Running backs are not supposed to matter in the modern NFL. It’s not that they are completely irrelevant, but a handful of truths has emerged in the past few seasons: (1) Rushing is less efficient than passing, (2) rushing success is more about offensive line play and scheme than the player carrying the football, and (3) running backs often have their best seasons when they’re young enough to be on a rookie contract, and not after. All of that gets boiled down to a bumper sticker slogan made for Twitter: “Running backs don’t matter.” The truth isn’t quite that. Running backs do matter some—but not nearly in proportion with the attention they get as such visible ball carriers.
That said, Derrick Henry’s performance against the Patriots could make you think twice about that bit of wisdom.
The Titans slayed the proverbial dragon Saturday night, beating Tom Brady and Co. 20-13. They did it in a game in which their quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, threw for 74 passing yards on 15 attempts. Seventy-four yards! Henry, meanwhile, had a whopping 182 rushing yards on 34 carries. It was the first 34-carry game for any player since Frank Gore in 2017. Henry added another 22 yards on a reception, averaged 5.4 yards per carry, and completely sucked the oxygen out of Gillette Stadium.
Henry’s big day began early. The fourth-year pro started the game with carries of 8, 4, 10, 9, 6, 7, and 5 yards, just pummelling the Patriots from the outset. He did not have a carry under 4 yards until his eighth tote, and his only negative carry of the game came on a play when he tripped in the backfield. His consistency set up a Tennessee touchdown drive in the first quarter that put the Titans in the driver’s seat early. Henry was playing so well that the Titans leaned on him in their hurry-up offense. Here’s what the play-by-play from the Titans’ two-minute drill looked like at the end of the first half, beginning at the Patriots’ 46-yard line:
(2:00) R. Tannehill pass incomplete deep right to J. Smith (J.Collins Sr.).
(1:53) Derrick Henry left guard to NE 35 for 11 yards (J.Collins Sr.).
(1:21) (No Huddle) Henry right guard to NE 26 for 9 yards (J.Jones, J.Collins Sr.).
(:53) (No Huddle) Henry left tackle to NE 23 for 3 yards (L.Guy, D.Shelton). NE-L.Guy was injured during the play.
Timeout no. 2 by TEN at 00:47.
(:47) Tannehill pass short left to Henry pushed out of bounds at NE 1 for 22 yards (J.Jones). The replay official reviewed the runner-was-out-of-bounds ruling, and the play was upheld. The ruling on the field stands.
(:38) Henry up the middle for 1 yard, TOUCHDOWN.
What kind of team hands it to their running back on four of six plays (and passes it to him another time) in a two-minute drill? It may be that the Titans wanted to burn some clock, but Henry did so well that they didn’t burn enough clock. When Henry got his touchdown, there was still 38 seconds left for Brady and the Patriots offense.
Henry is massive. He’s listed at 6-foot-3, making him rare: The only other players to record 1,500-yard seasons who are as tall as Henry are Eric Dickerson, Eddie George, and James Wilder. Unlike those guys, though, Henry is north of 240 pounds, which makes him closer to former Giants back Brandon Jacobs. There’s no real analytical evidence that “body blows” contribute to defensive fatigue, but on one run in the middle of the fourth quarter it sure looked like Henry had worn out the Patriots defense:
Henry led the league in yards after contact this season, with 1,268, per Pro Football Focus. His average of 4.18 yards after contact per carry also ranked first—most running backs would be relatively content with that as their total yards per carry. Against the Patriots, it was easy to see why Henry has been so successful at running through defenders: He’s usually the strongest guy on the field, and one of the biggest to boot.
But the Titans back isn’t limited to being a between-the-tackles grinder. Henry is also fast and spry enough to hit holes and make plays in space. Here he is in the second quarter, seeing the first true bit of daylight of the night on a 29-yard carry. He bursts through an opening on the right side and is hardly touched before going out of bounds:
He can also slip through tackles:
Whether he’s running through defenders or around them, Henry may be the best back in the league at creating yards that other players can’t:
Derrick Henry's ability to create yards in traffic was key to the Titans offensive success:@KingHenry_2 gained 167 rushing yards after a defender closed within 1 yard, the most by a RB in a playoff game in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016).#TENvsNE | Powered by @awscloud pic.twitter.com/ntRbfvvrZC— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 5, 2020
Henry made the Patriots’ comeback effort tough. When New England punted it back to Tennessee with 3:17 remaining and one point separating the team, it was easy to see a future where Henry would keep the Pats from ever possessing the ball again. That’s nearly what happened—by the time Brady got the ball back with 15 seconds left, it was virtually too late.
But I’d be doing a disservice to pretend that Henry’s success against the Pats was due solely to his own abilities—as noted above, rushing success is as much about scheme and linemen as it is running backs. While Henry just had the game of his life, he benefited from both excellent blocking as well as a schematic blessing: The Patriots focused their defensive efforts on stopping Tannehill. According to Next Gen Stats, Henry had a blocking advantage on an overwhelming number of plays. Even when the Titans went heavy, the Patriots wanted to stop the pass. They did that—but at the cost of Henry running all over them.
The Titans scored only 14 points of offense in this game (another touchdown came on a very late pick-six), so Bill Belichick and the Patriots defense may argue that their strategy worked. If the Pats offense had been able to execute, this could have been a blowout—how often is 14 points enough to beat the Patriots?
But it’s hard to deny the effect that Henry’s performance had. The Titans couldn’t have won this game without him. At least, not with the game plan they had. Running backs still don’t really matter—except when they do.