The Tennessee Titans knocked off the AFC’s top-seeded Baltimore Ravens last Saturday, becoming the first No. 6 seed to reach an NFL conference title game since the New York Jets in 2011. And while the quarterback is the hero of most underdog runs, the Titans are winning by relying on a running back: Derrick Henry.
That’s especially surprising considering that running back have been steadily losing importance in the modern, pass-happy NFL. Teams are spending less on the position (the average salary cap hit for a running back dropped from almost 5 percent in 2013 to percent in 2019), and they are using rushers at a historically low rate, since passing plays provide more value than rushing plays.
Yet here is Henry, the league’s rushing leader during the regular season, smashing the postseason record books, with more yards gained in his first four playoff games than any other back. Henry just became the first rusher to run for 175 yards or more in two games in the same postseason and the only player in NFL history to record three consecutive games with at least 180 rushing yards. He’s also the first NFL rushing leader to reach a conference championship game since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2007.
How is this happening? The Titans are able to buck analytical wisdom because they have a running back with a unique blend of size and speed, which consistently allows them to make big, game-changing plays on the ground. Plus, they aren’t afraid to use Henry in situations normally reserved for the passing game.
The 6-foot-3, 247-pound bruiser led the league with 4.2 yards gained after contact per rushing attempt during the regular season, and he’s improved on that during the playoffs (4.7), according to the game charters at Pro Football Focus. The rest of the league’s running backs are averaging less than three yards gained after contact per carry. In fact, 472 of Henry’s 588 rushing yards over the past three games were gained after contact.
And because he is able to extend runs, Henry’s explosive-play potential is also greater: He turned in a run of 15 or more yards once out of every 16 carries this season, compared to once every 22 carries for the rest of the NFL’s running backs. Henry’s 23 runs of 15 yards or more, in the regular season and playoffs, are the most in the NFL; only two other players (Nick Chubb and Josh Jacobs) had more than 13.
“[H]e’s got the size that is extremely rare in a running back, but then he also has the speed to go with it,” Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “So he has the size to run those physical two-, three-yard runs inside where there’s no hole and he’s getting three yards and keeping us ahead of the chains. But then also if he breaks free, he gets through the first level, he has the speed to take it 60, 70 yards, which is extremely rare, and for that reason, he’s special.”
Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel and offensive coordinator Arthur Smith have been leaning on Henry much more in the playoffs, including in unconventional situations. The Titans ran the ball 47 percent of the time during the regular season but have done so 70 percent of the time in the postseason, per data from TruMedia. They even ran the ball 60 percent of the time when they trailed the New England Patriots in the first round; other NFL teams have run the ball 33 percent of the time when trailing in this year’s playoffs.
It is those two ingredients — an elite, tackle-breaking running back with breakaway speed, who is given extraordinary opportunities to impact the game — that created Tennessee’s successful recipe for the postseason, one that is difficult to replicate. The Titans are scoring three more points on rushing plays from running backs per playoff game than expected after taking into account the down, distance and field position of each attempt. No other playoff team is in positive territory.
Give some credit to Tennessee’s offensive line, too. Right tackle Jack Conklin was graded the third-best run blocker among 57 qualified offensive tackles this season by Pro Football Focus and left tackle Taylor Lewan, was ranked No. 10. PFF also ranked center Ben Jones the ninth-best run-blocking center among 30 qualified players at the position. Henry’s success rate running behind each of these players has been significantly above average in the playoffs, according to data from Sharp Football Stats. For example, 82 of his 195 yards against the Ravens were gained running behind Conklin.
“I think [offensive line coach] Keith Carter and [offensive coordinator] Arthur [Smith] do a great job of kind of figuring out what we want to do based on the looks that we’re getting and to be able to hit some of those runs, and guys are finishing blocks,” Vrabel said after the win against Baltimore. “When Derrick gets to the backside and is able to get to the second level, most of the time he’s able to gain a lot of yards.”
Next up are the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that has given up plenty of ground to opposing running backs. Pro Football Focus rated the Chiefs as the fifth-worst run defense of 2019 and the outlook at Football Outsiders was equally grim, with the Chiefs judged fourth worst against the run after adjusting for strength of schedule.
The Chiefs’ defensive line isn’t adept at stopping rushers at or behind the line of scrimmage (a 14 percent rate, the lowest mark in the NFL during the regular season and playoffs combined, per data from TruMedia), nor is Kansas City strong at preventing opposing rushers from moving the chains. In 2019, running backs were successful on 42% of carries against Kansas City, the third-highest mark against any NFL defense this season, according to TruMedia. Only two non-playoff teams, the Carolina Panthers and Cincinnati Bengals, were worse.
The Titans already exploited that weakness in Week 10 with Henry rushing for 62 of his 188 yards (46 of those yards after contact) on 13 carries right up the gut of the Chiefs’ defensive line. One of his carries that day went for 68 yards.
“That running back’s not a bad player,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of Henry, via Sports Illustrated. “He brings it every snap. He’s a big fella that can really move. Did it in college, does it now.”
And he’s doing things that no other NFL running back can.