Can Derrick Henry Plow Through Titans’ Offensive Woes?

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Can Derrick Henry Plow Through Titans’ Offensive Woes?
NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 6: Derrick Henry #22 of the Tennessee Titans shakes hands with members of the Jacksonville Jaguars after the game at Nissan Stadium on December 6, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

On Thursday in Nashville, a Tennessee Titans team that’s pitched and lurched its way through a wildly uneven season faced a must-win game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Titans got that win—in emphatic fashion, no less—compliments of a record-setting performance from tailback Derrick Henry. The victory kept the Titans in the AFC wild-card hunt at 7-6 and provided their bottom-five offense with a needed shot of adrenaline.

The question is whether the Titans happened upon a new offensive fulcrum who’ll lead a late surge and get the Titans into the playoffs for a second straight season.

James Kenney/Associated Press

Can Henry bulldoze his way through Tennessee’s offensive limitations?

It didn’t take him long to get going against a supposedly stout Jaguars defense. Henry’s first carry was a 14-yard surge that brought the Titans close to the goal line. Two totes later he scored.

He was only getting started.

Later in the first quarter, after a poor special teams decision led to a safety, the Jaguars drove the length of the field, only to be turned away on fourth down at the 1-yard line. Tennessee was backed up on first down and handed off to Henry, hopeful he could buy the team a little breathing room.

He did that.

Henry took the ball through the middle, raced to the left sideline and was gone, showing approximately the same level of interest in being tackled that Godzilla does when the military arrives. Ninety-nine yards—tied for the longest run in NFL history.

While speaking with Fox’s Erin Andrews after the game, Henry was quick to credit everyone from his teammates to the only other tailback who has ever accomplished that feat.

“Man, I’m with Tony Dorsett,” Henry said. “That’s a legend. That’s somebody I looked up to, and I actually spent some time with him when I won the Heisman. But I’m just so blessed. Credit to all my teammates—O-line, blocking, tight ends, receivers…it’s a whole group. Not just me. I just gotta go out there and do what I do and make a play.”

Had that been all Henry did Thursday, he would have had a great game. He had more yards rushing by himself in the first quarter than the Jaguars usually allow in a contest (108.4).

That was not all he did.

Henry set the Titans’ single-game record with 238 yards on just 17 carries. He tied a franchise record with four rushing touchdowns, adding a 16-yarder and 54-yarder in the second half.

Yes, Henry also had a 54-yard score. He averaged 14 yards per carry and hit both 200 rushing yards and four touchdowns, per the Fox postgame show, in the fewest carries of the Super Bowl era (since 1966).

Henry might have had five scores, but he insisted to head coach Mike Vrabel in the fourth quarter that fellow tailback Dion Lewis get a goal-line shot late.

“We both gotta eat,” Henry told Andrews after the game. “I wanted to see him get a touchdown. I got four.”

He also broke approximately all the tackles ever and gave 117,000 fantasy owners (give or take) either tremendous pangs of joy or anguish.

Other than that, he was just OK.

If you’re a glass-half-empty type of person, you might add the caveat that Jacksonville’s tackling in this game would have needed to improve fivefold to be pathetic. But even if you add the asterisk of 11 defensive matadors in black helmets, the performance will still be talked about for years.

Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

Now that the dust has settled on Henry’s rampage, the larger matter is what it means for these Titans.

Obviously, he won’t average 14 yards a pop every game. Or ever again. In fact, entering Week 14, Henry wasn’t even averaging four yards per carry. The third-year pro had gained 474 yards on 128 attempts with five scores in 12 games. Henry had a better per-carry average and more touchdowns than Lewis’ 3.4 and one, respectively, but the two had formed a rather uninspiring duo. In terms of total touches, Lewis has been the lead back.

All told, the Titans were 17th in rushing yards entering Week 14 and 29th in yards per carry.

Maybe this explosion will jump-start both Henry’s season and Tennessee’s ground game. But the cold, hard truth is he had shown little to indicate that would be the case. As Henry’s carries have gone up while his career’s progressed, his yards-per-carry average has gone down. Whether because of that reason or Henry’s lack of passing-game chops, he’s never been trusted as “the guy” in the backfield.

This stretch run might be the perfect time for an audition. The Titans have not had a good offense, ranking 28th in total offense (310.2 yards per game) and 28th in scoring (18.4 points per contest) entering Week 14.

That a team with an attack that anemic was even at .500 is a testament to a defense that has carried Tennessee most of the year.

It’s becoming more evident by the week that quarterback Marcus Mariota can’t. The Titans came into this must-win affair 29th in the league in passing. Mariota hasn’t been awful—his 68.6 percent completion rate is a career high, and his passer rating is 95, but he’s nowhere near elite, either. On Thursday night, Mariota missed an open receiver on a fourth-down throw by the goal line and tossed an awful first-quarter interception.

James Kenney/Associated Press

The Titans can hope until the cows come home, but there’s enough of a sample to know that “good” is Mariota’s ceiling. He’ll never be great. He won’t carry a team into the playoffs.

So, let Henry try. Give him the keys.

Tennessee’s final three games (at the Giants followed by Washington and Indianapolis at home) don’t represent a Murderers’ Row. The Titans will be favored in at least two of those contests and possibly all of them.

Establish the run early with Henry. No more Lewis out of the gate. That isn’t to say he shouldn’t still have a role on passing downs. But go right at people. Let Henry wear defenses down with that 247-pound frame. Let him top 200 carries in a season for the first time as a pro. Use the run to set up play action, turn that stout defense loose and beat up opponents.

It would seem an appealing plan to an old-school coach like Vrabel. Heck, ditch the zone-read, and you might even be able to keep Mariota on the field.

Go figure.

The Titans have had their moments in 2018. They beat both of last year’s Super Bowl participants, including a 34-10 blasting of the Patriots in Week 10. But they followed those wins over Philadelphia and New England by losing to Buffalo and getting trashed by the Colts.

A larger role for Henry might not be the magic solution to that inconsistency. But after what he did against the Jaguars, it’s worth giving it a shot.

Keep it simple. Pound the rock. Play defense. Be the team we thought the Jaguars would be in 2018.

Those Jags may have just shown them the way.

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