When the King is present, containing him is more plausible than stopping him altogether.
It’s true—the Tennessee Titans are still trying to win Super Bowls like it’s 2002 instead of 2022. That does not make them an inferior team when it comes to the eight remaining in the playoffs, it just makes their path intrinsically tougher than most. But that path is easier to go down when Derrick Henry is leading the way.
Henry, the NFL’s most imposing back, has spent the last two-and-a-half months recovering from a broken foot he suffered on Halloween during a win over the Indianapolis Colts. Before his injury, Henry had 288 more rushing yards, 82 more carries, and two more touchdowns than any other running back in the league.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen No. 22 for the two-tone blue, but the Cincinnati Bengals will be greeted with him during their Divisional Round matchup on Saturday.
While Henry is expected to play, feeding him the ball at his normal rate of volume doesn’t seem too likely at this point. But what if they do? How should the Bengals prepare to face Henry with no limitations in his first game back?
The Titans don’t sugarcoat their attack. They have a middle linebacker-sized running back that runs like a modern day tight end at that size. They unapologetically give him the rock and get out of his way. But Henry’s true value to the Titans doesn’t come by way of pounding teams into submission. When the formation condenses, and six-plus bodies collapse onto Henry in the hole, he becomes as replaceable as any other ballcarrier in the league.
When he gets past all of the noise and into open grass, that’s where he reigns as king.
NFL writer Steven Ruiz of theringer.com wrote a phenomenal piece on the anatomy of the Titans this week. He found that while Henry’s presence doesn’t necessarily create a boost in Tennessee’s play action efficiency, his impact in providing explosive running plays is undeniable. That’s how he “matters” as a running back.
Getting the running back to the second level comes down to the efficiency of the back to read his gaps, and the effectiveness of the offensive line. Once those two come to fruition, it’s up to the running back to make the most of the rest. Very few backs take advantage of these opportunities like Henry because of how much natural force he carries with him. He’s a total menace in space because he can shrug off would-be tacklers in every way imaginable.
This is where most of Henry’s 937 yards from the first half of the season came from. The Titans give him the ball so much that, eventually, he usually breaks off for a big gain.
That didn’t happen in Henry’s last game.
In Week 8 against the Colts, Henry suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot. He managed to gut out 28 carries in a game that went to overtime, but even before the end of the game, the Colts did a great job of limiting Henry’s yardage. 68 yards and -0.25 EPA/rush is not what the Titans want (it was Henry’s second-worst game from an EPA/rush perspective), but a solid outing from quarterback Ryan Tannehill got them the overtime victory.
Indianapolis’s defensive front and linebackers are the prime example of how to slow down Henry and prevent him from getting open-field opportunities. Tennessee unloaded their run packages to get Henry going, but his longest run of the day ended up being a whopping nine yards.
Here’s how the Colts were able to contain Henry the last time anyone saw him play:
Henry’s return definitely makes Saturday’s game more interesting. His ability to create yards over expectation is how the Titans’ offense is able to be explosive with Tannehill under center. But the conversation on how to contend with Henry has gotten carried away with the Cincinnati Bengals’ lack of defensive tackle depth heading into this weekend.
Do you need competent interior lineman against the Titans? Of course, and D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill represent a solid duo for the task. Reader and Hill, however, may not end up with very many tackles in this game, and their impact shouldn’t be based on how many times they bring Henry down.
If the Bengals want to suffocate Henry like the Colts did, they need great performances from their edge players and linebackers. That’s Sam Hubbard, Germaine Pratt, and Logan Wilson’s territory. The Titans will try to stretch the Bengals out wide to give Henry options to cut upfield, and if the pursuit defenders in white jerseys are too slow and don’t meet Henry in the hole, that’s a recipe for success for the home team.
No one knows for sure how much of Henry the Bengals will see, but if they do just enough to minimize explosive runs, they’ll be that much closer to moving on to the AFC Championship.