Titans' offense cruising behind Derrick Henry, but Steelers pose challenge

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Through their first four games, the Tennessee Titans took a methodical approach with their rushing attack. Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith consistently dialed up running plays for Derrick Henry ,who led the NFL in rushing attempts but was averaging 3.7 yards per carry.

Things changed in the Titans' 42-36 win in overtime over the Houston Texans on Sunday.

Henry busted loose for 264 yards of total offense (212 rushing, 9.6 average per carry) and two touchdowns. He joined Hall of Fame running backs Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and LaDainian Tomlinson as the only players to reach at least 200 yards and score two touchdowns in a game three times. The Titans gained 601 yards, the most in team history.

"It takes all 11," coach Mike Vrabel said. "I thought our staff did a nice job putting together a plan that they thought would work. On some of those runs, you saw guys executing stiff-arms. I give a lot of credit to [RB coach] Tony Dews and the drills that he's working to help those guys when they get in the open field or get to the second level of the defense."

The 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry broke off two runs of 30 yards or longer against Houston -- including a 94-yard TD run -- after failing to have a run of at least 20 yards in the first four games.

His breakaway speed was evident on the 94-yarder. According to NFL NextGen stats, Henry was clocked at 21.6 mph on the run.

"That's too slow. I need to get to 22," Henry joked when he was informed of how fast he was going.

Dating back to 2018, Henry has seven runs (second in NFL) of 50 yards or longer.

It wasn't all happy news, though. The Titans suffered a huge blow when left tackle Taylor Lewan went down with a torn ACL in the third quarter against Houston. Lewan is Tennessee's best offensive lineman. The Titans averaged 3.9 yards per carry when running to Lewan's left side of the line.

Lewan's athleticism is perfectly suited for the Titans zone-blocking scheme, which focuses on blocking a space rather than a specific defender. Henry ran behind the tandem of Lewan and left guard Rodger Saffold with huge success down the stretch and into the postseason last year.

Not having Lewan will be a challenge against the Titans' next opponent -- the 5-0 Pittsburgh Steelers, who are holding teams to 66.2 rushing yards per game (second in the NFL) in what will be a matchup of strengths. Dating back to 2019, the Steelers rank first in the NFL in run stop win rate, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In that same span, Henry has an NFL-best 923 yards after contact.

But the Steelers will be dealing with replacing a starter of their own after linebacker Devin Bush tore his ACL in Sunday's win over Cleveland.

Veteran offensive lineman Ty Sambrailo is the likely candidate to take Lewan's place at left tackle. He was faced with slowing down J.J. Watt last week. When he lines up against the Steelers, he'll have to deal with Watt's younger brother, T.J.

Pittsburgh is effective as a run-blitzing team; nickel corner Mike Hilton and linebacker Vince Williams are two of their top defenders against the run. Hilton leads the Steelers with 27 solo tackles and has 5 tackles for loss. Williams' 10 tackles for loss is a team-high.

"They are extremely well-coached and talented," Vrabel said of the Steelers defense. "It's been tough for people to run the football on them. It will take all 11. They're good on the edges and they are very good inside."

Finding balance on offense will be crucial for the Titans. They like to get out to an early lead and use Henry as their closer in games, especially in the fourth quarter. Henry's 208 rushing yards in the fourth quarter are the most in the NFL.

The rushing attack also helps open things up in the passing game. Ryan Tannehill has a 92.1 QBR and 12.2 yards per attempt on play-action, leading all quarterbacks since he took over as the starter in Week 7 last year. Tannehill also has 15 touchdown passes off play-action in that span, which ties Kirk Cousins for most in the league.

But Pittsburgh’s defense has excelled in play-action defense, allowing the lowest QBR (38.9) and completion rate (57%) since the start of last season. The Steelers defense has been blitzing an NFL-high 60% of the time on those play-action plays in that span, with Hilton and Williams being the primary players they use.

The Titans' offense is on a roll, scoring 42 points in their last two games and posting 30 or more points in each of their last four contests. But that success shouldn't give them a false sense of security. Henry knows Sunday's matchup of unbeaten teams will be a true test.

"Going to keep the underdog mentality," Henry said. "We know we're 5-0. It's hard to win in this league. We appreciate being 5-0, but we don't get too high. We focus on what we need to focus on, enjoy this win, and get ready for the Steelers."