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NFL Draft

Breaking Down Darrell Henderson’s Early-Season Success

  • The Draft Network
  • September 29, 2020
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When Sean McVay took over as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, it didn’t take long for his offensive genius to show. 

In his first season as head coach, his team won 11 games. It was an early wild-card exit for them in the postseason, but that year was more of putting the NFL on notice than it was a big championship run. That run came the following year, as the Rams won 13 regular season games and made it all the way to the Super Bowl.

When people think of McVay’s success in his early seasons as a head coach, many think of the passing offenses first. They think of the incredibly efficient numbers quarterback Jared Goff has put up under McVay’s tutelage, but when we examine those 2017 and 2018 seasons with a wider lens, we see that the Rams had a ton of success with their ground game—even more than their passing game.

In 2017, the Rams were the top scoring offense in the NFL. In that season, they had the ninth-most rushing attempts in the league compared to just the 24th-most passing attempts. The following year, they were the second-best scoring offense in the league, rushing the ball the eighth-most amount of times while ranking 14th in passing attempts. 

I’m not exactly here to tell you that running the ball is synonymous with winning with no context involved. Those silly stats broadcasts often show saying “Team X is undefeated when they rush the ball X amount of times” appear to say that rushing the ball early and often is the key to success, when in reality, building a lead through the passing game then controlling the game through the run is the real formula. 

However, running the ball matters a lot to a McVay offense because of its core philosophy.

For as genius as McVay is boasted to be, you’d figure he’d have a playbook as thick as a phone book with all the creative plays he could call at any time from a wide variety of looks. But the amount of formations and even the amount of plays he runs is much more simple than you think. McVay loves to be able to run a lot of different plays out of the same sets. He wants to be able to run inside zone from the same plays he can run flood concepts. He wants to be able to hit outside zone one play and then come back and hit play=action crossers from the same exact formation later in the game.

McVay’s offense is built around being able to call a multitude of plays from the same exact setups. In 2018, McVay ran an astounding 89% of his plays out of 11 personnel (1RB, 1TE). 40% of those plays from 11 were run plays. Because of this, success running the ball is a key to his game plan really keeping defenses on their heels.

Back in 2017 and 2018, the Rams had one of the best running backs in the NFL to lean on, Todd Gurley. But after the team’s 2018 Super Bowl run, it was reported that Gurley had arthritis in his knee. The following year, he just didn’t look like the Gurley of old. 

The Rams moved on from Gurley this offseason, leaving their RB1 position open. Three weeks into the 2020 season and not only are the Rams rolling right now with a 2-1 record, so is their run game on the back of second-year runner Darrell Henderson.

Henderson came to the Rams via the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft after a successful career at Memphis. In his final season, Henderson was one of the top backs in the country, recording more than 1,900 rushing yards with 22 rushing touchdowns. In his first season in L.A., Henderson recorded only 137 rushing yards on just 39 carries, both numbers were the third best on the team from the running back room.

There was no guarantee Henderson was going to be the guy going into the year. Malcolm Brown was second on the team in 2019 in rush attempts and yards, and the Rams used a third-round pick in this past draft on the sensational runner from Florida State, Cam Akers. Akers was even running with the first team during the Rams’ two scrimmages before the season.

Brown led the Rams in carries (18) and rushing yards (79) in the team’s opening week win over the Dallas Cowboys. Akers saw the second-most action with 39 yards on 14 carries. Henderson only recorded six yards on three carries, playing in just 5% of the offensive snaps. But in Week 2, Henderson led the team in carries (12) and rushing yards (81). And in Week 3, with Akers out nursing a rib injury, Henderson went off for 114 rushing yards on 20 carries playing a season-high 34% of the team’s offensive snaps.

So what should we think of Henderson and the Rams’ rushing attack moving forward?

Let’s start with some context of where the Rams have been struggling in their run game to really appreciate how Henderson makes one of their strengths even stronger.

For as good as Henderson has been with the ball in his hands, he has one of the lower YPA averages in the NFL when rushing between the tackles (3.9). But the rest of the running back group isn’t better in that area, as Brown is averaging just 2.9 yards per carry up the middle. This seems like an overall offensive line problem.

Where Henderson has really shined is when they dial up concepts for him that give him the freedom to bounce run plays out beyond the tackles. According to Sports Info Solutions, Henderson is averaging 8.1 yards per attempt when rushing off tackle, which is second to only Sony Michel of the New England Patriots.

On the surface level, this could be sort of a “duh” statement. Running backs amass more yards when they can get out into space. But where it seems the Rams’ blocking has its own advantages when they get things further from the A gap, Henderson’s speed is also a big plus here. 

Take note of his speed in the clip above. Henderson made getting to that open space easy, but that’s just because of his speed and acceleration. He still had to make the first defenders miss in order to get the seven yards he did on that play.

Henderson also seems to navigate chaos along the trenches well. He doesn’t panic when he sees a lot of people in motion, and once again can really put that foot in the ground to get outside the tackles and into open space.

In the play above, the Rams did a little double motion pre-snap to get the defense moving, and then used wide receiver Cooper Kupp on a split zone-blocking concept that gave Henderson a lead back. He was able to race past the defenders in the box trying to make the play and was off to the races.

I also really like how Henderson was seeing potential back cuts against the gain of the zone flow this past Sunday. When you’re running behind a zone-blocking scheme, you always have to be aware that if the defense over commits to the moving offensive linemen, the best or most wide-open run lane may be in a cutback right up the middle. Not every back sees this as easily as others. But Henderson seemed to have a lot of confidence in his vision there this past Sunday.

That’s a key part of being successful with this blocking scheme.

Finally, though it isn’t the most extensive example due to how short of a distance Henderson had to go, his contact balance has been great this season, and the numbers support that.

According to Pro Football Focus, Henderson is averaging 3.1 yards per attempt after initial contact, which is a top-15 average from around the league. Brown, on the other hand, has recorded one of the lower averages in the league in that category.

Overall, I liked what I saw from Henderson. He has yet to play a higher snap percentage than Brown in a single game, so it will be interesting to see how the Rams continue to divide their running back shares once Akers returns to the lineup. For now, I am optimistic that, when he does get his chances, Henderson does have the vision, burst, and balance to be the type of back the Rams like to use to get the most out of their run game and their personnel strategies.

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