NASHVILLE (AP) — The Tennessee Titans have had plenty of experience dealing with injuries this season and now must adapt to their biggest challenge yet.
No Derrick Henry for the foreseeable future.
Nobody will be able to truly replace the man who led the NFL in rushing each of the past two seasons, became only the eighth to run for at least 2,000 yards in 2020 and had a big lead to three-peat as the league’s rushing champ again this season.
The timing couldn’t be much worse.
Winners of four straight, the Titans (6-2) sit atop the AFC and just grabbed a stranglehold on the AFC South they won last season. They have a three-game lead and the tiebreaker with only their third season sweep of the Indianapolis Colts with a 34-31 overtime win.
“We’re going to have to be creative,” coach Mike Vrabel said Monday after confirming Henry will have surgery Tuesday on his right foot. “And we’re going to have to figure out answers and way to move the football and continue to run our offense.”
The Titans still have Ryan Tannehill at quarterback and 2020 Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Brown, coming off his two best games this season. They will need more from seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones, who is dealing with a hamstring that kept him out of the Colts’ game.
They also have Vrabel, who has shown repeatedly in his coaching tenure the ability to adapt to injuries by diving into the playbook for trick plays or anything else that can help the Titans win. He and his assistants will be busy until Henry returns — whenever that is.
The run game. But with Henry out, the Titans signed 2012 MVP and four-time All-Pro Adrian Peterson to stock up a position that leaned heavily on the man who carried the ball more than anyone else in the league since the start of the 2019 season.
The Titans still rank fourth, averaging 147.6 yards rushing per game. Since much of that came from Henry, it will be a challenge moving forward for the Titans.
Peterson will join the Titans’ practice squad so that the team can gauge what shape he currently is in. He is the running back who most resembles Henry, at least in production. Peterson is a seven-time Pro Bowl running back. He led the NFL in rushing three different seasons, the last in 2015. He also is one of only eight players in NFL history to run for at least 2,000 yards in a season.
He also becomes the third 2,000-yard rusher to play for this franchise. Chris Johnson ran for 2,006 yards in 2009, Peterson ran for 2,097 yards in his MVP season and Henry ran for 2,027 yards last season.
Peterson ranks fifth all time in the NFL with 14,820 yards rushing, trailing Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Frank Gore and Barry Sanders. He also holds the single-game rushing mark with 296 yards in 2007 against the Chargers. That was Peterson’s first Pro Bowl nod, also when his new coach Mike Vrabel earned his lone Pro Bowl berth at linebacker.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Peterson has 3,192 carries and 118 touchdowns in his 14-year career. He also has 301 catches for 2,466 yards receiving and six TD catches in 180 games.
Tennessee also signe D’Onta Foreman to the practice squad. He also is a bigger running back at 6-1 and 236 pounds. He played six games last season with the Titans and ran 22 times for 95 yards. A third-round pick by Houston in 2017, he has played in 17 career games with 421 yards rushing and two TDs.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Pass protection. Tannehill was sacked three times by the Colts and has been sacked 24 times this season. Only Chicago, Seattle and Denver have allowed more sacks.
If the Titans give Tannehill time, he is 26-12 as a starter and just led his 12th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime since arriving in Tennessee. Tannehill threw a career-high 33 TD passes last season.
Brown. The 2020 Pro Bowl wide receiver has put together his best two games over the past two wins, and he has the physical skills to do whatever the Titans ask of him. On a trick play against the Colts, Brown was set to throw early in the fourth quarter before throwing the ball away under pressure.
“It was a wonderful decision,” Vrabel said. “It was a great job avoiding the tackle for loss. The nickel did a nice job of triggering. We thought we could take advantage of that. We just didn’t execute it. What we did do was we saved that play. A.J. smartly and wisely threw that ball away.”
Safety Kevin Byard. He drew a defensive pass interference penalty that allowed the Colts to tie the game late in regulation. But the veteran also intercepted Carson Wentz in overtime to set up the game-winning field goal, Byard’s fourth pick this season ties him for second in the NFL.
The Titans are banged up. Not counting Henry, they had 16 players on the injury report before playing the Colts in a very physical game.
5-0. The Titans’ record this season against 2020 playoff teams.
The Titans continue the toughest stretch of their schedule with the visit to Los Angeles. Then they host the Saints (5-2) who just lost quarterback Jameis Winston to an injury.
After that, the schedule eases tremendously. The Titans face the NFL’s three teams currently with only one win in Miami and Jacksonville with two games remaining against Houston (1-7). Their other two opponents, New England (4-4) and Pittsburgh (4-3), are hovering around .500.