Things could get ugly for Tennessee Titans if they can't replace AJ Brown's WR production

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Two of the big questions for the Tennessee Titans entering training camp revolved around how the passing game would fare without a bona fide No. 1 receiver after trading A.J. Brown, and what version of running back Derrick Henry would take the field after missing nine games last season because of a Jones fracture in his right foot.

If Tennessee's performance in its 21-20 loss to the New York Giants in the season opener Sunday is the answer to those questions, things could get ugly over the next few weeks.

The Titans are facing a tough stretch of games starting with a Monday Night Football (7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) matchup against the Buffalo Bills. They'll then host the Las Vegas Raiders on a short week and then the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC South showdown in Week 4.

Tennessee has typically relied on big plays from Henry in winning performances over the last few years. It was Henry's 76-yard touchdown run that breathed life into the Titans during their 34-31 win over the Bills last season.

The physical attack featuring Henry has been the Titans' identity over the last three seasons -- sans the nine regular-season games he missed to end last season -- resulting in a 32-17 record and consecutive AFC South titles.

Henry will again be the focal point for defenses that face the Titans.

"They’ve focused on Derrick for the last three years," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. "Nothing's changed there."

But there actually has been a change.

The Titans finished with a 2-1 record in games when Henry was held to under 100 rushing yards last season. Tennessee was able to take the No. 1 seed in the AFC, but the passing game that has featured Brown, who came up big in their two wins, will have to find a way without him this season.

Brown, who was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles on draft night, had eight catches for 133 yards and a touchdown in a win over the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 6. Henry had 86 rushing yards that game. Henry suffered his injury in Week 7 against the Colts last season, but Brown's 10 receptions, 155 yards and a touchdown helped fuel the win.

Henry opened this season with 82 rushing yards on 21 carries. There was no Brown-like production to save the day, however.

"We just have to be better in the run game, all 11 of us," Henry said. "Wasn't good enough for us to win a game, and for us to have the explosive runs and want to play the style of football that we play."

Rookie Kyle Philips led the team with six receptions for 66 yards, including a 21-yard catch that put Tennessee in field goal position at the end of the game. Running back Dontrell Hilliard's two receiving touchdowns were the Titans' only scores.

Rookie receiver Treylon Burks finished with three receptions for 55 yards, and the Titans' big offseason additions -- Robert Woods and Austin Hooper -- finished with one reception each.

"It's going to be some games where one guy gets a few more targets than the other guys," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "But over the course of this season that's going to shift. ... So, we’re going to need all those guys in that room to come out big for us at different times this year."

Balance in the passing game can be beneficial in some cases, because it prevents opposing teams from being able to focus on one particular player. But having a go-to player in clutch situations helps, especially on third downs.

The Titans faced third and 4 yards or fewer seven times Sunday and only converted once. Between 2019 and 2021, they converted 66.5% of the time in the same situation, which was the second-best mark in the league.

Most of the trouble came in the second half Sunday when Tennessee converted one of five third-down opportunities. None of the third-down situations it faced required more than 5 yards to move the chains.

The one conversion was a 5-yard pass from Tannehill to Philips. Five plays later, Tannehill found Hilliard for a 23-yard touchdown that would be the final score of the day for the Titans.

The loss to New York can't solely be placed on a lack of dominant receivers. But, someone has to emerge as a consistent threat to make opposing defenses pay for devoting most of their resources toward stopping Henry. All-time Titans receptions leader Derrick Mason believes the coaching staff needs to play a part in a top playmaker rising to the surface.

"This NFL now is about schematics," Mason said. "You can be an OK receiver, I've seen a bunch of them that end of catching 70-90 passes. It's all built on scheme now. You can scheme a guy open. Treylon Burks, you have to scheme to where he gets the ball in his hands. They gotta do that with Burks and gotta do that with Robert Woods."

If the pass game is struggling, Tennessee will most likely need another big-time performance from Henry, who led the NFL in rushing touchdowns and yards in consecutive seasons prior to his injury last season, like he gave last season against the Bills when he rushed for 143 yards and three touchdowns.

But if someone doesn't step up to make teams pay for focusing on Henry, the Titans could find their path to the playoffs a lot more difficult this season.