Derrick Henry and the running game have struggled for the Tennessee Titans over the last three weeks, and fans are right to be confused.
For half a decade, Derrick Henry has been a player that looks good in September and October, great in November, and elite in December. Despite a good start, this was a November to forget for Henry.
Some of that is on Henry, but a lot of it is due to a coaching staff that hasn’t figured out how to adjust to “Bear” fronts and extra players on the line of scrimmage. While those six-man fronts put a man in every gap, if they are blocked up correctly it also means that you are one missed tackle away from breaking a long run.
There are three simple ways that the Tennessee Titans can deal with this.
First, the Titans could start using more naked boot play action passes. This would open things up for the outside zone play because it would force the backside EDGE to stay home instead of pursuing down the line.
Forcing a defense to play that honestly would basically neutralize the benefit that they would get from that formation.
The second thing you could do is start running more play where the front side of the offensive line blocks down and some combination of the backside guard, tackle, fullback, and/or tight end pulls around.
This would give the Tennessee Titans a numbers advantage in the run game as long as it was blocked up correctly and Henry was patient enough to let it develop but violent enough to attack the hole when it opened up. (To be fair, the Titans have tried to do that, but I’ll tell you later why it hasn’t worked)
Neither of those is the easiest option though. The easiest option is to just re-think how you use Derrick Henry.
A temporary change for the Tennessee Titans’ future Hall of Famer
Whether you realize it or not, Derrick Henry has actually been the most explosive receiving back in the NFL this season.
No running back has more receptions for 20+ yards than Derrick Henry does. Keep in mind, Derrick Henry only has 21 receptions all season, so he is turning a reception into a 20+ yard gain about 20% of the time.
Despite that success, Henry is 32nd in the NFL in targets behind players like Melvin Gordon and Eno Benjamin who have both been cut by their teams at this point in the season.
Derrick Henry is an absolute liability in pass protection, but he needs to be on the field on third and manageable from here on out.
Whether it is a swing pass, a screen, a Texas route, or just a little dump-off over the middle of the field, defenses can’t be allowed to see #22 on the field and blitz him freely. Right now, if Henry is on the field, what is the downside to having a linebacker run downhill, right at him every single play?
If it is a play-action pass, then the linebacker gets matched up one-on-one with the Tennessee Titans’ second-worst pass-blocker. If it is a run, they are getting to build up a head of steam to tackle one of the strongest running backs in the NFL.
The only way to make them pay for that is by getting Henry involved as a receiver. Then, one bad angle by a linebacker means that Derrick Henry is now on the second level of the defense with his own head of steam. A DC will cut that out of the playbook faster than you can say, “touchdown Titans.”
While “blocking better” and “doing your job” sounds good on paper, the fact is that if you ask Aaron Brewer to move someone who is 100 pounds heavier than he is, two yards off the ball, you are going to be disappointed. As much as it pains Mike Vrabel to hear it, sometimes you have to be smarter and not just more physical.
We are at the point in the season where people are tired of criticizing Tennessee Titans’ OC Todd Downing over and over again, but just because it is repetitive doesn’t mean that it isn’t correct. What he is trying as the “Run-game Coordinator/OC” isn’t working, and the only thing keeping this offense afloat is the passing game.
You can still keep Derrick Henry involved if you lean on the passing game, in fact, he can be a huge part of it. No starting running back in the NFL is averaging more yards per target than Henry this season (thank you Stathead) so I would argue that he should be a key piece in the passing game. But that means that the Tennessee Titans have to be willing to re-think what they think they know about Derrick Henry.