Derrick Henry: The Scat-Back in the Offensive Lineman’s Body

The game started as auspiciously as could have been hoped.  Tennessee and Indianapolis each traded 75-yard touchdown drives through the first four drives of the game.  Those drives consumed the entirety of the first quarter – and the first 2:09 of the second quarter – leaving the two teams tied at that point, 14 points each.

But that was as far as the Colts could hold with the Titans.  With 6:15 left in the half, running back Derrick Henry scored his second touchdown of the game, pushing Tennessee back in front 21-14.  They then forced an Indianapolis punt.

But the punt pinned Tennessee back on its own 14 with 4:25 left in the first half.  It was still early in the contest, but the Colt defense understood both the opportunity presented them to return the ball to their offense with excellent field position, as well as the consequences if the Titans should drive the field and score another touchdown.

This would turn out to be the decisive drive of the game, and Tennessee would begin it with a stretch run to the right.  Guard Nate Davis latched onto substitute nose tackle Grover Stewart and just drove him down the line.  Meanwhile, guard Rodger Saffold executed a cut block on Taylor Stallworth, opening up an enormous cutback lane for Henry.

But center Ben Jones – leading on the play – couldn’t throw the decisive block on Anthony Walker, who stood waiting for Derrick at about the 17 yard line.  Very quickly, Walker wasn’t alone.  Khari Willis and Julian Blackmon raced in from the secondary, while Kenny Moore and Al-Quadin Muhammad closed from behind.  For a fraction of a second, it looked like Henry was surrounded by Colts.

But just as it seemed that about half of the Indy defense would collaborate on this tackle, Derrick Henry was suddenly not there.  With the speed and awareness that set him apart as much as his size, Henry exploded through a tiny crack in the forming blockade, veering first rapidly to his left and then cutting sharply up-field inside of Corey Davis’ block on Xavier Rhodes.

And now, Henry was off to the races.  He didn’t go the distance this time.  Willis had enough of an angle that he eventually caught up with Derrick, but not until he had turned that 4-yard run into a 31-yard, game-changing burst.

That run began a 9-play, 86-yard drive with 8 of the plays running plays (Ryan Tannehill tossed one incomplete pass in the middle of all that running).  Henry ended the drive with his third rushing touchdown of the afternoon – an 11-yard burst around right end (again).  At about the 1-yard line, Blackmon thought he had a shot at him, but somehow Derrick slithered out of his grasp and walked into the end zone.

All this time, I think, we have been misunderstanding Derrick Henry.  The enormous tailback – charitably listed at 247 pounds – is often thought of as a battering-ram type back (along the lines of LeGarrette Blount).  But that’s not truly who Derrick is.  Trying to describe his build, the closest I can come is an offensive lineman’s torso attached to a basketball players legs.  And while that physique certainly presents challenges for would be tacklers, Derrick is not a lower-the-shoulder-and-run-through people kind of back.  When presented the opportunities here, he didn’t bowl through either the group of tacklers waiting for him on the 17-yard line or Julian Blackmon waiting at the one – although he almost certainly could have.

Derrick Henry is a scat-back trapped inside an offensive lineman’s body.  On an earlier run, Walker and Darius Leonard had Derrick dead to rights at about the line of scrimmage (Henry had cut his run back to the left where there was no one to block the Indy linebackers).  But Henry gained six yards on the run and neither Walker nor Leonard laid a finger on him as Derrick eluded their grasp with a spin move that Lamar Jackson would have been proud of.

It’s this uncommon combination of confined-space quickness and elite speed to go along with his Mack truck build that makes Derrick Henry one of the most dangerous offensive forces in the NFL.  That combination makes him nearly impossible to game plan against.

It’s no secret that the scat-back in Derrick wants to get to the outside.  In Tennessee’s 45-26 conquest of Indianapolis (gamebook) (summary), Henry racked up 178 rushing yards – 146 of them outside the tackles.  He ran around left end 9 times for 44 yards.  He circled right end 10 times for 102 yards and all 3 touchdowns.  But almost all of those big runs to the outside were set up by some kind of feint up the middle.  Sometimes even the slightest lean toward the center of the field was all it took to get the entire Colt defense to come charging to the middle of the field.  Because, when the Mack truck heads up the middle, everyone has to rally to make the tackle – even if that does allow the scat-back access to the edges.

That the production was so much greater to the right side is neither accidental nor unusual.  It’s almost always that way with Henry and the Titans.  The right side is where they deploy guard Nate Davis and tackle Dennis Kelly, two of the best football players that not a lot of people have heard of.  Many times Tennessee would completely tip their hand by lining Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith to that side, setting them right next to Davis and Kelly.  While both are among Tennessee’s top receivers, they are also accomplished blockers and led many of Henry’s sweeps around that end.

The casual fan might not even know that Jonnu played in the game, as he didn’t get even one pass thrown in his direction.  But on almost all of Henry’s big runs (and Derrick had 8 runs of ten or more yards) Jonnu was there throwing a critical block.

But even when you can tell that Henry is going to end up running around the end, you can’t always do much about it.  You still have to honor the feint toward the middle.

How to Slow Henry?

The Titans have lost three games this year, and in those games Derrick has been “held” to just 96.7 yards per game (but still 5.09 yards per carry).  Two methods have proved somewhat effective in containing this rushing attack.  One is to score enough points and establish a big enough lead that Tennessee has to abandon the running game.  This is how Indy won the first match against Tennessee.  Henry gained 103 yards in that game, but carried only 19 times as the running game was abandoned in the last quarter of that 34-17 Colt victory.

The other strategy is penetration.  The concept is you get to Derrick before he can build up any momentum.  The Colts started to do much more of this in the second half, when they held him to 38 yards on 10 carries.  This approach carries the same element of risk that blitzing a passer does, as a well-timed trap block grants Derrick a gaping lane.

Still, teams that have tried this approach do better – on the whole – than teams that take a less aggressive approach.

Colt Defense Gashed Again

Two weeks ago, the Colts boasted the NFL’s number one defense.  They were second against the pass and third against the run.  They also carried the league’s lowest passer rating against (78.9).

But two weeks ago, Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers lit up the pass defense (even though the Colts came back to win that game).  This week, the Titans gouged the run defense.

It makes it difficult to truly believe in this team.  The bludgeoning this week could come with an asterisk, as Grover Stewart was trying to replace DeForest Buckner, who – like fellow defensive lineman Denico Autry – missed this game due to positive COVID tests.  Stewart was routinely abused by pretty much all of the Tennessee offensive linemen.  Additionally, he provided little relief to the linebackers behind him, as I don’t remember ever seeing him tying up multiple linemen.

But, if it’s true that Stewart wasn’t a strong presence against the run last Sunday, it’s also true that both Buckner and Autry played in that first game against the Titans, and neither of them were terribly impressive as Tennessee rang up 157 rushing yards (averaging 4.9 per) before they were forced to abandon their running game.

Indianapolis has made strides, but they’ve still got some proving to do.

AFC Playoff Implications

With the victory, the Titans now take control of the AFC South, essentially switching places with Indy.  But that switch will have some ripple effects.

With a better conference record, Miami held the tie-breaker against Indianapolis – so they likely would have been the third seed, with the Colts fourth.  Tennessee, though, will probably carry the tie-breaker against the Dolphins (better record against common opponents).  So the Titans now have the inside track on the third seed, with Miami likely dropping to fourth.

Conversely, Tennessee’s victory over Baltimore gave them the tie-breaker there.  So, when Indy was in control of the division, the Titans were likely to earn the fifth seed with the Ravens slotting into the sixth seed.  With Indy in the wild-card mix, that advantage is switched as well.  By virtue of their win over the Colts, Baltimore now has the inside track to the fifth seed, leaving the Colts to take the sixth seed.

And yes, even though Baltimore lost on Wednesday, their playoff position is still more likely than not.

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