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Henry's Workload: How Much is Too Much?

That is now the leading question as the two-time NFL rushing champion prepares to return to the Tennessee Titans' offense.

NASHVILLE – Days before the Tennessee Titans take on the Cincinnati Bengals in a divisional-round playoff game, the question no longer appears to be whether Derrick Henry will participate.

Instead, it’s more how much will he play, in order to maximize effectiveness for Henry and the Titans?

On the one hand, it hardly seems fair – or wise – to expect a typical heavy-duty workload against the Bengals. After all, Henry hasn’t played a down since suffering a fracture in his foot Oct. 31 against Indianapolis.

On the other hand, the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry is often at his most impactful when he piles up carries, finding his rhythm and wearing down defenders – resulting in big gains – in the second half of games.

Where does one find the balance? Welcome to the world of offensive coordinator Todd Downing, who will be one of the people monitoring Henry on Saturday, assuming the Titans activate him to the 53-man roster by Friday afternoon. There seems little doubt the move will be made considering Henry is in his third week of practice, and that Henry has appeared to ramp up his pace and physicality regularly during that stretch.

“I think we’ve talked a little bit throughout the course of this year just about load management and how it’s tough to sometimes put a finite number on things,” Downing said. “I think if I’m given the green light with Derrick playing, then we’ll just have to monitor him in the game, and (running backs coach Tony Dews) does a great job of keeping an eye on his guys and rotating those guys through anyway, so it will probably have a lot to do with the flow of the game.”

The concept of Henry getting only a moderate number of carries is a hard one to grasp. He’s totaled at least 25 in eight of his last 12 contests, at least 20 in 11 of the last 12, and has a streak of 30 straight games with at least 15 rushes. The last time Henry carried fewer than 15 times was Nov. 3, 2019, when he ran 13 times for 63 yards in a one-sided loss to Carolina.

Some backs would sag under the weight of so many opportunities, but it’s been just the opposite for Henry. Consider:

• Since 2017, Henry has led the NFL – by wide margins – in fourth-quarter carries (337), fourth-quarter rushing yardage (1,813) and fourth-quarter rushing touchdowns (16). His 5.4-yards per carry average in the fourth quarter since 2017 is half a yard better than his overall career average (4.9).

• Along the same lines, Henry has averaged 4.7 yards per attempt on carries 1-15 throughout his career. That’s impressive, but not as good as his 5.3-yard average on carries 16-plus.

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“I think everybody is wired different,” Downing said. “I think that different runners have different styles and kind of see the game a little different with more touches. But I think the flow of the game will kind of dictate (Henry’s number of carries). It’s hard to go into it saying, `Okay, we’re going to give him this many and then give him a break.’ That kind of depends on the situation of the game.”

Henry himself wasn’t interested in speculating on the kind of workload he might have against the Bengals.

“We don’t have to get into all that,” he said. “Whatever I can do to help, I am always for it.”

It’s fair to assume the two-time NFL rushing champion will be limited by game conditioning anyway. He hasn’t played since Week 8.

Then there is this: Considering that Henry’s injury, a Jones fracture, may have been caused in part by excessive wear and tear, will he be as enthusiastic about carrying the football as often as he has in the past?

“I don’t think you worry about that,” Henry said. “It is football. It is a game of injuries. Injuries happen. You just have to keep pushing forward. Everything happens for a reason. Not trying to get into all of the `what ifs,’ and this and that. Just focus on the right now and appreciate the journey. That is all I can do.”

The good news for the Titans as they ready for the Bengals is that – whether Henry carries five, 10, 15 times or more – the team’s running game doesn’t have to be completely reliant on him.

In his absence, D’Onta Foreman has carried 133 times for 566 yards (4.3-yard average) and three touchdowns, and Dontrell Hilliard has added 56 times for 350 yards (6.3-yard average) and two touchdowns.

Those kinds of numbers should ease any potential burden on Henry – and on Downing – against the Bengals.

“More ingredients makes for more fun in the recipes,” Downing said. “So I’m excited about the potential of having that three-headed monster and that kind of versatility. We’ll see how it unfolds, see if that opportunity presents itself.”