Derrick Henry Makes Tennessee Titans a Scary Postseason Threat

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystDecember 2, 2019

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry takes the field before an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/James Kenney)
James Kenney/Associated Press

Running back Derrick Henry is built for a postseason run, and the Tennessee Titans better be ready to take advantage of their offensive bell cow. 

If Henry's recent play is any indication, he and the Titans will roll into the playoffs despite being a game behind the sixth-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers in the conference record tiebreaker since both squads have the same overall record.  

The Titans have won five of their last six contests with Henry leading the way. In fact, he's the been the game's must unstoppable runner over the last few weeks and the past year. 

Henry has accumulated at least 149 rushing yards in the last three contests with 496 yards in total. The 25-year-old workhorse joined Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson and Adrian Peterson as the only backs in NFL history with three straight games of 145 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown, per the NFL

Over the past 16 games, Henry has been the NFL's most dominant ground-gainer. The 247-pound back with Juggernaut-like qualities has amassed 1,725 rushing yards, 18 rushing touchdowns—both of which rank first overall, per ESPN's Field Yatesand 1,946 totals yards

Before going any further, let's rewind 10 months to better understand how Henry could become the most integral part of any franchise during the 2020 postseason. 

The NFL is now known as a high-flying, pass-first league. The game is driven by quarterback play. All of that remains true. However, both the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams showed how an old-school approach can still lead to late-season success. 

Last season, C.J. Anderson, who filled in for an injured Todd Gurley II, and Sony Michel took over as the focal points of their respective offenses once the weather grew colder. Both teams adjusted and set up prolific passing attacks off simple ground games.

The Rams leaned on the prodigious Anderson by using a simple inside-zone, downhill approach. The Patriots, meanwhile, implemented fullback James Develin and bludgeoned opponents. Both squads benefited from outstanding line play, too. 

The Titans can follow the same template with Henry leading the way. They have a talented and physical front with the hammer to pound opponents into submission. 

Top 5 Running Backs over Last 16 Games
No.PlayerCarriesRushing YardageTotal TDsTotal Yardage
1.Derrick Henry3191,725201,946
2.Nick Chubb2991,47781,738
3.Christian McCaffrey2911,402182,250
4.Ezekiel Elliott3141,35091,880
5.Chris Carson2981,326111,582
NFL.com

Anyone who watches Henry immediately marvels at his size. He's not simply another thick power back. He stands 6'3" with a rare combination of power and speed to overwhelm grown men who are trying to tackle him, as Titans head coach Mike Vrabel highlighted, per SI Titan Maven's David Boclair:

"When runners, especially [when] Derrick (gets) into his fourth or fifth step, it's a little different than a guy with a different skillset. Everybody's very aware of what his skillset is, and if we can get him into his fourth or fifth step, we feel very confident in his ability and our ability to gain meaningful yards. But if we can't do that, that's hard to ask him to make some of those cuts that a smaller, quicker back would make."

Henry's power isn't just overwhelming; it's demoralizing. Ask the Jacksonville Jaguars after he torched the AFC South rival yet again in Week 12. Nothing but a bunch of attempted arm tackles, bad angles and defensive backs eating Henry's nasty stiff-arm followed. Tennessee's lead back ran for 159 yards with an impressive 74-yard touchdown romp during the crucial division meeting. 

The 2015 Heisman Trophy winner has always been difficult to tackle. He finished second overall in yards after contract last season, according to Pro Football Focus. He led all running backs in the category through Week 10 this year and hasn't slowed down since. 

"Derrick's shown time and time again the whole year that he's tough to bring down," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "He's going to run through arm tackles. If you give him a crease, he's going to gain yards. He also the speed to finish and the strength to finish down the field. It's a rare combination to find in a running back."

A near-250-pound back overpowering defenders and breaking tackles shouldn't come as a surprise; Henry's niftiness in the hole and long speed belie a man his size. 

Henry will soften up a defense by delivering body blow after body blow. As soon as a linebacker or defensive back makes a misread or loses his gap integrity, the running back turns into a runaway tractor-trailer. He has the speed to pull away from defenders easily, as NFL Next Gen Stats noted: 

Tennessee's downfall in recent years originated from the quarterback position and an inability to pull defenders out of the box. A year ago, Henry still managed the third-most rushing yards (553) against stacked boxes, according to Pro Football Focus. To place that number into context, 52.2 percent of Henry's 2018 rushing yardage came with eight or more defenders near the line of scrimmage. 

Things change. 

The Titans turned to Ryan Tannehill after six games of ineffective play from Marcus Mariota. The veteran is now experiencing a career revival in Nashville, and his play has helped maximize Henry's potential. 

The reason for Henry's uptick is simple: Tennessee's opponents now have to respect the passing game beyond simple quick-hitters.

Tannehill leads the NFL at 9.1 yards per pass attempt and ranks second with a 113.9 quarterback rating. For comparison, Mariota averaged 7.4 yards per attempt, which falls smack dab in the middle of all starting quarterbacks, with a 91.7 quarterback rating. Basically, the stats show the 2015 second overall pick is an average quarterback who didn't make those around him better on a consistent basis. 

Conversely, Tannehill and Henry form a perfect symbiotic relationship. The latter is clearly the focal point of the offense, but the former can benefit from the running back's presence with a strong play-action, downfield passing attack. The unit's newfound aerial prowess allows Henry to see fewer men in the box on a down-by-down basis. 

And both benefit from a big and physical offensive line that can consistently win at the point of attack. Left tackle Taylor Lewan, right tackle Jack Conklin and left guard Rodger Saffold are outstanding run-blockers. 

All this sets Henry up for success through the final four games and into the playoffs, should the Titans secure either a Wild Card spot or even an AFC South division title. They're currently one game behind the Houston Texans in both overall and division record, but the teams still play each other twice. 

Henry will have to earn his yardage during Tennessee's final four-game stretch, though he's accustomed to doing so. The Texans are 19th overall against the run, while the Oakland Raiders and New Orleans Saints both rank top-12 against opposing ground games. 

That's OK. No back is better at carrying the load and leading his team to victory. Henry doesn't allow defenses to dictate terms; he does the dictating. That's what makes him special. It's also what should make him the perfect protagonist during a playoff run once his team finally reaches the postseason. 

The idea an offense must remain balanced with a 50/50 run-pass split no longer relates to modern football. Today's balanced offenses spread the ball between their playmakers regardless of position. Henry is the Titans' best player. He epitomizes the rough-and-tumble approach that is still effective. 

Tennessee doesn't have an easy path in front of it as the team sits on the outside looking in at the playoff picture. But it has the perfect offensive weapon in Henry to lead the squad to the promised land if utilized correctly when contests matter most. 

     

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.

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