Underwhelming Derrick Henry Must Improve

NASHVILLE, TN - AUGUST 27: Derrick Henry
NASHVILLE, TN - AUGUST 27: Derrick Henry /

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry must simply play better.

At seemingly every practice of the Tennessee Titans’ 2017 Training Camp program, running back Derrick Henry did something to impress the thousands of fans and media members in attendance. He had several nice runs, many of which saw him break through the front-seven and into the secondary.

Here’s the problem with that: it was practice. Sure, there are plenty of things you can take away from watching a practice, but a running back dominating is not one of them. Why? They can’t get tackled.

Aside from a few drills that featured live tackling, the entirety of Titans practices during Training Camp hardly even featured contact. Once a back was touched, or bear-hugged, the play was blown dead. Henry starred in that setting.

Unfortunately, Henry’s success at Saint Thomas Sports Park has yet to translate to the field in his short career. The combination of speed and power that made him nearly impossible to tackle at the University of Alabama seemingly disappeared when he was drafted by the Titans last offseason.

At the University of Alabama, Henry became famous for his long runs that left defenders in the dust. As a senior, he ran for over 2,200 yards with an unbelievable average of 5.6 yards per carry. Most of the time, he looked non-human and Adrian Peterson-esque.

Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans /

Tennessee Titans

Obviously, it isn’t fair to expect Henry to put up the same kind of production in the NFL. Not only is the competition much better, but he’s a backup behind one of the premier backs in football, DeMarco Murray. What is fair, however, is to expect the speed and power to translate.

As a rookie last season, Henry averaged a very respectable 4.5 yards per carry off of the bench. That’s not the concerning stat. The concerning stat is that his longest run went for only 22 yards. Henry arguably didn’t even do much to get that 22 yard run, as left tackle Taylor Lewan created a mammoth sized hole by driving linebacker Tamba Hali backwards on the play.

Henry’s running style in college was exactly what you would expect for someone of his size: purely downhill. Once he got to full speed, the defense could forget about tackling him. In his time with the Titans, a team that centers its offense around a downhill rushing attack, Henry has almost completely gone away from his niche.

Instead of plowing forward with the football, he tries to be too patient. If he doesn’t think that there is a viable hole between the tackles, he resorts to bouncing the play outside, often leading to him being pushed out of bounds by a cornerback. Through three preseason games this year, that approach has yielded only 89 rushing yards on 33 carries for a pitiful average of 2.6 yards per attempt.

Even when Henry is in open space, such as on the play in which gained 26 yards on a flip play from Marcus Mariota, he looks slow. He looks almost as if he is trying to defend himself against being tackled, rather than trying to be the aggressor.

The special athleticism and physique Derrick Henry possesses are the things that made him a Heisman Trophy winner and a second round NFL Draft pick. He’s shown some flashes here and there as a Titan, but he’s yet to make the type of plays that became expected of him at Alabama.

Calling Henry a bust is going way too far. But criticism of his performance thus far in his NFL career, especially during this preseason, is beyond fair. It’s time for the zombie back who occasionally breaks some tackles in the hole to transform into the runner he was drafted to be.

He hasn’t even touched the potential his athleticism provides him. If Henry ever hopes to supplant Murray as the Titans’ workhorse or take more carries away from him, he needs to play better football.