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VOL. 44 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 11, 2020

Armed and even more dangerous

Henry, the key to Titans’ success, determined to become complete back

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As Derrick Henry goes, so go the Tennessee Titans. It’s really as simple as that. In playoffs and regular season games combined, when Henry rushes for 100 yards, the Titans are 13-0. That stat dates back to 2017, when Henry had the first 100-yard rushing game of his NFL career in a week six win over the Indianapolis Colts.

It really manifested itself last season when Henry rushed for more than 100 yards five times in the Titans’ final seven regular season games, and then added two more in Tennessee’s two upset playoff victories. In their only losses in that stretch, a hobbled Henry managed 86 yards on 21 attempts against the Texans on Dec. 15, and then sat out the next week in a loss to New Orleans to rest his injured hamstring.

This summer in camp, with no preseason games – he would have played little if at all had there been a preseason – it has been interesting to see just how the Titans are getting their workhorse back ready for a follow-up to his 1,540-yard effort that came complete with a rushing title in 2019.

Henry, who was given the franchise tag in March and then signed a four-year, $50 million extension just before the July 15 negotiation deadline, now knows he at least has security with the Titans.

Granted, financial security in the NFL isn’t quite what it is in other pro sports that have guaranteed contracts. Also, Henry plays a position that has been devalued around the league, and where teams often regret tying big money up in a running back.

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry stiff arms a Kansas City defender during last season’s AFC Championship Game.

-- Photo By Aaron M. Sprecher | Ap

Need proof? Todd Gurley (four years, $60 million with the Los Angeles Rams in 2018), David Johnson (three years, $39 million with Cardinals in 2018) and Devonta Freeman (five years, $41.25 million with Falcons) all got big-money deals based on their recent performances, and all saw their production fell off significantly either due to injury, age or simply the grind of the position.

None are with the team that signed them to big money, and only Gurley, in 2018 with the Rams, rushed for 1,000 yards after signing a lucrative extension. And he looked out of gas in the postseason, mostly due to injuries in the playoffs.

As said above, the Titans will go as far as Henry can take them. But the question is not how far can Henry take them, but for how long can he do it?

On the spot

After franchising Henry in March and, given all that he had done in 2019, the Titans really had no other recourse than to re-sign him, even against conventional wisdom.

As Coach Mike Vrabel said at the NFL Combine, there are no running backs like Derrick Henry available in the draft or free agency. And by giving Henry the security of a long-term deal, it also reverberates throughout the Titans locker room that the team is doing what it can to take care of its leaders.

The message: If you perform, as Henry and quarterback Ryan Tannehill did in 2019, then you will be rewarded. If not, then you’ll eventually have another address to call home.

“I’m always under the impression that you have to earn your right to be here each and every day regardless of what you’re compensated, Vrabel says of Henry. “And again, hopefully we’re compensating everyone for what they’re going to do and not what they did.

“Certainly Derrick is a great example of that as a practice player.”

Henry says it is all about setting a tone at practice as one of the Titans’ team leaders.

“I think if you set the tone of practice, that that sets the standards of what practice should be like from start to finish,” Henry adds. “That’s what I tried to do, and that’s what Coach Vrabel preaches.

“Start practice and finish practice strong, so that’s what I try to instill in the whole offense, in the whole team. The defensive guys do that as well, but that’s what we try to do collectively as a team.”

A more complete player

One thing that could help Henry avoid the running back/big money curse is his hunger to do more.

One of the knocks on Henry – even as he ascends into the upper echelon of NFL running backs – has been that he is largely a two-down back. Unlike Christian McCaffrey of Carolina or Ezekiel Elliott of Dallas, Henry is often off the field in third-and-long situations.

And even though the Titans have drafted rookie Darrynton Evans to be their primary third-down back this season, Henry has made it a priority during training camp to practice and improve his receiving skills – catching balls from the quarterbacks during special teams periods and from running backs coach Tony Dews during spare moments.

“I think people are always going to have something to say,” Henry says. “I think it’s me just trusting in my ability, trusting in the system and our coaching staff and us as a team,” he adds about the extra pass receiving work.

“We’re just going to try to go out there and make plays, and if I get an opportunity in the pass game or whatever it is, anything I can do to help this team. But people always have things to say about me. I can’t worry about that.”

Tannehill has taken notice and says it will pay off for Henry and the team.

“We see Derrick working on it. I think he understood coming into this year that’s something that he wanted to get better at,” Tannehill says. “I think I’ve seen some strides out of him.

“He’s catching the ball more confidently, I feel like. (I’m) excited that he should be able to help us out in that aspect throughout the year.

“The more diverse we can be, the more we can move him around and use him as a weapon, not only as the runner that we all know he is, but getting the ball in his hands through the pass game as well is going to really create more opportunities for us.”

Saving it for the season

Henry might not agree with it, but the Titans have lightened his preseason workload, hoping to keep him healthy and strong the 16-game regular season and what could be a run at the Super Bowl.

Many preseason practices find Henry being taken out of team drills to and focusing on conditioning, either running in the sand pit or riding an exercise bike.

“We see Derrick working on it. I think he understood coming into this year that’s something that he wanted to get better at,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill says of Henry’s passing-game work.

-- Photo By Mark Humphrey | Ap

“I think he practices hard and, again, we have a plan,” Vrabel says. “He may or may not agree with it, but he embraces what that is and works hard and knows what the rigors of the season will be, and therefore his conditioning, his ball security, and his ability to catch the football when we throw it to him are all things that he’s still trying to work on.”

For Henry, the entire offseason was about being in top shape and ready to build on what he has accomplished the past two years.

“I’m just doing what I do – me training, staying in shape, getting my body stronger. Just getting prepared to get ready for camp,” Henry continues. “It’s what I always do every offseason.”

That also encompasses working in the offseason with trainer Melvin Sanders and running hills – something made popular by NFL legends like Jerry Rice and Walter Payton back in the day.

“The guy I train with, Melvin Sanders, he’s a guy that’s always looking at different things I can do to help my body, to help myself get better working out,” Henry explains. “Either running, doing cardio, everything like that, and also recovery.

Derrick Henry was the 2019 FedEx Ground Player of the Year after rushing for 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns.

-- Photo By Omar Vega | Ap Images For Fedex

“He’s a great trainer. I’ve been using him three years straight. All the ideas he comes up with I just try to go out there and do them the best way I can and it’s been working for me.”

Oddly, with all the hills available in Tennessee, Henry found the perfect pinnacle in Dallas.

“I’ve been trying to look to do some hill work,” Henry says. “Trying to find a good hill, steep hill, and I found one when I was training in Dallas. I just wanted to get some hill work and really see how far conditioned I was.”

“It was really some good work. I got to work with the guys I was training with, had some guys video some of the workouts for me. I liked it so I kept trying to do it as much as I could when I had the time.”

Follow the leader

The uphill climb that is Henry’s offseason conditioning is something his Titans teammates respect and know is a part of his game as a power running back with speed in the open field.

“You could see that last year. He’s definitely a specimen and he takes advantage of his God-given abilities,” outside linebacker Harold Landry says. “I could definitely see (tackling him) being a problem for defenses.”

Guard Rodger Saffold, who blocked for Gurley with the Rams before coming to Tennessee last year, says the whole team, especially the Titans offensive line, takes pride in helping Henry sustain the success he has found over the past two seasons in Tennessee.

“Derrick is just a very powerful running back. He’s got great speed, great vision and he just seems to get better as the game goes on,” Saffold says. “He’s done so many amazing things last year, but once again we have to prove it again this year. We take a lot of pride in how we can get this guy another unbelievable season.”

Of course, the offensive line relishes in blocking for a guy who is always a threat to break a long run for a score. Saffold knows something good is going on downfield for the Titans when Henry’s trademark stiff-arm comes out.

“Once I see him get to that second level and I see that stiff-arm come out, I know it’s going to end in a score. The guy is just really good at being able to keep his eyes on the goal line and nothing is really going to stop him.”

“You’ve seen people pull on his arm, and grab his hand and try to yank him down, all to no avail. Seeing the way he does that, you’re very happy as an offensive lineman, you’re working your butt off and working for a long time, you want him to score, and that’s one less play it takes him to get to the end zone.”

End game

Henry is still in the prime of his career at age 26. And by comparison to two other great Titans running backs, he has relatively little tread off the tires thus far.

Through four seasons with the club, Henry has just four games in which he has had 30 or more touches from the combination of handoffs and pass receptions. Two of those came in the postseason last year in the Titans’ upset wins over New England and Baltimore.

That is relatively little pounding compared to the way Eddie George and Chris Johnson were used during their time as Titans. The 2019 season was the first time in Henry’s career that he topped 300 touches in a season with 303 carries (regular season) plus 18 receptions.

George was a workhorse back in the Henry mold, but was even more of a grinder. In eight years with the franchise, George had eight seasons of at least 300 carries, not counting any pass receptions. He also had 14 games in which he carried the football 30 or more times. By the end of the 2002 season, the Titans had pretty much used George up and released him.

Johnson was used in a different manner. With his breakaway speed, he was a rushing and receiving threat and had five 300-plus touch seasons in his six years in Tennessee. He also had nine games in which he had the football 30 or more times between rushes and receptions.

Compared to those two, the Titans are doing a much better job of protecting their investment in Henry.

Henry says he is ready to carry as much of the load as needed going forward.

“The only thing is it’s all on you, taking care of your body, knowing what you need to do to get ready to take those carries or how many times you get the ball during the game,” Henry explains.

Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith promises the Titans won’t just rely on handing the ball to Henry and run the risk of wearing him down.

“Each season, you’re going to have to evolve,” Smith says. “Things are going to happen. It’s never going to be 16 perfect games, as much as you strive for it.

“You’ve got to adapt, and that’s the biggest part of job. The way that Derrick was running the ball at the end of the year, and the way that we were coming off the ball and blocking, we were playing to our strengths. We feel like we got a lot of versatility, and we’ll see what it brings and how the season goes.”

Regardless, Henry says he is ready and says his success in 2020 and beyond will start and end with his work ethic.

“That’s really the focal point, make sure my body is in shape. I love working out, love working in general. That’s just me being me.”

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