NASHVILLE – We all know about the power, speed and breakaway ability of Derrick Henry.
But what about his patience, persistence and perseverance?
The Tennessee Titans running back has needed those qualities more often this year. Henry has piled up his league-leading 640 rushing yards more by hammering away at defenses than by roaring past them. If Henry is a combination of former Titans greats Eddie George and Chris Johnson, then he’s been more George than Johnson through the first five games of 2021.
Outside of a thrilling 60-yard touchdown run against Seattle, he’s only rushed one other time for more than 20 yards so far. But his 142 rushing attempts, 640 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns – all tops in the NFL -- are evidence of his relentlessness.
“You have to be patient in this league,” Henry said. “It is not always going to happen early. Sometimes it will, but if it doesn’t you just have to be patient. Keep hitting the dirty runs and eventually it will pop through for you.”
The home-run carries have been a Henry staple over the past that years, seasons that saw him pile up a combined 3,567 rushing yards and 33 rushing touchdowns.
In 2020, Henry led the NFL with 16 runs of 20-plus yards, easily outdistancing Cleveland’s Nick Chubb (12) and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson (10). His two runs of 20-plus yards this year leave him tied for sixth in that department, trailing Chubb (five), Jackson (four), Jacksonville’s James Robinson (three), Indianapolis’ Jonathan Taylor (three) and Philadelphia’s Miles Sanders (three). So, Henry is on pace – even with one extra game this year – for seven carries of more than 20 yards, fewer than half of last season’s total.
Also in 2020, Henry tied for first with four runs of more than 40 yards, joined only by Green Bay’s Aaron Jones in that category. He has had just the one – against Seattle – through five contests.
“I think they just come in time – they happen naturally,” Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing said. “They happen naturally. If you start looking for the big runs, if you start looking for those 50- or 60-yarders, you can sometimes hurt yourself doing that.
“So, staying with our gameplan and staying with our scheme, I think we’re one broken tackle, one finished block away from those things starting to happen. So, you know, look at the Seattle game, for example. (Henry) hit a couple of efficient runs and we popped a big one. That’s the way Derrick’s run style and our scheme style is.”
Does it really matter if Henry’s not ripping off as many runs of 20 or more yards? To a certain degree, yes.
Tennessee’s offense, slowed by injuries to A.J. Brown and Julio Jones, currently ranks 18th in explosive play rate, per Sharp Football Analysis, a drop from ninth last season. In other words, the Titans are running more plays to gain the same amount of yards on drives, which increases the opportunity for turnovers, penalties or sacks to stall out possessions.
In addition, Henry – minus the breakaway runs – is exerting himself more to pile up the same amazing totals of the past couple seasons.
He’s averaging 4.5 yards per carry this year, down from 5.1 in 2019 and 5.4 last year. But he’s also averaging about five more carries per game than last year, which of course increases the risk of injury and getting worn down.
But neither Henry nor the Titans are too worried that the NFL’s leading rusher – who, by the way, does lead the league in runs of 10-plus yards -- isn’t making ESPN’s highlight reel each week for explosive jaunts downfield.
In fact, running backs coach Tony Dews said thinking too much about the big runs is exactly what he doesn’t want Henry to do.
“The goal is to be efficient,” Dews said. “If you ask Derrick, he thinks every run has to be a home run or can be. I’ve had to explain to him in the past – so he doesn’t get frustrated – that every run isn’t going to be a 60-yard touchdown or better.
“Just take advantage of them when we get them. We can’t miss them when we have the opportunities, but if they’re not there, they’re not there. I don’t want him to force it and try to think he has to score every time he touches the ball – although he thinks he should.”
As for any football fans wondering if opposing teams have somehow found the secret to stopping Henry’s monster runs, Dews offers the same advice: Stay patient.
“I think (Henry) has spoiled us in the last three or four years,” Dews said. “We all get excited every time he gets it and gets in the open field because we know what he’s capable of. But I don’t think anyone has done anything differently. It’s just I think that teams have tackled well.
“So, give some credit to those teams. But just keep sawing wood. Keep running. Keep taking what they give you. When it’s supposed to happen, it will happen.”