For as long as football has been played, the guys in charge have said how important a potent ground game is to success.
Let’s think of the reasons why: A great running back can help eat up the clock, disspirit a defense and use their extraordinary skill to break open runs that lead to or score points.
Really, is there any doubt why the Tennessee Titans will play for the AFC Championship on Sunday in Kansas City?
It’s because of Derrick Henry.
“I think we are seeing the great back that we’ve always been seeing, but we are seeing a little more extra. He’s playing with a determination to win,” guard Rodger Saffold III told the media on Saturday.
The former Heisman Trophy winner has had an astonishing few weeks to help the Titans first secure the sixth seed in the AFC and then topple the top two titans, New England and Baltimore, on the road.
His 6-foot-3, 247-pound frame has knocked over defenders like bowling pins and sped past them in the open field. You can’t tackle him and you can’t run him down.
The Ravens came into Saturday’s game full of bravado, saying their defense would not be afraid of Henry, that it was ready to engage him physically and stop him before he could get his engine started. It didn’t work out that way.
“He’s special,” Titans quarterback quarterback Ryan Tannehill said on Saturday. “I think he is special because he has the size that is extremely rare in a running back. But he also has the speed to go with it. So he has the size to run those 2- or 3-yard runs that are physical when there’s no hole. He’s getting the yards to keep us ahead of the chains. But also if he breaks free and gets past the first level, he has the speed to take it 60 or 70 yards, which is extremely rare and what makes him special.”
Henry gained 195 yards rushing in the Titans 28-12 win. He has rushed for at least 180 yards in three straight games, the first NFL player ever to do that.
In his first four postseason games, Henry has gained 571 yards, more than any runner in history. He’s also gained 377 in wins over the Patriots and Ravens, the most ever in a two-game span in the playoffs.
Just look at what he’s gone over the last eight games: He’s gained 1,273 yards, the third-most in league history over that span of games. And his 137 yards after contact on Saturday were the most for any player in the last 10 years of postseason play.
“I am more happy that we won,” Henry said. “The stats and all of that stuff is good. But we got the win, and we are advancing. That’s the most important thing to me.”
No run typified Henry’s skill on Saturday more than a 27-yard gain during which he twice stiff-armed All-Pro safety Earl Thomas before running out of bounds.
“I just said, ‘Good to see you, Earl,'” Henry said. “That’s what I said. I said, ‘Good to see you, man. Hopefully we can do this again.'”
What further distinguished Henry’s performance on Saturday was he also threw a touchdown pass on a trick play crafted by offensive coordinator Arthur Smith.
After Henry gained 66 yards to the Ravens 6 in the third quarter, the Titans gained only three yards on first and second downs.
Before third down, Smith subbed backup quarterback Marcus Mariota into the game and set him up initially in the shotgun. Mariota then motioned right and the center snapped the ball directly to Henry.
Henry carried the ball straight ahead for a few steps, then leapt into the air and threw the scoring pass to Corey Davis in the back of the end zone.
“We’ve practiced it a lot,” Davis told The Athletic. “Not this week, but we always practice it. I’m happy they called it. (Henry) did a great job faking the run and putting the ball in a great spot.”
The score increased the Ravens lead to 21-6. On Baltimore’s next possession, quarterback Lamar Jackson fumbled during a sack. The Titans recovered and soon added another TD.
“Y’all know how I feel about a pass play,” Henry said of his touchdown toss. “I’ve missed like two of them. So, I’m like, ‘I’ve got to hit this one, or this will be ugly for me.’ I was just glad to get that to Corey to score that touchdown.”
If the Titans are going to beat the Chiefs this weekend, they’re going to need another big game from Henry. Titans coach Mike Vrabel doesn’t see any reason to move away from the offensive philosophy that has already taken the team this far.
“We know that it’s not always gonna be five and six and seven yards, it’s gonna be grind, grind, grind and we’re gonna bust one,” Vrabel said after the game. “I think that they have that kind of confidence to be able to pick and prod where we’re going.”
The Titans are one win away from sweeping three games on the road and taking an improbable trip to the Super Bowl. Henry doesn’t see any reason why his team can’t win it all.
“We won. I feel like we won. I don’t get into all that ‘statements’ and all that,” Henry said. “I just try to make sure we all stay leveled, put our head down and just work. Like I told ’em in there, like I said at the end of camp, ‘Why not us?’ and we gon’ keep that same mentality.”