JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The calls for Derrick Henry to be the Tennessee Titans' starting running back are only getting louder. More confident and comfortable in the offense, Henry may soon force the Titans' hand.
The Titans' offense finally opened up Sunday -- scoring 37 points and keeping the Jaguars' defense guessing wrong for most of the second half. It was the type of football that many expected after all the resources Tennessee allocated on offense this offseason.
The second-half performance was anchored by the running game, except it was Henry, not lead back DeMarco Murray, doing the damage. One play, added late Saturday night and never practiced, defined Henry’s game -- a 17-yard touchdown run where he ran through Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey while powering into the end zone.
“I definitely wanted to make him feel me,” said Henry, who had a career-high 92 yards on 14 carries in the 37-16 victory over Jacksonville.
A “make him feel me” back is what the Titans need to leave defenses demoralized late in games. Henry, who doesn’t smile often, unleashes a mischievous smirk when you mention bending a defense’s will or making them hesitant to tackle him. That’s what Henry is all about.
“As a running back, you always want to be physical,” said Henry, who had his career day 24 miles from where he grew up in Yulee, Florida. “As the game goes on, I get better and I can see the defense getting tired. That gets me hyped.”
Henry gained 87 of his 92 yards after halftime when he dominated the touches. He averaged 7.3 yards per carry in the second half, punishing Jaguars defenders as they attempted to tackle him.
“Toward the end of the game, when you’re running out of the clock, to have a back like that is huge,” Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “We’ll continue to find ways to get him the football and we’ll expect this from him.”
Murray, the AFC’s leading rusher in 2016, is more about vision and pass-catching ability. He’s the better pass-blocker of the two backs and he offers proven big-play potential in a way that Henry still is trying to prove he has.
Titans coach Mike Mularkey began fielding questions about Henry potentially overtaking Murray from the moment the former Alabama back was taken in the second round a year and a half ago. Mularkey has been steadfast in saying Murray is the starter. And he has been.
But now Murray is dealing with a tight hamstring that caused him to miss the fourth quarter Sunday. It’s his second hamstring injury in as many months.
When on the field, Murray has struggled this season, totaling 69 yards on 21 carries. On Sunday, Murray had trouble hitting his holes quickly. He hasn’t shown the same explosion in games or practice that made him a Pro Bowler last season.
Several Titans players don’t believe there is a drop-off when Henry comes in for Murray.
Over the Titans' past five games, Henry has 253 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 48 carries (5.3-yard average). Murray has 16 more carries during that period, but has no touchdowns and just 221 rushing yards (3.5-yard average).
With Murray’s status unclear, Henry is entering an audition period to prove he’s the best back on the roster and can complete all of the duties required of a three-down starting running back.
Murray had 293 carries to Henry’s 110 in 2016. That margin is narrowing to start 2017 (Murray has 21 carries to Henry’s 20). A 60-40 split for Murray, or an even slimmer discrepancy, could be in store the rest of the way if both backs are healthy.
Even if Murray holds off Henry for now, the question always will be for how long. Injuries and age are starting to line up against the 29-year-old Murray. Henry is coming, and he plans to make it hard for the coaches to not give him the ball.