It’s hard to argue that the Tennessee Titans would have had the AFC’s No. 1 seed and a first-round playoff bye had it not been for the legs of D’Onta Foreman.
While there may be only one Derrick Henry, if you’re going to replace the 247-pound, two-time NFL rushing champion, why not do so with a 236-pound near-clone who runs with the same violent fervor as the guy he was replacing?
The Titans went 6-3 with Henry out of the lineup, using a running-back-by-committee with Foreman, Dontrell Hilliard, Jeremy McNichols and Adrian Peterson.
Foreman ran for 566 yards and three touchdowns on 133 carries, and he averaged 80.3 rush yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry over the final six games of the season. He had 110 carries during that six-game stretch, and only two running backs had more 100-yard games over that span than Foreman’s three.
So, in the Titans’ most important game of the season against the Cincinnati Bengals at Nissan Stadium on Saturday, why did Foreman only have four carries?
Well, Henry’s return surely played a big role. In his first action since Oct. 31, Henry had 62 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, running with a steel plate and some screws in his surgically repaired foot.
And on the surface, Henry appeared fine. He even said as much after the game.
“I felt good,” he stated. “I tried the best I can to contribute, do my part to help [the team win].”
But the 27-year-old former Heisman Trophy winner never had a run longer than nine yards, and while he claimed to be completely fine, Henry didn’t quite look like he did pre-injury.
Perhaps there was no better supporting evidence than a fourth-and-1 with 7:21 left in the fourth quarter and the Titans and Bengals tied 16-16. Henry took the carry, started to his left, hesitated, took a step to his right and was met by a wall of Bengals defenders.
He lost two yards on the play and the Titans turned the ball over on downs.
It’s hard to imagine the Henry of September through October wouldn’t have bounced to the outside of Ryan Izzo’s block or powered his way through the small opening between Taylor Lewan and Rodger Saffold for the first down.
After all, Henry converted 10 of 11 third- or fourth-and-1 attempts in the eight games he played before his injury.
“Yeah, by far disappointed to just come up short at anything,” Henry said of the play. “It will definitely play in the back of my mind all year, every day till we play again.”
“There were probably some runs he would like to have back and a lot of blocking that could be better,” Titans head coach Mike Vrabel added. “But we did get into a flow of running the football and then they loaded up, and they did a good job. Some guys that were in there grinding away on the run, and we know how hard it is to run against some of those D-linemen they have.”
The play before Henry’s fourth-down run, Tannehill kept the ball himself and ran up the middle for no gain. Why not give the ball to Foreman?
Just five plays earlier, he had back-to-back runs of nine and 10 yards. Three drives before that, he ripped off a 45-yard run to the Cincinnati 9 that put the Titans in position to close the gap on their 10-point deficit before Ryan Tannehill was intercepted on the next play.
Foreman out-rushed Henry on 16 fewer carries and averaged 16.5 yards per carry when he was in the game. He didn’t have another run after the turnover on downs.
“I just wanted to help the team win,” Foreman said. “Whatever my role was, whatever my job was, my number got called, and I just wanted to be effective and be as productive as possible like any other game. That’s all it was, just a mentality, a mindset just to go out there and play our style of football. Run hard and finish runs.”
While no one is second guessing Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing’s decision to call Henry’s number as much as he did, it is a bit puzzling that Downing didn’t put the ball in Foreman’s hands more.
Perhaps we’d be talking about a Titans vs. Kansas City Chiefs matchup next week instead of dissecting Tennessee’s offseason to-do list.
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_