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Opinion: How are the Titans winning without Derrick Henry? Reinvention.

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In just a few weeks, nearly everything has changed about these Tennessee Titans. Except, that is, for the only thing that matters.

They’re still winning.

Somehow. Without their best player. Without the comfortable formula that Derrick Henry provided. For years, it has been clear that Henry was the primary reason the Titans kept claiming a lot of games they weren’t supposed to win.

Now? We’re having to rethink that a bit. And wonder, really, how it’s happening.

Sunday’s 23-21 victory at Nissan Stadium over the also-injury-plagued New Orleans Saints wasn’t easy on the eyes, but it was the Titans' sixth win in a row overall and their fifth consecutive win against a playoff team from the previous season. That makes the 2021 Titans only the second NFL team to do that.

“They do know how to win," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. "I’m thankful for that.”

The Titans' defense stops New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram.
The Titans' defense stops New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram.

Props to the Titans for something else most teams couldn’t do. In the time it took Henry’s metatarsal to fracture, they’ve gone from winning with offense to having to win with their defense.

Such a wholesale reinvention isn’t easy from one year to the next, much less mid-stride in a season.

But these Titans — always resilient under Vrabel — are now reveling in adversity. They’re demonstrating toughness and versatility in ways that couldn’t have been envisioned a few weeks ago. These five wins over playoff teams -- remember that the run started with an electric 34-31 Monday night shootout against the Buffalo Bills that resembled the Titans’ 2020 thrillers.

Yet in Week 10, the Titans couldn’t have been more comfortable slugging through this ugly Saints game, grinding out success with short field goals, crossing routes, quick passes, a bunch of running backs not named Derrick Henry, timely penalties, missed extra points by the Saints and the Titans’ own defense, which they clearly believed would do enough to make it all hold up in the end.

And it did. Just barely.

We can’t make much out of a narrow escape — via an incomplete 2-point conversion pass — against a Saints offense quarterbacked by a guy who was on the Titans’ practice squad last season (Trevor Siemian) and without its own franchise running back (Alvin Kamara). But it was at least a little familiar. The Titans generally did to the Saints what they did to the Rams and Chiefs — they dominated up front, stopping the run and harassing the quarterback.

Jeffery Simmons followed up a gem in Los Angeles with two more sacks Sunday. Harold Landry added another to reach 10 this season.

With this Titans defense, what was once an intriguing curiosity is starting to become a trend, and that’s important.

By now, the real question isn’t whether this Titans defense can dunk on someone. We’ve learned that it can. We can’t yet know, however, if this is a new normal. This is an improved defense, sure, but is it THAT defense? Is it carrying a playoff team to the AFC’s top seed in Henry’s absence?

Is this a sustainable path to victory for the Titans in a league in which hardly anything proves sustainable week to week? And that could easily include a defense that gave the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes and Rams' Matthew Stafford fits after being beaten by Jets rookie Zach Wilson.

Sunday wasn’t all that convincing. But you have to note the faith in the defense holding on late as it did.

In the first half, Vrabel opted to kick field goals of 28 and 36 yards. Each was inside the Saints’ 20-yard line — on fourth-and-5 and then a fourth-and-3.

The Titans already had punted twice to start the game, and a coach goes for those if he’s expecting to need a bunch of points from his offense to win. But if he’s leaning on his defense, he doesn’t. And Vrabel was correct to kick then, just as he was in the fourth quarter, when the Titans ran the ball on third-and-goal from the 17 and Randy Bullock made it 23-12 with 10:01 remaining.

Seriously, how long has it been since you could bank on a Titans defense when it matters most? Not that long ago, handing an 11-point lead to the defense late would have been hazardous.

This wasn't easy. But it was a win — built mostly on the defense. The more that happens, though, the less surprising it becomes.

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

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee Titans are winning without Derrick Henry. How?