Submitted by Kelso Sturgeon on Wednesday, November 2, 2016 at 10:39 AM
It’s been a long time since the Tennessee Titans have been relevant. They haven’t finished over .500 since 2011 and haven’t made the playoffs since 2008. Over the previous two years they went 5-27. But with four wins already under their belt this year and only a game back in the AFC South, this could be the year the Titans stay on everyone’s radar for reasons other than the #1 draft pick. And the reason is a potent running game.
DeMarco Murray is looking the back who was the best in football in 2014 for the Dallas Cowboys. After a miserable season in Philadelphia where he was miscast in Chip Kelly’s system, Murray is back into an offensive approach that suits him—where a good offensive line just muscles up.
Murray’s numbers speak for themselves—his second in the league in rushing (756 yards), is handling big workload (160 attempts, only one away from the most in the NFL) and still generates 4.7 yards-per-rush, which ranks 11th in among running backs and is excellent given that volume of carries.
While giving Murray due credit, we also have to point out the offensive line. This is an important distinction for NFL bettors—backs that have to create their own holes are much more likely to wear down in the second half of a season than backs who are running behind a tough O-Line. And Tennessee’s front five combines toughness with the fresh legs of youth.
The combination at tackle of 25-year-old Taylor Lewan and rookie Jack Conklin has been the best in the NFL this season. Both were groomed at places that taught power football, Lewan at Michigan and Conklin at Michigan State. Josh Kline is solid at right guard and still just 27-years-old. And one of the more significant personnel moves of the offseason might yet be center Ben Jones jumping to Tennessee from division rival Houston, who currently sets the pace in the AFC South.
Establishing the running game is important for any team, but especially so for the Titans in particular. While Marcus Mariota is making nice strides as a quarterback and his 7.6 yards-per-attempt is 10th in the league, Mariota also has problems with interceptions. He’s thrown six and when you look at INTs as a percentage of passes thrown, he ranks 22nd. Running the ball is safer yardage than throwing for most anyone, but especially a team whose quarterback is still maturing.
The Tennessee defense also needs help. They aren’t bad, but they rank 18th in the NFL in points allowed. If they’re going to make the playoffs, this defense can’t be left on the field too long—particularly with games against Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck coming up the next three weeks.
The Titans are a franchise that hasn’t been relevant very often, but when they do, there’s usually a good back and a power offensive line involved. From Eddie George to Chris Johnson and now to DeMarco Murray, Tennessee has tried to run its way to success. Can they do it again this year, at least at the division level? There’s a (+275) reward for anyone who believes in them to take the AFC South and the season finale is a home date with Houston.