NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans are preparing for arguably the biggest game of their season and will likely rely on their dynamic running back, Dion Lewis, when they travel to face the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football in Week 12.
Though Lewis touched the ball only 11 times in the Titans' 38-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, he has taken over as Tennessee's lead back, relegating Derrick Henry to a complementary role.
The thought of a 5-foot-8, 195-pound running back being the feature piece in an NFL team's rushing attack goes against the common belief that bigger is better at his position. Lewis is different from the norm. He has been an underdog all his life when it comes to football, and the doubts drive him to play the game much bigger than his size would indicate.
"I'm 5-foot-8 on a good day! My whole life I was always told that I was too small to be at this level," Lewis said. "I always carried that with me when I got on the football field. When I get on that field, I am a different person, so I always bring the mentality to be mean and aggressive to show people what I can do."
Some of Lewis' aggressiveness carried over to his postgame interviews after he faced the Patriots -- the team that let him leave via free agency. He didn't pull any punches when asked if facing his former team was personal.
"Hell yeah, it's personal. When you go cheap, you get your ass kicked," he said after Tennessee's 34-10 win in Week 10.
The comment was a product of the chip that Lewis carries on his shoulder. He admitted he has always had to be a feisty guy who plays with an edge. It's a mindset that has served him well in Tennessee, where he has been handling a significant workload at nearly 19 touches per game over the past four weeks and 15.8 for the season. Those totals include 23 touches in a Week 9 win against the Dallas Cowboys and 22 against the Patriots.
He had a streak of back-to-back games with more than 100 yards of total offense broken by the Patriots, but he still had an impact. His ability to catch the ball in the screen game and on routes out of the backfield is an added element for defenses to be concerned about -- especially on third down. The Titans rank 11th in the NFL in third-down conversions (43.1 percent), but they have converted on 56.4 percent since Week 7 (31 of 55) with Lewis responsible for 18 of those conversions -- 12 rushing and six receiving.
"It helps to be able to keep a defense off balance," Lewis said. "They don't know if it's a run or pass, or if I am running a route. There's a whole bunch of different things that I can do to help this offense. I am trying to do more. As much as they hand to me, I am trying to show them I can do as much as they think I can and keep building momentum and get better every week."
Lewis likes being in the open field, where he gets the chance to make defenders miss. He's been making defenders look silly since his days at the University of Pittsburgh, where he rushed for 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns in his final year in college. At Pittsburgh he followed Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy, who used one word to describe Lewis:
"Baller," McCoy said. "Dion is really good. He so shifty. Also, he runs hard. He's short and small, but he runs with some authority."
Though he's finally getting his chance with the Titans, the path to being a feature back was a long one for Lewis, now in his seventh season. He has been traded once and released twice.
He had a brief stop in Cleveland where he worked with offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who told Lewis to watch how Darren Sproles was so impactful as a pass-catcher and work to be a similar dual-threat. The Browns released Lewis before he could show what he learned and a brief stint with the Colts didn't give him much of a chance to do so, either.
After being viewed as a complementary player for most of his career, Lewis got the chance to take on an expanded role when Titans general manager Jon Robinson signed him to a four-year deal worth $20 million. Understandably, Lewis was emotional during his introductory news conference, but he says he won't allow the big contract to take away from his underdog mindset.
"I had never really reflected on [the contract], so that was kind of like my first time doing it that day, so that's why I was emotional," Lewis said. "But, I still have to prove it. I have to prove it every game and every day at practice. That's my mentality."
ESPN Bills Reporter Mike Rodak contributed to this story.