NASHVILLE – It would be difficult – probably impossible – to find anyone who second-guessed Derrick Henry’s effort in the Tennessee Titans’ first two games of the season.
Still, there was a sense heading into Week 3 that we hadn’t seen the best of the big man.
Through two games, Henry had rushed 34 times for just 107 yards, a pedestrian 3.1 yards per carry.
Where was the Henry of the last three years? Where was the player who’d averaged more than 100 yards per game during that stretch? The first man in more than 20 years to win back-to-back rushing titles?
Henry’s lower numbers were hardly the only issue for a stagnant Tennessee offense in those first two weeks. The line struggled to open holes for him. The passing game failed to click, and the team turned the ball over far too often.
But the bottom line, as it has been for years, was this: If the Titans were to produce more on that side of the ball, Henry had to look more like the man who’d steamrolled the NFL for more than 4,500 yards in his previous three seasons.
That’s the Henry who appeared in Sunday’s 24-22 win over the Las Vegas Raiders, a victory that saved the Titans from an 0-3 start and gave the team a jump-start heading to Indianapolis next week.
This game won’t go down as one of Henry’s most memorable. He totaled 20 carries for 85 yards and a touchdown and had five catches for 58 yards.
But it was the way Henry gained those yards that stood out – as he pumped those massive legs and barreled through defenders time and time again, piling up yards after contact and inspiring his teammates.
“Yeah, he was running hard,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “I think that’s the Derrick that we’ve all come to know and to love, is the guy who’s breaking tackles, running through tackles and getting those tough yards. So it’s good to see Derrick’s back.”
Added coach Mike Vrabel: “I thought he ran hard, I thought he ran with purpose. That’s what the expectations are for us with Derrick and Derrick for himself. I know that. He wants to be that type of player.”
There was no better illustration of Henry’s impact on the game than the Titans’ very first drive, which began when he got swarmed as soon as he touched the ball – buried for a three-yard loss.
Another long day for The King? Another afternoon of serving as the focal point for an opponent’s defense?
Henry offered an emphatic answer one play later, when he caught Tannehill’s short screen pass and – despite several Raiders closing on him – used both his speed and power to rumble for a 23-yard gain.
By the end of that first drive, the Titans had a 7-0 lead and Henry accounted for 48 of the 75 yards they covered. His totals included 9 and 10-yard runs, again examples of hammering into the line and moving piles forward.
It was classic Henry, classic Titans football.
“When you have a muddy run, when there’s not a huge hole there and there’s kind of contact at or around the line of scrimmage, and he’s able to pump his legs, the offensive line is able to push him and it turns into a five or six-yard run, those are huge,” Tannehill said. “Those start to stack up over the course of the game. It wears down the front.”
Henry beat up the Raiders’ front again on the Titans’ third drive, carrying once for 10 yards and then rumbling 24 yards down to the Las Vegas 1-yard line to set up a Tannehill touchdown sneak.
Through the season’s first two weeks, Henry’s rushing yards over expectation was actually minus 46, according to Next Gen Stats, meaning that – according to the analytics website – he should have been far more productive than his actual numbers.
That wasn’t the case Sunday, as Henry finished with three yards over expectation, his first positive finish of the season in that department.
“Just trying to run hard, finish strong, get north-south, try to break tackles, do what I can to move forward,” Henry said.
As hard as Henry ran against the Raiders, his numbers in the passing game were actually more eye-opening.
After not catching a pass in the Titans’ first two games – and only getting thrown to once – Henry caught a team-high five passes against Las Vegas, gaining 58 yards in the process. It marked the second-highest reception total of Henry’s career, his third-highest receiving yardage total.
“We called a couple screens, obviously, which gets (Henry) the ball,” Tannehill said. “But the other ones, I think (the defense was) just soft. They were dropping out of there, taking away some of the down-the-field throws for us.
“But when they do that, it opens up those underneath checkdowns … To have guys who can catch the ball and then do something with it when they catch it underneath is huge.”
Was it a perfect afternoon for Henry? No. He, like the rest of the Titans’ offense, was not as productive in the second half as the first. Henry powered through the Raiders’ defense 11 times for 64 yards in the first two quarters, but was held to nine carries for 21 yards in the final two quarters.
It was arguably more difficult for him to establish a rhythm in the second half when the Titans ran only 23 offensive plays, producing a meager three first downs.
“We just didn’t execute,” Henry said. “We just didn’t have same momentum second half we did the first. Need to be better coming out of the half.”
That could be said about the Titans collectively, who’ve been outscored 57-7 in the second half this season.
Still, the Titans managed to do just enough to beat the Raiders.
And as a drained Henry trudged off the field afterward, there was a sense the team had regained at least some sense of its offensive identity – all of which begins with Henry’s ability to inflict punishment in the ground game.
“It’s huge whenever he’s running that hard,” Tannehill said. “We talk about finishing on a daily basis and that’s what we like to see is the pile going downfield. When you see that happening, you start to build that momentum and a lot of confidence is gained offensively.”