Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry’s recent surge into immense productivity could not have come at a better time for the team.
When the Titans drafted Henry, fans couldn’t get enough of him. Talk radio show hosts were frequently flooded with phone calls from Titans supporters demanding that Henry receive more attention in the offense.
Following the retirement of DeMarco Murray in the spring, it seemed as if those fans were finally going to get what they desired: Henry as a feature back in the Titans offense. Those hopes and dreams were seemingly shattered, though, when the Titans signed veteran Dion Lewis in free agency.
Despite claims from several Titans coaches that the timeshare between Lewis in Henry would differ each week based on the opponent, it became clear during the first half of the season that Lewis was the Titans’ preferred option in the backfield. He consistently out-snapped, and outproduced, Henry.
The extra snaps for Lewis were probably warranted. He showed a knack for evading tacklers with his quickness, and he served as a great check-down option for quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Additionally, Henry wasn’t doing anything to warrant more opportunities. He had fallen into such a deep slough of despond, if you will, that a lot of the fans who had previously screamed for the Alabama product to get more carries seemed to no longer care.
Derrick Henry says that Mariota made fun of him for the way his first career pass attempt turned out. pic.twitter.com/Ui3AI0j2Mo
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) December 23, 2018
“Trash” is the term Henry repeatedly used to describe his early-season performances. He wasn’t pleased with himself, and he was frustrated.
Then came his explosion against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday Night Football, one of the greatest individual offensive performances in NFL history. Everything changed after that.
In that game and the following two, Henry has combined for 492 yards and 7 touchdowns. The back who at one point in the season was consistently unproductive is just 34 yards away from his first 1,000-yard season.
Henry also has 12 touchdowns on the season with one game to go. His efforts over the previous few games have also earned him a spot as a Pro Bowl alternate.
Luckily for the Titans, Henry’s breakout came when they needed it most. Heading into the Jaguars game, Henry’s monumental performance, the Titans knew they would have to “run the table” in their remaining four games to have any realistic shot at a playoff berth.
Since then, the Titans have rattled off three straight wins. Henry was the focal point of the offense in each of those games, and he figures to see yet another big workload against the Indianapolis Colts in a must-win game on Sunday Night Football.
“I just think he’s running with a purpose, running with an attitude, a mindset, a mentality that ‘I’m not going down,'” said offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur of Henry’s recent success. “I don’t know if he’s seeking contact, but he’s running aggressively. He’s being decisive, making one cut and taking out people on his path.”
“It is fun to watch,” said backup QB Blaine Gabbert. “You know, you hand it off, you try and sell the fake but you always try and steal a peek to see what [Henry’s] doing over there. He’s always falling forward, some ugly runs that go for four or five yards that keep a drive alive, keep us on the field. He’s a great running back. He does so many things for this offense and it was fun to see him get going in that last drive.”
— Luke Worsham (@luke_worsham) December 19, 2018
Henry’s recent success has reeled Titans fans right back into his corner. During the Titans’ game on Saturday against Washington, fans at Nissan Stadium frequently offered loud, passionate chants of “Henry, Henry, Henry!” when the offense was in scoring territory.
The chants got so loud at one point that backup center/guard Corey Levin was trying to quiet the fans down from the sideline. The Titans were on offense, after all.
“They were saying my name and I was saying, ‘Touchdown, touchdown, touchdown,'” Henry said of the chants after the game.
That quote from Henry is just another example of the humility that guided him through his early season struggles, and it remains with him in the midst of success. He frequently answers questions regarding his potential to notch 1,000 yards with the moniker, “winning is all that matters to me.”
“That’s a great attitude to have,” said head coach Mike Vrabel. “We would hope that everybody would say that—as long as the team is winning and that we win, whatever contribution that I can make to that would be great.”
Even if Marcus Mariota plays against the Colts, something that seems rather likely, the Titans should continue to “let the big man eat.” His recent bullyings of defenses have added a new dimension to the Titans offense.
If Henry keeps up the more patient physical style of running that has led to the success, the Titans may be playing football well into the month of January.
Cover image: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today