One of the few things the Titans were criticized for in giving Derrick Henry his four-year, $50 million extension was that the days of two-down backs getting big money are over in the NFL.
Last season, on his way to 1,540 yards and the rushing title, Henry played 589 snaps in 15 games (He missed the New Orleans game to rest an injured hamstring). That total divides out to just 39 snaps per game. In 2020, through just six games, Henry already has played 282 snaps thus far and has been on the field for 47 snaps on average per game. He currently has been on the field for 67 percent of the Titans 416 offensive snaps, up from 63 percent last season. That has translated into a league-leading 663 yards rushing on 143 attempts with seven touchdowns. Also, Henry has added 10 receptions for 81 yards after having just 18 catches all last season.
While the increased snap count might not seem like much, a good number of those extra reps are coming in third-down situations – a spot where Henry would often come off the field earlier in his career, first for DeMarco Murray and later for Dion Lewis. While Jeremy McNichols still occasionally subs in to give Henry a break, unless the Titans are facing third and extremely long, they now seem more willing to have Henry on the field.
It has been well noted that in training camp Henry spent extra time catching passes from running backs coach Tony Dews, hoping to be used more in the passing game. And while Henry's biggest contribution in the passing game was a 53-yard catch and run in overtime against the Texans, just his presence on the field in third down situations is helping take the Titans offense to an even higher level.
“It helps a lot. Him being in the two-minute is obviously a huge bonus for us and a huge advantage,” receiver Corey Davis said. “The run helps the pass and vice versa. It creates single matchups to have him out there and have that threat.”
Coach Mike Vrabel said Henry has worked hard in the off-season to improve in the passing game.
“He works hard at catching the football, and we have to work hard at getting him the ball more. I think you try to get all your skill players, the guys who can do something with the ball in their hand (the ball). Derrick has got a unique skill set,” Vrabel said. “It didn't work out for us last week. We weren't able to get the guy blocked, and give them credit. They hugged up on there.”
Henry in a single-coverage situation, though, is something Vrabel and the Titans hope to continue to exploit when they can.
“Hopefully, we can get that guy blocked and get him running man coverage when everybody else is kind of tied up with their guy. He works hard at it. He's working hard at it identifying the protection, and being able to step up in there and do that for us as well,” Vrabel said.
Henry is also happy to be impacting the game, even when he doesn't have the ball. By being on the field in third-down situations, he still must be accounted for, which creates more favorable matchups across the board for Ryan Tannehill to choose from.
“There is definitely a heavy emphasis in our room not only to impact the game by running the ball and making plays, but other things to give other guys opportunities to make plays. That's what you have to do as a running back is to affect your job in all types of ways rather than just running the ball and doing those types of things,” Henry said. “I'm continuing to work and continuing to improve. If they're going to throw me in there, I have to make sure I'm do my job to affect things the best way I can and do anything I can to help the team and take advantage of my opportunities. If it can help other guys make plays, I'm all for it. Usually I'm coming off the field on third down, I'm getting the opportunities this year and I'm going to take advantage of them and do my job the best way I can and help my team make plays.”
Tannehill said he is already seeing the fruits of Henry's third-down labors.
“It's been good for us,” Tannehill said. “Derrick’s shown some good things in the passing game, made a big play for us at the end of Houston in overtime and some other plays as well. I think his confidence has grown, our confidence in Derrick has grown in the passing game, and it only helps us keep things honest and makes us more dangerous with Derrick on the field.”