If Tennessee Titans can't get Derrick Henry going, a dreadful season awaits | Opinion

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — What exactly do these Tennessee Titans do well?

The past few years, that has been an easy question.

They run the dang ball. They have Derrick Henry, and you don’t. Good luck stopping that guy for four quarters, but really, the path to success had been so well paved that by last season the Titans – with A.J. Brown, mind you – could put a lot of running backs in Henry’s place and still make it work. Still keep the same identity. Still win the same punishing, physical way.

The Titans have long leaned on their run game, because they could.

What happens if they can’t anymore?

Here’s what: They get embarrassed 41-7 on "Monday Night Football" by a Buffalo Bills team that was better in all aspects – including the one the Titans value most. The Bills kept Henry from stiff-arming them as he has the past two seasons. Outside of an early short-yardage touchdown, they shut him down. They swarmed him and limited him to 25 yards on 13 carries, an average of 1.9 yards.

These Titans – for the first time in a long time – couldn’t run. And when they couldn’t run, they couldn’t do anything else. They didn’t complete a pass longer than 19 yards. Offensively, they gained 187 yards, while their defense broke down gradually, allowing 414 yards.

By the end, this was a hideous mess of mistakes and miscues, easily the worst performance of Mike Vrabel’s four-plus seasons as the Titans’ coach.

And so, I’ll ask again: What does this team do well?

That’s a much tougher question with the Titans (0-2) having been whipped in such an unfamiliar fashion.

“Run, pass game, didn’t really matter. Couldn’t get it going,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said.

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Derrick Henry sits on the bench during the Titans' loss to the Bills.

Having an off night against a top team is one thing. Not having enough talent to even hope to be competitive with that team is another. As for which this was, we’ll find out soon enough. But the season’s first two weeks have been surprisingly discouraging, hinting that it’s the latter.

Because it’s not just one thing. It’s seemingly everything.

Before the Giants game, the Titans spoke at length about not letting Saquon Barkley beat them. Then Barkley ran all over them. On Monday, Bills receiver Stefon Diggs torched the Titans for 148 yards and three touchdowns.

“We knew he was going to get all the targets,” Titans safety Kevin Byard said, “but he had 14 targets, 12 catches. That’s not good enough.”

Star players decide games in the NFL. It’s alarming that the Titans could not slow down the best offensive skill player for the Giants or Bills.

Even more alarming, the Giants and Bills were able to slow down the Titans’ best player in Henry. If that doesn’t improve, the Titans could be in store for a long season, and Vrabel realizes it.

“That has to be something that we can do better than we’ve done it the past two weeks,” he said.

You could talk about play-calling or suggest that Henry has been slowed by last season’s foot injury. But this Bills loss had more to do with what was lacking around Henry.

As much as trading Brown depleted the offense, losing left guard Rodger Saffold – who plays for the Bills now – might end up being missed even more. Once left tackle Taylor Lewan hurt his knee Monday on the game’s first offensive snap, three of the Titans’ five offensive linemen – including both tackles – were fringe NFL starters at best.

They came by the dilemma honestly. It is the consequence of missing with high draft picks on tackles Isaiah Wilson and Dillon Radunz – note that Dennis Daley, not Radunz, replaced Lewan – while also saving cap space by losing Saffold, David Quessenberry and Dennis Kelly from an O-Line that had been effective. And essential.

And now these Titans have got … what else exactly?

A banged-up defense minus Harold Landry – who was vital to a pass rush – and maybe Bud Dupree, who exited with a hip injury Monday? A receiving corps heavily dependent on rookies Treylon Burks and Kyle Philips? Special teams that missed a game-winning field goal and seemingly can’t field a punt?

An offensive line that can’t do what the Titans must do to win games?

And Henry.

The Titans' star wasn’t oblivious to the nastiness of Monday’s loss. He called it “ugly, very ugly” when I asked about his concern over the lack of production in the run game. But he also stressed positivity moving forward in the face of adversity.

“I’m not concerned at all,” Henry told me.

That made one of us.

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.