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Titans continue to lean on their defense in Derrick Henry’s absence

New Orleans Saints v Tennessee Titans Photo by Silas Walker/Getty Images

For the last several seasons, the Tennessee Titans have relied on dominant offensive performances en route to playoff success. It’s largely worked in their favor. They have the best running back in football, and he’s put up astonishing numbers throughout the years. They’ve asked Derrick Henry to carry the load, and he’s proven plenty capable of doing so. The passing game has seen a tremendous amount of success with their play-action heavy approach. In 2019 and 2020, the offense was good enough to carry a defense that performed in rather underwhelming fashion.

Boy, how things have flipped.

Today, the recipe looks totally different. A new-look dominant defense is now carrying a hampered offense that has struggled mightily in back-to-back weeks. It’s no coincidence. Their workhorse Henry is out indefinitely, and Tennessee is still finding their identity without him.

Sunday was the latest example.

Tennessee defeated the New Orleans Saints by a final score of 23-21 to improve to an AFC-leading 8-2 on the season. For the second consecutive week, Tennessee relied on timely turnovers and crucial stops.

Unheralded linebacker Dylan Cole forced a key turnover on the opening kickoff of the third quarter. The offense took over the ball in plus territory, and ultimately converted for seven via a MyCole Pruitt touchdown, busting their lead open to a dominant 20-6.

Timely turnovers have been a much welcomed theme as of late. Against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 9, the Titans received a pick-six score from superstar safety Kevin Byard. They also took over a possession inside Los Angeles’ five-yard line after Matthew Stafford made an ill-advised throw from his own end zone that was picked off by David Long Jr. It was the second straight week where Tennessee scored a pick-six after rookie defensive back Elijah Molden picked off Colts quarterback Carson Wentz on a similar throw to the one Long secured against the Rams. Again, we’re seeing a theme here.

It’s been a different story on the other side of the ball. Offensively, Tennessee managed just 264 yards against the Saints, and went a pathetic 3-of-12 on third downs. It wasn’t much better than the 194 yards of offense they gained against the Rams on Monday Night Football. The third down efficiency was similarly poor in that contest at just 4-of-12.

To summarize, the Titans have averaged just 229 yards of offense in two complete games without Henry, and have converted just 7-of-24 third down attempts. The Titans are also 2-0 in those games, with two victories over a pair of playoff calibre teams in New Orleans and Los Angeles.

Tennessee remains atop the AFC.

Tennessee invested heavily on the defensive side of the ball this past offseason. Bud Dupree and Denico Autry were prized free agent possessions. Dupree continues to improve on a weekly basis, and Autry has been one of the most underrated players in all of football in 2021.

Harold Landry and Jeffery Simmons continue to rack up sacks at an impressive rate. As a team, the Titans now have 27 sacks through 10 games, which is already eight more than last year’s uber-disappointing unit had. Tennessee’s defense continues to make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks.

With a defense playing this dominant, Tennessee’s new formula for success is paying off.