The Titans are committed to running the ball as the center of coach Mike Mularkey's "exotic smash mouth" approach to offense.
Coming off the worst rushing performance in two seasons makes them only more determined to run even better.
As Associated Press sports writer Teresa Walker noted, the Titans ran for just 52 yards in a 40-17 loss at Pittsburgh on Nov. 16, a total that was the worst since Mularkey was given the head coaching job for good in January 2016.
That helped drop Tennessee to 12th in the NFL averaging 117.5 yards rushing, a big change from last season when the Titans led the AFC and ranked third in the league.
"Well, I think we could run the ball better," Mularkey said. "We've played a lot of good defenses, I don't want to take that away from them. We have played some stout guys, all the way to this last one. I'd like to, obviously, be better, especially when you're not up to where you were a year ago, you've always got to say that."
The Titans ran so well in 2016 that left tackle Taylor Lewan
and running back DeMarco Murray
both earned Pro Bowl berths. Right tackle Jack Conklin was an All-Pro as a rookie.
Now through 10 games, the Titans (6-4) have faced six of the NFL's top 12 teams in total defense in the current rankings
. Mularkey credits the opposing defenses for putting more bodies up front to help slow down Tennessee's run game.
The Titans also have some new pieces on offense. Tight end Anthony Fasano
now is playing in Miami, and the Titans are using Phillip Supernaw
, rookie Jonnu Smith
and even reserve offensive tackle Dennis Kelly to help block. They also can block better.
"I know if we block it better, we should've had bigger runs. We had opportunities for much bigger runs than we had (in Pittsburgh), if we block it better," Mularkey said.
Meanwhile, Murray has just 443 yards on 117 carries and is averaging 3.8 yards per run. Backup Derrick Henry
has nearly as many yards (441) on fewer carries (101). The Titans also have used cornerback Adoree Jackson, giving the rookie the ball five times for 55 yards.
"I'm always the first one to look in the mirror you know," Murray said Thursday. "I don't point the finger at anyone. I point it right back at myself. We just got to be better."
The Titans ran for 168 yards on Oct. 16 when they beat the Colts 36-22, and they will be heading to Indianapolis to face a defense ranked 15th in the NFL giving up 111.3 yards rushing per game.
But what should fantasy owners expect in terms of workloads for Murray and Henry? Will the younger man start to cut further into the veteran's touches down the stretch?
ESPN.com's Cameron Wolfe doesn't expect that to happen.
Murray, if healthy enough to play, will remain the starter.
Offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie told Wolfe there is a bit of a hot-hand approach with the backs, but there's not a specific play count for each. The coaching staff knows Murray has been affected by injuries and hopes he'll get better as the season goes on.
There are certain plays that work better for Murray and vice versa.
The offense also works best with both of them given Murray's pass blocking and catching strengths contrasted with Henry's power-rushing ability.
Still, as Profootballtalk.com's Charean Williams pointed out this week, Murray has drawn some criticism from observers for some of the holes he chose to run through in the team’s loss to the Steelers. But his coaches aren’t about to second-guess Murray’s decisions.
“No, no,” offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie said, via Paul Kuharsky of paulkuharsky.com. “I played running back. Certainly, I wasn’t the caliber of [Murray or Henry]. I played for a couple of years. I coached a guy named Bo Jackson; I coached a guy named Marcus Allen.
“You don’t dare tell them where to run; you don’t dare tell them they missed a hole. No chance. And the same thing with these two guys. You don’t tell them, ‘Hey, put your head down and run in that hole over there.’ [Henry] won the Heisman by doing what he does. Maybe he’s going to miss one, but he’s going to hit five of them. Great runners, you let them run.”
“I’ve never [played running back], and I’m sure most of those people making those comments haven’t either, to tell our backs how to run, especially Murray,” Mularkey said. “He’s got 7,000 yards of hitting holes the way he does. I know if we block it better, we should’ve had bigger runs. We had opportunities for much bigger runs than we had [against the Steelers] if we block it better.”
That's their story. And they're sticking to it. We'll see if the Colts defense can make it come true.