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NFL Draft

Titans Offense Has Turned Derrick Henry Into One of NFL’s Most Explosive Players

  • The Draft Network
  • October 22, 2020
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If I asked you to picture Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry, where would your mind go first? Probably to the play a few weeks ago where he stiff-armed cornerback Josh Norman into the next dimension, right?

That’s what people typically think of when they envision a 6-foot-3, 250-pound back doing what he does best. But where Henry is, of course, freakishly strong—if nothing else but by stature alone—those brute-like clips we love to play over and over aren’t really what Henry does best.

Over the last few years, the Titans and Henry have taught us that what Henry actually does best is hitting the long runs. In 2018, Henry had the longest run from scrimmage in the league when he hit a 99-yard run against the Jacksonville Jaguars. In 2019, he had a 74-yard run that was the eighth-longest play from scrimmage. And then this past weekend, his 94-yard run against the Houston Texans is once again the longest run of the season.

At his size, it’s hard to continue to imagine Henry’s kind of running back being as successful as he is with explosive plays. But time and time again, Henry and the Titans are showing us that this Tennessee offense has turned a once thought of wrecking ball into one of the best home run hitters in the league.

The Titans love to use chaos in the trenches to their advantage. The reason for this is because, to them, it isn’t chaos; it’s control.

In the play above, the Titans started things off in an I-formation look with two backs behind the quarterback. But before the snap, they motioned Anthony Firkser, a tight end who was aligned at a fullback position, up toward the line of scrimmage to create a double wing look with two tight ends, one on each side, a step behind the line of scrimmage. 

They then used a split zone blocking concept where the entire offensive line went one way while the strong side tight end went the other behind the line of scrimmage to block the defensive end who was left unblocked via the stretching of the zone to the right. That, combined with the then wingback Firkser going out for a pass into the flats created a ton of moving parts that the Texans couldn’t keep up with. This left not only a big hole for Henry to run through, but no one really in that running lane ready for him.

There’s an old phrase that goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Titans took that to heart, and after seeing how successful that first play was, they decided to run it again, but simply flipped what side they were running to.

The same LOS players were used in the exact same manner, and it once again fooled the Texans to the point where they were not able to stay in their respective run fits. Linebacker Zach Cunningham got to the hole a little late, but a little late against Derrick Henry is far too late to stop him.

A blocking concept that really seemed to be unlocking how well the Titans run the ball is that split zone. They don’t need two tight ends to execute it, as was the case in the two plays above, and the reason for that is because tight end Jonnu Smith has become incredibly reliable at taking that unblocked defender on the edge and creating that run lane for Henry to get through.

The play above was my favorite from him because it required a little bit of an adjustment. At the snap, defensive end J.J. Watt was the unblocked man, and on paper, he would have been Smith’s target. But the Texans were clearly looking for this to be a run play, and when the ball was snapped, the middle linebacker immediately sprinted forward to try to rush the open space and get into the backfield quicker than usual (since zone flow normally creates some hesitation). But Smith recognized this as he came behind the line of scrimmage and ended up picking up the linebacker first. This allowed Henry to adjust his course a bit and hit a more inside lane for a big gain.

The final play I wanted to show was Henry’s 94-yard run. In it, there wasn’t an intricate blocking concept involved. But the offensive line was able to get a great push, as three linemen were able to combo block the nose tackle and the 3-tech defensive tackle, while the tight end was able to hold his own against the defensive end long enough for Henry to find the hole.

This play looked like originally it could have followed that 3-on-2 block on the left side. But when Henry saw there was open space elsewhere, he didn’t hesitate to find it and get to the second level. By that time, the linebackers weren’t in place and he was able to bounce off contact and get to his top speed to race down the sideline.

Henry is not just a wrecking ball. He’s actually an incredibly smart runner who understands when it’s time to be patient, when it’s time to go, and where space might be for each blocking concept. That, along with his freakish athletic ability for his size, is a recipe that can be used for success each week. 

Henry and the Titans face their toughest test yet with the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line this week.

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