The Buffalo Bills will face off against the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football as part of a doubleheader to close out Week 2 of the 2022 NFL season. When they host their AFC rival, they’ll look across the field to see a familiar face: Titans running back Derrick Henry. Having a running back be the face of a franchise is a rarity in today’s NFL, but that’s exactly what Henry has been for the last few years in Tennessee, peaking with a 2,067 yard rushing season in 2020. The human highlight reel is famous for his vicious stiff arms and powerful 6’3”, 247-lb frame.
But is he still a player to be feared at this stage in his career?
As mentioned, his raw number peak came in 2020, when he joined the illustrious 2k club. But one could make the argument that his best year from an efficiency standpoint actually occurred in 2019. He may have run for fewer yards (1985 vs the 2067 in 2020), but his yards after contact was higher in 2019 than in 2020 (4.16 vs 3.85), and his breakaway run percentage (which represents the percentage of a player’s yards that come on runs that go for over 15 yards) was a career-high 33.5. Last season (2021) represented a notable step back in efficiency from 2020, with his yards per attempt dropping from 5.2 to 4.2, his yards after contact per attempt continuing its descent from its peak of 4.21 in 2018 all the way down to 3.28, and his breakaway percentage continuing its decline to 26.4%.
One of the reasons for this decline can simply be attributed to the natural wear of a running back’s body after having carried the ball a staggering 3,577 times since his freshman year of high school. Derrick Henry is one of the greatest athletes of our time—a general talent—who ran a 4.5 40-yard dash coming out of college. But those hits take their toll on everyone, even a player of Henry’s caliber. This is reflected in the yards-after-contact numbers dropping as mentioned above.
The second reason is the departure of previous Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith to become the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Smith rightfully garnered praise for his work as the OC in Tennessee, but his approach to the running game was also stylistically different than that of current Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing. In the time Downing has called plays, the Titans have run 144 zone runs with Henry compared to 116 gap runs (about 55% zone runs). In the two years prior with Arthur Smith calling the plays, the Titans ran 556 zone runs with Henry compared to 220 gap runs (about a 72% zone run rate). Henry, from a skill set standpoint, is best when he can plant his foot in the ground to make a singular cut and build momentum going downhill.
The third reason Henry is seeing a decline is the quality of the Titans’ offensive line in regards to run blocking. In Week 1 against the New York Giants, Derrick Henry gained 1.7 yards before contact per attempt. In 2021, that number was 2.1. In 2020, it was 2.5. In 2019 (the year I mentioned as likely his best year), his yards before contact per attempt was 1.9—giving further weight to his individual performance that year being even more stellar than his 2k club entry in 2020. The Titans’ PFF run blocking grades over the last four years? 83.3, then 77.8, then 75.6, then 75.6. In Week 1 of 2022, it was 67.0. Tennessee’s run-block win rate this year has been 73%. In 2021 it was 69%. For 2020, it was 70%, and 2019 showed it at 72%. Legitimate issues can be had with any of these measurements of run-game blocking by themselves, but in the aggregate, they all paint a similar picture: The line hasn’t been blocking as well for Henry recently.
The decline of Henry’s effectiveness, like most things, is a result of multiple factors all simultaneously at play. He can still be a dangerous player, but the Titans will need to do a better job in play calling and run blocking to accommodate for the slow creep of Father Time towards one of the best rushers of his generation.
...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!