NASHVILLE – Safely distanced behind the line of scrimmage following a handoff, Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill spun around to watch the show.
His blood started pumping, Tannehill said, when he saw Derrick Henry bolt through the first level and cut toward the sideline – only one defender left between Henry and the end zone.
“I saw him kind of rounding the corner, gaining speed with one defender coming in, and I knew it could be a big one,” Tannehill said. “You get excited knowing he can make that guy miss, stiff arm, out-run him, whatever it may be.”
Sure enough, a few seconds and 60 yards later, Henry had done it again, the latest in a long line of lengthy touchdown runs.
His scoring scamper against Seattle last Sunday was the 10th touchdown run of 50-plus yards in his NFL career, the most of any player since he entered the league as a second-round draft pick in 2016.
Those big-play scores not only serve as huge emotional lifts for the Titans, but – at least so far – have guaranteed victory for the two-tone blue.
Check out the numbers:
• The Titans are 9-0 in the 10 games Henry has ripped off a touchdown run of 50-plus yards. (He recorded two in a 2018 victory over Jacksonville).
• Add in a pair of long-distance touchdown catches he’s posted, and the Titans are 11-0 when Henry produces 50-plus scoring plays of any kind.
• Even when the distance isn’t quite 50 yards – and the result isn’t a touchdown – the Titans were money last season. In the games that Henry recorded his 13 longest runs last year – ranging from 22 to 94 yards – the Titans went 7-0.
“It never gets old watching him run down the sidelines, going for 80 yards or however long he goes for,” Titans safety Kevin Byard said. “We anticipate him breaking a long run almost every single game. He’s going to hit those three-yard varieties, four yards, five yards. But we always know eventually the big guy is going to get rolling and he’s going to break one.”
The views when Henry breaks off big scoring plays differ by title and position.
It would be hard to find more satisfying reactions than those of the offensive linemen, the men who’ve been hammering away at the defense in hopes of creating creases and crevices for Henry. In the win over Seattle, it wasn’t until the fourth quarter – on Henry’s 23rd of 35 carries – that he broke free for the big touchdown, his first run of more than 11 yards on the afternoon.
“It’s the best (feeling),” right tackle David Quessenberry said. “A big run, that’s what we’re working for. It doesn’t come every play. But we like to stay at it, stay at it, stay at it – and then eventually he can bust a big one.”
And to his credit, Henry – without fail – thanks the guys in the trenches for opening the kind of holes that allow him to trample – or bypass – secondary defenders.
“They did a great job blocking, so of course they are going to be happy,” Henry said. “Of course, I am happy because I am able to get into the end zone by the way they are blocking, and they did their job. We’re always appreciative of one another, and we definitely get up when there is a big touchdown, especially one of those long ones.”
Four of Henry’s 50-plus yard touchdown dashes have come against Houston (including a 94-yarder), three against Jacksonville (including the NFL record-tying 99-yarder), and one each against Indianapolis, Kansas City and the Seahawks.
Coach Mike Vrabel has witnessed the impact of Henry’s long-distance scores from both sides of the sidelines.
In 2017, Vrabel was Houston’s defensive coordinator when Henry ripped off a 75-yard touchdown run, one that clinched the Titans’ 24-13 victory over the Texans. One year later, Vrabel was coaching the Titans when Henry recorded one of his most memorable career nights, totaling touchdown runs of 54 and 99 yards against Jacksonville in a 30-9 spanking of Jacksonville.
So, Vrabel knows just how important those long scoring plays are, as they have shown the ability to both inspire the Titans and deflate opponents.
“Those are big, huge plays, explosive gains that (players) take note of,” Vrabel said. “You can play (defense) well for four, five yards all game and then he just breaks one.
“We have had that happen to us. We played well against the run and then have a guy break one, and it’s just somewhat defeating just to know that you played it for 25 runs, you played it really well, and then you gave up a big one.”