Pats. Watch how quick Lewis is through the hole. Kiko Alonso (#47) is unblocked and he can’t even get a hand on him in the hole. Lewis’ stature also helps him here as you can tell Alonso loses sight of him behind the line and is surprised when he suddenly bursts through the hole.
Lewis is a terror in the open field for defenders as his PFF Elusiveness Rating would suggest. We’ve already talked a little about his deceptive power. You can see that here as he shrugs off Lorenzo Alexander with the rare outside arm stiff arm. He then shows off his elusiveness as he jukes Lafayette Pitts to the ground near the sideline.
Lewis also offers plus ability as a pass catcher, both out of the backfield and even occasionally as a wide receiver. It’s generally a good idea to get Lewis the ball in space and let him work. That’s exactly what the Pats do here with a little backside screen. You can again see the ability to set up his blocks and then run through contact.
This next clip is a typical look for Patriots backs on passing plays. They often come out of the backfield and set up shop just a few yards away from the line of scrimmage in the middle of the field. This is something we almost never saw from the Titans in recent years. Mularkey and Robiskie preferred to keep the backs in to pass block far more often than the Patriots did, and when Murray or Henry did leak out, their lack of acceleration made it tough for them to do much damage. This rep shows how Lewis can turn a simple check down in to a plus offensive play because of his elusiveness. He catches this ball at a dead stop with three Titans defenders within about 5 yards, but he shakes them all and outruns Williamson to the edge for a first down.
I’m not here to pick on DeMarco Murray, but look how much less dangerous he is in the open field on a similar play.
No let’s go back to Lewis. Again, this is a simple check down, but he leaves Karl Joseph in a pile on the ground and ends up with a tidy 12 yard gain. This is when offense looks easy. Having this option available also affects your quarterback’s mindset. Rather than force a throw that might not be there, Tom Brady knows he can check down to Lewis and take an easy 5 with the possibility of him turning it in to more. There is clearly a balance that must be struck — you don’t want to turn in to Joe “checkdowns are my first read” Flacco — but this is something Marcus Mariota hasn’t had available to him for much of his NFL career. And he certainly hasn’t had anyone as dangerous as Lewis to use in this role. He can pick up a lot of “cheap” passing yards taking advantage of Lewis’ ability to create after the catch. After a few of these easy 5-7 yard gains, the linebackers start to cheat up and then you can hit them up the seam with Walker.
Lewis also offers some ability as a downfield route runner from the backfield as well. Here he puts Cory James in the blender with a nice little quick out before finding the endzone.
While James White served as the Patriots primary 3rd down back, Lewis is more than capable of serving in that role and has shown some real skill as a receiver down field. This is one of the better catches you’ll ever see from a back.
The Patriots used Lewis to create mismatches on the perimeter from time to time. On this play the Bills have slow-footed linebacker Preston Brown isolated in man coverage outside against Lewis. Brady recognizes this as a mismatch and hits him over the shoulder after Lewis dusts Brown with a nice stutter-go.
Here is the same matchup in the same game. Again, they know Brown can’t stick with Lewis on an island so they come back and hit him with the slant over the middle for an easy first down.
As I mentioned above, the Patriots prefer to use their backs as receivers rather than keeping them in to pass protect so Lewis doesn’t have a ton of reps as a pass blocker on tape. PFF has him down for just 34 pass block snaps in 2017, but he didn’t allow a single pressure, hit, or sack in those 34 snaps. His size is always going to limit how effective he can truly be in that role, but he clearly knows where to be and is able to get in the way enough to buy the quarterback time, which is really all you need from a back.
LaFleur’s offense is likely to use the backs extensively as receivers based on his experience working under offenses directed by Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay who both target backs often. Lewis has the skill set to be very effective in that role.
It would be difficult for anyone to convince me that Dion Lewis wasn’t a top 5 running back in the NFL last year. I would say that as things stand currently, he is the best back on the roster. That’s not a slight at Derrick Henry — who I also think is very good — but rather how much I think of Lewis. His size and injury history probably limit the amount of touches the coaching staff will be willing to give him. To keep him healthy for 16-plus games it seems unlikely that we will see him getting more than 15-20 touches per game on average, but I’d be pretty surprised if he got much less than that range.
I expect this backfield will be a pretty even split between Henry and Lewis as of now, with maybe a very slight lean in favor of Lewis. The two backs have very different styles in addition to very different statures so it will be very interesting to see how each guy fits in to the new offense which Derrick Henry described today as “vastly different” from last year’s attack. After watching Lewis’ tape, he’s even better than I was expecting based on casually watching him on TV over the past few years. Lewis and Henry could form the best 1-2 punch in all of football in 2018.