Tag Archives: Derrick Henry

What Baltimore’s Learned About Derrick Henry

No one blocked Pernell McPhee.  I think that no one thought that they needed to.

There was 8:26 left in a scoreless first quarter between the Baltimore Ravens and the Tennessee Titans.  It was the first Sunday game of Super WildCard Weekend.  The Titans, with a first-and-ten on the Raven 22, handed the ball off to battering ram running back Derrick Henry (who, as I’m sure you’re aware, rolled up 2027 rushing yards this year).

There’s a thing that almost always happens when the ball is placed into Henry’s hands.  The entire defense converges on the Titans’ titan-sized back (who is still charitably listed as the 247 pounds he weighed when he came out of college).  “Rally to the ball,” is the common theme that you hear when defenses talk about stopping Derrick Henry.  Apparently it takes a village.  (This actually turns out to be true, but not quite in the way that most teams practice it.)

So now, here was quarterback Ryan Tannehill handing the ball to Henry, and here was McPhee standing just off right tackle, not rallying to the ball.  Not doing anything, really.  He was just waiting.

The middle of the defensive line is one of the great strengths of this Baltimore team.  Moving guys like Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe and/or Brandon Williams very far off the line is rare occurrence.

In this instance, it was Nate Davis – one of the really good guards in the NFL – trying to wedge Wolfe off his spot.  Not only did he not succeed, but Wolfe even started pushing him backward into the on-rushing Henry.  Seeing that nothing was developing in front of him, Derrick bounced the play outside to his right – right into the waiting arms of McPhee – who had done an uncommon thing (at least as far as Tennessee opponents are concerned).  He held his contain.

Several weeks ago, I made a point of highlighting Henry’s ability to rapidly cut into the void of a defense.  Those voids exist because most teams don’t have the discipline to stay in their contain when Derrick has the ball.  At that point, they are all about rallying to the ball.  But not the Ravens last Sunday afternoon.

In a display that must surely have caught the attention of the other defensive coordinators in the league, the Baltimore front seven played gap control defense.  As a team, they just never over-reacted to the ball in Henry’s hands.

Tennessee holding a 10-3 lead with 9:59 left in the first half.  The Titans are first-and-ten on their own 25.  Tennessee lines two tight ends to the end of the line on the left, executing a “stretch run” to that side, with Henry the ball carrier.  Linebacker Tyus Bowser gave some ground to the double-team block of those tight ends (Geoff Swaim and Jonnu Smith) but didn’t yield the edge.  On the interior, left tackle David Quessenberry and left guard Rodger Saffold were equally incapable of pushing through Wolfe and Williams, respectively.  Rookie linebacker Patrick Queen met the attempted block of center Ben Jones without budging, and another impressive rookie – Justin Madubuike, who we will talk a little more about later – had full control of Davis.

As Henry looked up, there wasn’t the slightest sliver of daylight for him to exploit at the point of attack – and there was McPhee holding contain on the cutback.

One quarter later, Baltimore now ahead 17-10 with 8:55 left in the third. Henry again looking for any crack in the Raven line.  Tight end MyCole Pruitt had the task of pushing McPhee off the edge.  Didn’t happen.  Saffold was equally unable to remove Madubuike.  Williams occupied both Jones and Davis, leaving Queen a completely clean gap – with Campbell holding his contain waiting for the cutback attempt.  Again, frustration for Henry.

This is a snapshot of what the whole game was like for Derrick, who finished with a season-low 40 rushing yards on 18 carries (for a season-low 2.2 yards per rush).  He had scored 8 touchdowns over his previous 6 games, but there was no end zone for him tonight.

Watching all of this play out, I was left with a couple of impressions – the first about gap defense in general and the second an understanding of how this specifically relates to Henry and the Titans – something, in short, that Baltimore has learned from the last two games against Derrick and Tennessee.

Two Gap Principles

First, gap control only works when your front seven trusts each other.  The reason, after all, that a player abandons his gap is because he believes that some other defender in some other gap isn’t capable of making a play by themselves.  One of the reasons that Baltimore’s defense is so good – and this is an elite defense – is because they all trust each other to make their plays.  Gap control is the ultimate “do your job” defensive approach.

It’s understandable that gap control could waver a bit when Derrick Henry is on the other side.  Who, after all, is capable of tackling King Henry one-on-one.  And yet, the Ravens did all night.  Here’s the thing that they understand.

Derrick Henry is a momentum runner.  In that sense, he’s different than, say, Baltimore’s J.K. Dobbins, who is at top speed the instant the ball is put into his hands.  At more than 250 pounds, Derrick needs a few steps to build up some momentum.  Once that happens, your defense is in deep trouble, but this almost always obliges the offensive line to at least get him past the line of scrimmage.  Up until that point, frankly, Henry is no harder to bring down than most other backs.

Usually this isn’t a problem, as Derrick runs behind one of football’s better run-blocking lines.  But on Sunday afternoon all of those good run blockers had their lunches handed to them.  Derrick averaged only 1.3 yards from scrimmage before being contacted (his season average of 2.5 yards before contact was about average).  Consequently, Derrick gained only 0.9 yards per run after contact (during the season his 2.8 yards after contact were among the league’s best).

Among the most culpable for this difficulty is tight end Swaim.  Usually trusted to give Derrick the edge, Geoff was pushed around the entire afternoon – never more so than on the three-yard loss that Henry sustained on a first-and-goal play from the Baltimore seven-yard line with 6:25 left in the first.  On that play, linebacker/end Matt Judon shot through Swaim as though he was made of toilet paper and dropped Henry as soon as the ball hit his hands.


Before I move too far away from this, just a bit of recognition for Justin Madubuike.  Justin is a rookie third-round draft choice out of Texas A&M who I hadn’t noticed before.  But every time I looked up on Sunday, there he was making another play.  In particular, for a big guy (and he’s listed at 293) he seems to have the technique down for slipping between double-teams.  He did this twice to make big plays on Sunday.  With 2:30 left in the first, he slipped between Saffold and Quessenberry, forcing Derrick to bounce the run back into traffic.  On that play, Justin was even quick enough to catch him from behind and pull him down.

Later, with 6:07 left in the third quarter (and with Henry on the sideline putting his shoe back on), a back named Darrynton Evans was sent off left tackle.  But Judon was there to deny him the corner – he was pushing Swaim into the backfield.  There was no opening next to him, either, as Quessenberry was having no luck moving Wolfe.  As Evans was starting to turn the run back to the right, Madubuike split the guard and tackle on the other side (Nate Davis and Dennis Kelly) and made the tackle.

Justin, apparently, got his opportunity during the COVID outbreak that the Ravens suffered through earlier this season – and given that chance, he seems to be making the most of it.  In a lot of ways Madubuike fits the mold of many of the great defensive linemen that have played in Baltimore.  He’s big enough to hold the line, but athletic, good with his hands, and difficult to lay a block on.  The Ravens may have a find in Justin.

Can Other Teams Do This Against Derrick?

In theory, other teams might employ this same approach when playing against Henry, but there are a couple of caveats that apply.  First and foremost, your team would need a defensive line capable of repelling that very good offensive line.  Baltimore was good enough to do this (at least for one game).  I’m not sure there are many other teams in the league that could.

There’s another piece to Derrick’s struggles in this game, though, that can’t simply be attributed to outstanding defense.  For some reason, although presented with several opportunities, Derrick Henry never took off down the sideline.  This is a stunning development for those of us who have watched him all year.  Almost all of his signature runs have found him outside of the defense, rolling full-steam down the sideline – usually the right sideline behind blocks from Kelly and Davis.  Some of that was the Ravens closing off cutback lanes.  Even with that, though, Derrick had several chances for the big run, and either didn’t see them, or passed them up for some other reason.

Third quarter, Baltimore ahead 17-10, Titans with 2:50 left in the quarter with a first-and-ten at the Raven 25.  The Titans line up with two tight ends to the left, causing the Baltimore defense to shift in that direction.  Now, the only Raven defender to the right of tackle is cornerback Marcus Peters, who disappeared from the play when the receiver he was covering – Nick Westbrook-Ikhine – ran a vertical up the right side.  Now the entire sideline is vacant.

Linebacker Jihad Ward tries to set the edge, as Henry starts rolling toward that vacant sideline, but Kelly has him under control.  Jihad’s chances of keeping Henry from the sideline are exceedingly poor.  But just before turning the corner, Derrick changes his mind and darts back toward the middle – where he is held to a three-yard gain.

Now there’s 12:11 left in the Tennessee season, first-and-ten on their own 42, trailing 17-13.  Westbrook-Ikhine again runs Peters downfield, opening the sideline.  This time, Judon – on the right edge – is pushing Swain into the backfield, but Henry has the angle and a still mostly clear path to the corner.  For some reason, he decides that he can’t get around Judon, and tries to turn back inside.  This time he actually trips over Swain’s feet and can only make it back to the line of scrimmage.

It’s futile to speculate why Derrick didn’t try – at least once – to get around the edge.  But he didn’t.  Sufffice it to say there were about four or five of these opportunities – enough to change the outcome of the event.

Not Much Without Henry

For the game’s first fifteen minutes, Tennessee looked like they could make short work of the Raven defense, even without much contribution from Henry.  Tennessee controlled the clock for 10:23 of that quarter, running 20 plays and rolling up 126 yards and 10 points.

For the entire rest of the game, Tennessee added just 3 more points, gaining just 83 yards on 31 plays.  Over the last three quarters Baltimore owned the time of possession battle, 29:01 to 15:59.  With their early lead not enough to force Baltimore out of its running attack, the Titan defense was faced with the necessity of defending football’s most dangerous ground attack for the full sixty minutes.  Needless to say, it did not end well for them.  The sometimes unstoppable Ravens sliced and diced their way through Tennessee to the tune of 236 rushing yards, on their way to a 20-13 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Leading the assault was quarterback Lamar Jackson, who piled up 136 of those ground yards.  Lamar piled up another 1005 rushing yards during the season, and his 6.3 yards per attempt led all of football.  Lamar was the centerpiece of a rushing game that averaged 191.9 yards per contest and 5.5 per attempt – both numbers easily the best in the NFL.

It’s hard to imagine that the NFL has ever seen a more dangerous ball-carrier than Jackson.  His ability to change direction almost at the speed of thought, makes tackling Lamar about as easy as tackling a feral cat.

But as natural and instinctive as Jackson is a s a runner, he is still that unnatural and forced as a passer.  Some have made claims that Lamar’s passing has continued to improve substantially.  In all honesty, I don’t see it.  Even in victory, Lamar isn’t truly throwing the ball any better or more consistently than he did in last year’s playoff loss.

Lamar’s Continuing Struggles

Several things continue to leap off the tape when you watch Jackson play.  First and most obvious is his minus arm strength.  The farther downfield you ask him to throw, the more erratic his performance becomes.  The Ravens, of course, understand this about Lamar.  At the same time, they understood that Tennessee was distinctly vulnerable to the downfield passing game.  With no pass rush to speak of, the Titans couldn’t play zone, and neither of their cornerbacks was a match for top receivers Marquise Brown or Miles Boykin.

On this particular afternoon, Baltimore had no difficulty getting receivers behind the Tennessee defense.  Getting the ball to them, though, was a different matter.  Look no farther than Jackson’s first quarter interception.

Boykin lined up in a tight split to the right with cornerback Malcolm Butler playing over him.  Malcolm played over Boykin’s outside shoulder, with the intent to keep him away from the sideline and direct him back toward his help in the middle of the field.  Butler’s outside leverage notwithstanding, Boykin extended his vertical stem until he was on top of Butler – at which point he broke sharply outside and started streaking up the sideline, gaining separation from Malcolm with every step.

Some 38 yards downfield, though, was too far.  Lamar’s throw was not only short but well to the inside.  It actually looked like Butler was the intended receiver.

I’m not really sure that there is anything you can do about arm strength.  If there were some exercises or drills that could add length to your throws, then everyone would be throwing 60-yard lasers like Josh Allen.  At some point, I think you have to accept that his arm is what it is and plan accordingly.

There are other issues, though – mental things – that Baltimore should well expect Lamar to have improved on by now.  These are also issues.

For one thing, Lamar still hasn’t developed that feel for when he can continue to wait on the deep routes to come open, and when he needs to check the ball down.  The Titans finished last in football in quarterback sack percentage.  They recorded only 19 for the season (Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt recorded 15 all by himself), and only managed to drag the opposing passer to the ground on 2.9% of his drop-backs.

Sunday they took Lamar down 5 times.  In looking at that number, no one need assume that Tennessee suddenly became the Steelers.  On every one of those sacks, Jackson had ample time and opportunity to either check the ball down, throw it away, or pull it down and run with it.  In almost all of those cases, Lamar kept waiting for deep routes to come open until he’d run out of time.

With 4:18 left in the first half, the Ravens, still down 10-3, faced first-and-ten on the Tennessee 49-yard line.  The Titans blitzed rarely throughout the afternoon, but they brought one here, playing a very soft and very deep zone defense behind it.  As Jackson stood in the pocket, both Boykin and Willie Snead broke wide open underneath the coverage – Snead deep enough downfield to get a first down.  But Jackson didn’t throw it.  He was waiting on Hollywood’s deep route.  Down the right sideline, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown was running a deep route that did, eventually split the zone.  But by the time Hollywood broke through, Jackson was on the turf.

Lamar did better (statistically) in the second half – completing 10 of his 13 throws.  But at that point the Ravens had given up on the deep throws and had Jackson dumping the ball off short to the first open receiver he saw.  As often as not, that turned out to be TE/Fullback Patrick Ricard, who the Titans struggling pass defense frequently forgot to cover.  It was a comforting second half, but it doesn’t negate the aspects of throwing the football that are still foreign to Jackson.

One play in particular encapsulates where Lamar is as a passer in season three of the Jackson Experiment.

Still trailing 10-0, the Ravens have the ball on Tennessee’s ten-yard line.  There’s 10:41 left in the first half and Baltimore is faced with a third-and-six.  Running back Dobbins was flanked wide to the left, and Tennessee trotted linebacker David Long out to the perimeter to cover him.  Conscious of Dobbins speed, Long allowed him a substantial cushion.  Next to Dobbins, Dez Bryant was in the slot, with Malcolm Butler directly over him in bump-and-run coverage.  At the snap, Dez headed for the corner of the end zone, bringing Butler with him.  Their path cut off Long’s path to Dobbins, who was running a shallow cross back across the middle.  J.K., at this point, was as wide open as any receiver was all day.  He was a short toss away from Jackson, would have easily picked up the first down, and well might have scored.

Jackson never threw him the ball.  Dobbins, you see, was not his first read.  You can see Lamar’s head turn and follow his first read – Dez Bryant headed for the corner of the end zone – for several seconds.

Dobbins was wide open just below Bryant.  It’s almost inconceivable that Lamar didn’t see him.  But his second read was Andrews over the middle.  So, after watching Dez for a while (too long, really), he turned his attention to Mark.  He even raised his arm to throw him the ball. But by then it was too late.  The pocket collapsed and Lamar pulled the ball back into his body just before Brooks Reed drove him to the ground.

This is where Jackson is as a passer.  After 37 regular season starts and three more in the playoffs, passing is still a paint-by-numbers exercise.  I guarantee you that any of the “passing” quarterbacks in this league, understanding the route combination would realize pre-snap that Long couldn’t possibly cover Dobbins’ route from a five-yard cushion.  Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees – pick your favorite – all these guys would have the ball in J.K.’s hands about a half second after the snap.

This evening, Jackson and his Ravens will travel to frigid (and possibly snowy) Orchard Park, New York, to face a very good Buffalo team.  One team’s playoff journey will continue.  Football is always a wildly unpredictable event.  If anyone claims that they predicted that Cleveland would jump out to a 28-0 lead on Pittsburgh if the first quarter of last week’s game, I would certainly ask to see the proof.

But within our understanding of the liklihoods of this game, the story lines seem crystal clear.

If the Baltimore defense can find a way to slow the Buffalo offense to the point where Lamar can keep running the ball, then the Ravens will probably win.  About the only notable weakness in this Buffalo team is its run defense.  Even in beating Indianapolis last week, they still surrendered 163 rushing yards to the Colts.

Those of you who watched that game might be quick to point out that more than half of those yards (82 to be exact) came on just three plays.  Other than that, the Colt run game was little heard from.  It wasn’t like they pounded the ball down the Bills’ throat all day.

This is true.  But understand that this is who the Ravens are as well.  They are not a grinding, 12-play, nine-minute, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust team.  They are a big play running team – a one-missed-tackle-costs-you-a-48-yard-touchdown kind of team.  In their own way, they are just as dependent on the big play as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  And if they are allowed to keep running the ball for the whole sixty minutes, that big run will almost assuredly come to pass (no pun intended).

On the other hand, if Buffalo solves the Baltimore blitz scheme (and a blitz-based pass defense always comes with some element of risk) and puts Baltimore in a position where they have to start throwing the ball, then the Ravens will be in trouble.

And that’s even if it doesn’t snow.

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.

Fear the Titans – Fear Them

The game had already been – essentially – decided.  With slightly more than three minutes left, the Tennessee Titans held a 28-14 lead in Houston over their division rivals.  But they still had a little bit of unfinished business.

Entering the game 165 yards behind Cleveland’s Nick Chubb, Tennessee’s Derrick Henry – after a huge game on the ground – now stood just 7 yards behind Chubb for the league rushing title.  And so, as Henry cruised down the sideline on his final carry of the day for the 53-yard touchdown that would push him past Nick, his sideline erupted with, perhaps, the most emotion they had shown all game.

What began as a must win for Tennessee to even extend its season into the playoffs, ended as a rout, and a coronation – of sorts – as the Titans rode Henry’s 211 rushing yards – and 3 rushing touchdowns (along with another excellent effort from quarterback Ryan Tannehill) to a 35-14 wildcard clinching victory (gamebook) (summary).

One of the tipoffs to Henry’s success came just after the touchdown as he stood along the sidelines embracing his offensive linemen.  If you didn’t know which one was Henry, it would be a little difficult to tell which was the running back and which was the offensive lineman.

Even as the running game has regained importance over the last few years – and even with the rise of a new generation of hammer backs – it is still unusual to see that running back standing eyeball to eyeball with his offensive line.

Listed heights and weights for NFL players are notoriously imprecise, but – as a point of comparison – Derrick Henry is listed at 6-3 and 247 pounds.  Of the other running backs that finished in the top ten in rushing, the next tallest was Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon, listed at 6-1.  Toiling in relative obscurity in Cincy, Mixon rolled up his second consecutive thousand yard season (1137) this year.  Taller than most, Mixon is still (officially) 27 pounds lighter than Henry at 220.

By listed weight, the next heaviest to Derrick are the bowling-ball backs – Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott and Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette.  Both are listed as 6-0 and 228 pounds – again almost 20 pounds lighter than Henry.

So Derrick’s sheer size is a factor – and the primary reason that his production rises notably in the second half of games.  On Sunday, Henry went into the locker room with just 47 rushing yards.  In the second half, he rolled up 164 – almost as many in those two quarters alone as he needed to catch Chubb.  For the season, Derrick earned 543 yards in the first halves of his games, averaging 4.1 yards per carry.  In the second halves he added 997 yards at 5.8 per carry.  In his combined third quarters alone, Derrick ran for more yardage (669 yards) than in the first two quarters of his games.

But Henry’s size is well-known.  What, perhaps, doesn’t get as much play is his speed and overall nimbleness.  Two plays before his 53-yard touchdown, Derrick popped for a 23-yard run.  Both plays were very similar.  The first run was a pitch to Derrick going down the left sideline.  He basically took the ball and outran Texan linebacker Brennan Scarlett around the corner.

The touchdown run was slightly more complex.  It began as a zone run left that Derrick cut back up the middle.  There was a lot of green in front of him, and only linebacker Peter Kalambayi waiting for him in the hole.  Peter was probably waiting for Henry to lower his shoulder and plow through him, but – channeling his inner scat-back – Henry pivoted adroitly off his left leg and cut sharply to the right.  With Kalambayi diving after him in vain, Derrick burst through the thinnest of openings between linebacker Barkevious Mingo and cornerback Keion Crossen and outran the rest of the defense for the last 40 yards down the right sideline.  I’m not sure Lamar Jackson could have done it better himself.

It is this unique combination of size, power, speed and quickness that makes Henry such a devastating weapon.  Derrick has now spent four complete seasons in Tennessee.  He has only one previous 1000 yard season, and has made just one previous trip to the playoffs.  After the 2017 season, the Titans went into Kansas City and won a wildcard game 22-21 fueled by 156 yards from Henry.  The next week – in the Divisional Round – they were dumped in New England (the site of today’s playoff game) 35-14, with Henry piling up just 28 yards.  He only carried 12 times.

Derrick has always been this kind of weapon.  His enduring problem in Tennessee is that the Titans could never muster a consistent enough passing game to allow them to keep handing the ball off to Henry for the whole game.  In fact, 2019 began the same as all of those other seasons.

Six weeks into the season, Tennessee was 2-4, with Henry averaging 18.8 carries a game for a modest 69.3 yards – averaging 3.7 yards per.  At that point, the team was handed over to Tannehill, and as the passing game picked up, so did Henry’s effectiveness.

Since the change in quarterbacks, Henry is averaging 21.1 carries and 124.9 yards per game – 5.9 yards per carry.  Over his last 6 games, he has been almost otherworldly, carrying 23.2 times a game for 149.3 yards per contest – almost 6.5 yards per carry.

The life brought to this offense by Tannehill almost can’t be overstated.  All Henry really needed was a solid passing attack.  To everyone’s surprise, what he got was arguably the most effective passing attack in the league.

Out of the mediocrity of his seasons in Miami, Ryan Tannehill has exploded onto the NFL scene like the second coming of Tom Brady.  His numbers are stunning.  His 117.5 passer rating leads the NFL – as does his average yards per pass (9.59) and his yards per completion (13.6).  His 7.7 touchdown percentage is second in the league, and his 70.3% completion percentage ranks third.

He passes the eye test, too.  If you watched him against Houston, you saw him following up his excellent decision-making with laser-precise throws into very tight windows.

You would not have expected this at the beginning of the season, but by every measure available to us, Ryan Tannehill looks to be the real thing.

All of this makes Tennessee one of the most intriguing darkhorses in the playoffs.  Two years later, they will be getting a second shot in New England – this time against a Patriot team that doesn’t seem to be a match for them.  Whether this Tennessee team could hold up against the Baltimore Ravens is a discussion we’ll have if that ever becomes relevant, but today I fully expect to see them end New England’s season.

As to the Texans, yes, they played this game under wraps.  Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Kenny Stills, Laremy Tunsil, D.J. Reader, Benardrick McKinney and Bradley Roby never saw the field, while their star running back – Carlos Hyde – didn’t play after the first series.

The defensive players who made cameos that day included Zach Cunningham (20 snaps), Angelo Blackson (20 snaps), Mike Adams (13), A.J. Moore (11), Johnathan Joseph (7) and Whitney Mercilus (7).

While we have to take Sunday’s final with a grain of salt as far as Houston goes, it is nonetheless true that this has been a mostly disappointing team all season – never more so than when they followed a transformational victory over New England with a head-scratching loss to Denver in weeks 13 and 14.  In Week 15 of this season, they traveled into Tennessee to win the game that essentially gave them the division title and left them with little to play for last Sunday.

But even in that game, one came away believing that Tennessee was the better team.  After a shaky first half that saw them fall behind 14-0, the Titans came roaring back after the intermission to narrow the final to 24-21 – a performance that makes me doubt whether Houston could have won this game even if they had tried.

While Tennessee enters their playoff game this afternoon as a team on the rise, I can’t feel the same for the Texans – who also play this afternoon.

I don’t trust them.  Even playing at home, I don’t trust this team to rise to the occasion.  Their opponents today from Buffalo have consistency issues with their offense, but they are a legit defense.  Truthfully, the Bills have precious few victories over quality teams on their resume, so it’s hard to favor them going into Houston and winning.  But I do expect them to give the Texans all they can handle.

And I can no longer feel any surprise when Houston loses a game that most feel they could have won.