The biggest surprise of the postseason has to be Tennessee's unlikely march to the AFC title game. The Titans went through Tom Brady and the Patriots and then presumptive MVP Lamar Jackson and the Ravens to find themselves playing for a chance at Super Bowl Sunday. The key reason (aside from defense and special teams, which isn't something we really talk about here) is their running game. Derrick Henry and the Titans ground game have been a huge talking point throughout the playoffs and have been very effective, so I wanted to take a closer look at them.
The Titans ran a lot of outside zone last weekend and they ran it well. I love the outside zone play. If it was up to me, I would pretty much solely write about teams running this play and running it well. There are 50 reasons why I love it so much, but I think the No. 1 reason is that the play can hit anywhere. With gap schemes the play is designed to hit in a certain space, and you have to win at the point of attack to really make it go. With zone schemes you just have to win somewhere across the line.
This play is a perfect example of what I was talking about. The Titans offensive line gets essentially four stalemates and only wins at one spot, but that's enough for 9 yards. The back-side combination on the 3-technique (Brandon Williams, 98) between left guard Rodger Saffold and left tackle Taylor Lewan is great. It starts with Saffold; he does a great job of staying on his track while helping Lewan. Notice how he doesn't turn his shoulders to help on the combination, he just stabs the defender's inside number enough to turn it, allowing Lewan an opening to fit his helmet across.
As good as Saffold is, Lewan is even better. He false steps a little bit, but his track and landmark are great. He gets his head across the defender to cut him off, which is what you need, but what turns this block from solid to great is how he transitions from horizontal to vertical. After he gets his head across, Lewan changes his trajectory to get up the field and drive his man backwards. This is so much tougher than it looks, to go from getting flat to seal off a defensive tackle, to getting up the field to create vertical movement. I love this block.
Saffold is really good again here. I don't love how he gets he gets his outside hand involved with the nose tackle, which makes him a little late getting up to the second level. But once he gets to the second level he arrives with heavy hands and bad intentions. That's launching a guy (L.J. Fort, 58) out of the hole and creating space for the running back. This obviously isn't a huge play or anything, but 5 yards on first-and-10 is a nice run play.
It ended up not mattering because Henry's first read was there for 5 yards, but the combination on the back side is very good. Jack Conklin drives the 3-tech (Williams again) back far enough to where his feet get tangled with the safety's and he gets a knockdown. Right guard Nate Davis also gets his play-side hand involved too, so he's a little late to the second level, but he's fine on the whole.
Sometimes it's just easy. The Ravens are running a one-man stunt up front, and the Titans happen to be running right where the defensive tackle (Williams, naturally) is vacating. Baltimore has a linebacker (Patrick Onwuasor, 48) to replace the gap, but with the defensive tackle going inside and the defensive end (Jihad Ward, 53) getting widened so much, the linebacker has too much space to fill. The fullback covers him up and Henry has plenty of space to bust a long run.
Lewan widening the defensive end really makes the play. With the defensive tackle pinching, the hole is going to be as wide as Lewan can make it. He drives his man 5 yards wide and creates the canyon that the linebacker has to try to fill (an impossible task). Lewan was great throughout the game.
Of course, as good as the Titans blocked and ran outside zone, their biggest run of the game came on zone where they blew multiple blocks.
Nate Davis gets beat across his face by the nose tackle (Michael Pierce, 97) and forces Henry to cut back almost immediately. Getting beat so quickly means that the tight end coming across (Jonnu Smith, 81) gets picked off and can't get to the defensive end. Luckily, Derrick Henry makes everything right. If you're really going to run it, you have to have a back that can break some chunk plays by making people miss or running through them. Henry certainly does that.
The Titans run blocking has been the headliner in Tennessee's unlikely playoff run, but their pass-blocking was really good on Saturday too. They didn't throw it a ton, but when they did they gave Ryan Tannehill plenty of space to operate.
Pass protection really takes an entire offensive unit. It's not just the offensive line; you need the quarterback and skill players to be dialed in too. Here, that means Dion Lewis tracking a blitzing defensive back (Chuck Clark, 36) across the formation to pick him up. Excellent football from the veteran.
The rest of the offensive line is solid as a rock here too, and that allows Tannehill plenty of space to be comfortable. Lewan once again is great here, redirecting on the inside move and collapsing it inside without allowing any penetration. Not to sound like a broken record, but I was really impressed with his play.