NASHVILLE — In the final game of the Tennessee Titans’ inaugural ball game against Green Bay last week, quarterback Ryan Tannehill turned to one of his most trusted red zone targets.
Running back Dontrell Hilliard slipped out of the backfield, found a soft spot on the right side of the Packers defense, and carried a 14-yard completion into the end zone.
So easy. So effective. But still so surprising in its own way.
That’s because Hilliard had never caught a touchdown pass this season — his fifth in the NFL.
However, 10 games this year has changed everything. Hilliard’s touchdown catch last week was his fourth, meaning he has at least twice as many TD receptions as any of his teammates. Tight end Austin Hooper and wide receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine are next in line with two touchdown catches each.
Should he keep up his pace, Hilliard would become the first Titans running back to lead the team in touchdown receptions since 1999, when Eddie George’s foursome shared the team lead.
“I’m not sure I thought he’d lead the team, but I’m certainly not surprised by his success,” offensive coordinator Todd Downing said of Hilliard. “He works extremely hard. We saw in training camp the effort he put into learning some of those schemes and developing a relationship with (Tannehill). I’m very happy for him and proud of Dontrell.”
Of course, it’s one thing to rank high in an airstrike by the Titans, who have struggled for much of the season with just 11 touchdown passes in 10 contests.
But Hilliard also compares favorably to the rest of the league.
Scroll to Next
His four touchdown receptions rank first among NFL running backs (along with the Chargers’ Austin Ekeler and the Bengals’ Samaji Perrine), and Hilliard and Ekeler are the only two running backs to support their respective teams at touchdown catches to lead
Ekeler needed 69 receptions to get four touchdowns, while Hilliard did it in just 16 catches.
“It’s just a matter of gathering the details and taking the opportunity,” Hilliard said. “I try to take full advantage of everything that comes my way.”
One person who isn’t surprised by Hilliard’s success this year? Safety Amani Hooker, who watched Hilliard catch many touchdowns in training camp against the team’s defense in the August heat.
“Every time he scores, I cheer because he did it to us at camp,” Hooker said. “So it’s good to see that it’s happening to other teams now.
“He’s a fast guy. He’s good at catching the ball. He’s got great routes that you wouldn’t normally expect from a running back and he’s got great hands. I think he’s a great asset for us on offense.”
It was clear that 27-year-old Hilliard had some untapped physical abilities when the Titans signed him midway through last season. He then helped replace the injured Derrick Henry by rushing for 350 yards 56 times in eight games.
But a full offseason and training camp with the Titans this year allowed Hilliard to build on his relationship with Tannehill and become even more comfortable in the passing scheme. The former Tulane standout has 16 catches for 160 yards (10.0 yard average) so far this season, compared to 19 catches for 87 yards (4.6 yard average) in 2021.
“He does a good job of running routes and understanding route concepts, and he’s done a good job of understanding coverage concepts,” said running backs coach Tony Dews. “Dontrell is a very sharp kid from a mental standpoint. He studies film. He takes great notes in the classroom part of it. He’s proud of the role he’s earned here.”
Is Hilliard a little surprised himself that he’s leading the Titans in touchdown catches at this point in the season, having accounted for 36 percent of the team’s points scored?
“That’s an interesting question,” Hilliard said with a smile. “At the end of the day, however, I’m grateful for the opportunity, grateful for the things that are happening.”