Last year, the Tennessee Titans had one of the most non-descript running games in the NFL. The Titans had the 25th-ranked rushing offense with Marcus Mariota being the team’s second-leading rusher with just 252 yards. In the offseason, Tennessee made a big splash to change that, trading for former NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray and using its second-round draft pick this spring to add Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. As the new-look Titans seek to flip the script on their running game, their new dynamic duo’s meeting with the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive front, especially Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd, is this week’s Key Matchup.
A year ago, rookie quarterback Mariota took his lumps, being sacked 54 times, primarily because the Titans couldn’t generate a consistent running game. Antonio Andrews led the team with 143 carries for just 520 yards and three touchdowns. Mariota was second on the team with 252 yards, followed by running backs Dexter McCluster (55 carries, 247 yards), Bishop Sankey (47-193) and David Cobb (52-146).
While Andrews is still on the team, all three of the other running backs are gone. They were replaced in short order by Murray and Henry – quickly transforming the Titans from one of the worst running games in the league to potentially one of the better ones.
“They’re a different team right now,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “They’ve got two elite running backs there now. The biggest thing for us this week is stopping the run because we know they’re going to try to establish that early. The reward for stopping the run is forcing them to throw. That’s when we’re at our best – getting after the passer.”
Where that poses a problem for the Vikings is that they have had their fair share of struggles in the Mike Zimmer defense against big, bruising runners.
In their season-opening loss to San Francisco last year, Carlos Hyde ran 26 times for 168 yards and two touchdowns – by far his best numbers across the board all last season. In their home loss to the Packers in Week 11, Eddie Lacy dominated on the ground, rushing 22 times for 100 yards. In Minnesota’s Week 13 loss to Seattle, Thomas Rawls rushed 19 times for 101 yards and a touchdown.
In three games that the Vikings needed to make a statement – the regular season opener and homes games against the defending division and conference champions – the difference was a big, power back running between the tackles. They didn’t run sweeps or misdirection plays – they ran directly at the Vikings defense between the tackles and angle runs outside of the defensive end spots, consistently finding good yardage to run through.
The Titans are bringing not just one, but two power backs to the party. Of all the things the Vikings did right defensively, when they faced big running backs that could build up a head of steam on offenses committed to running the ball 20 times to a featured back, they struggled and had their worst defensive games of the season.
With Tennessee looking to start a new chapter in their history with two new running backs, each capable of dominating on the ground, the Titans will be looking to control the clock and keep the Vikings defense on its heels. From the defensive perspective, stopping the run is always the most critical aspect to force a team into passing situations and letting loose defenders to attack the quarterback.
Something will have to give Sunday; whichever team can dominate that aspect of the game will likely come away with the win, making the war between the Vikings’ defensive front and the combination of Murray and Henry this week’s Key Matchup.