The lowly Houston Texans gave the Titans quite a scare at home on Sunday, forcing Tennessee to score a last-second touchdown just to get the game to overtime. But the undefeated favorites had something that Houston did not—a runaway train out of the backfield named Derrick Henry—and they rode him two dozen times to get the edge on the Texans, outrushing their opponents by a massive margin en route to a 42-36 victory.
Henry ran for 212 of his team’s 263 ground yards—becoming the first running back in NFL history with 200+ rushing yard games in three straight seasons—and he picked up another 52 on a crucial screen pass in the extra period. The most viral Henry highlights—like that stiff–arm on Josh Norman in his team’s last game—emphasize the fact that he is a big boy who makes other backs look like puny high schoolers. But what stands out the most about the above footage is Henry’s speed and intelligence, which combine to create much bigger plays than just strength alone can.
While, yes, Henry was used as a battering ram out of the wildcat on the game-winning touchdown, his two biggest gains didn’t involve any NFL Blitz clobberings. With his team down by two in the fourth and on their own six-yard line, Henry erased both the deficit and the distance to the end zone by making a dramatic cut in the backfield, breaking one tackle with finesse, and then simply outrunning the rest of the defense for 94 yards. You don’t have to worry about trying to bring down a 247-pounder if you can’t even catch him.
The pass that picked up the Titans most of their yards in overtime also happened thanks in large part to Henry’s legs and not his upper body. Houston’s Vernon Hargreaves had the opportunity to maybe stop the gain at about 15 yards, but he misjudged his adversary’s quickness, took a bad route to the ball carrier, and found himself diving at air while Henry kept moving.
It’s this all-around ability—this combo of power and speed—that makes Henry the Titans’ best offensive asset and the most called-upon running back in the NFL. After leading the league with 303 carries last year, the former Heisman winner is on track to do the same again this season, boasting a league-high 123 attempts despite having played in one fewer game than many others at the top of the leaderboard.
But Henry’s value is in how remarkably efficient he’s been despite his heavy workload. Last season, the rushing yards leader also averaged 5.1 yards per attempt, more than all but two of the league’s running backs. Those two, Raheem Mostert and Gus Edwards, had fewer than half the carries in 16 games that Henry did in 15 showings. This year, the story is the same. Henry is once again the only back averaging more than 100 yards per game—he’s blowing out second-place Dalvin Cook by 20—and he’s doing so by picking up 4.8 yards on a typical play.
In a league that has been overtaken by running back committees, Derrick Henry is a throwback. Adrian Peterson in 2012 is the only running back (and the only non-QB) to win NFL MVP in the last 13 seasons. But the guys who Henry calls to mind are two back-to-back winners from the middle of the ’00s: Shaun Alexander and LaDainian Tomlinson. Both were by far the dominant forces on their respective offenses. Both were expected to top 300 touches every year of their primes. And—this is the sad part—both lost their ability to produce by the time they hit 30 years old.
Henry, who will turn 27 the day after the regular season ends, doesn’t have to worry about that old-age milestone just yet. But as we’ve all grasped the short lifespan of the average running back, the suddenness with which Henry could cease to be a monster looms over every outstanding performance. As most teams plug two or three relatively anonymous guys behind their offensive line, Henry remains an indispensable player playing a position that is defined by its disposability. Whether by jarring injury or by the invisible but inevitable wear and tear of his job, the clock is ticking on Henry’s ability to run at his full potential. But for now, he is the most important reason why the Titans have started the year 5-0, and it seems like it’ll remain that way until his body starts to fail him.