As Derrick Henry's reps increase, he takes joy in cracking defenses open late

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- This version of Derrick Henry finally sees the blessings of his situation. He's now getting what any running back wants -- a healthy dose of touches and opportunities to hit the end zone -- and he's found a perfect role to suit him: Titans closer.

With DeMarco Murray hampered by a right hamstring strain that leaves his status for Sunday against the Browns uncertain, Henry is likely to see his workload increase even more. He's taking advantage of it, and his success has proven to the Titans coaching staff that establishing the run sometimes feels like letting a caterpillar go through its cocoon stage, but the butterfly result is worth it.

"You got to get the tough yards first, then eventually they'll crack open," Henry said with a smile. "When that play is there, you just got to make it."

That's why Titans offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie is so adamant about sticking with the run game, sometimes stubbornly, even if it's not working. Murray and Henry are the Titans' "bread and butter" and sometimes those tough yards are required to receive the final reward.

"I feel like as the game goes on, carry after carry, I get better and better," said Henry, who averages 7.8 yards per carry in the fourth quarter where 195 of his 318 rushing yards have come. Henry also has 25 fourth-quarter carries to Murray's eight.

Henry's 72-yard touchdown run against the Colts, which came on his favorite play called "Bounce," probably doesn't happen without Henry and Murray pounding the defense in the first half for one- or two-yard gains.

It's also worth noting that Henry's skill set causes defenses to play him differently than Murray, so he often has to balance trying to run through multiple defenders up the middle or using his instincts to try to make a higher-risk splash play. Henry sees eight-plus men in the box on 43.6-percent of his rushes, per NFL Next Gen stats, which is sixth most in the NFL. Murray faces that type of run-heavy defense on 33.8-percent of his rushes.

But the combination of the two allows them to take some pounding early and be ready to give it back late.

"DeMarco can pound them and force them to chase him. By the time Henry is at his peak, he's still fresh," Robiskie said. "Derrick says, 'Y'all tired? I'm fresh. Let's go play.'"

"He's a big man. He's a big-bodied man. He's a big-boned guy. He can run. I think he gets stronger when a lot of us get tired. In the end, that's what it is."

That may explain why 64 percent of Henry's 318 rushing yards have come after contact. His physicality comes in clutch as he's breaking through fatigued tackle attempts and delivering stiff arms and jukes to chasing defenders.

As for Sunday, Murray's status will be dependent on if he can do more than work on the treadmill as he has done during Wednesday and Thursday's practices. Coach Mike Mularkey said Murray's recovery is "very similar" to what he faced in Week 3 leading up to the Seattle game. Murray missed Wednesday and Thursday practices after tweaking his hamstring the week before and returned on a limited basis Friday before having a big game on Sunday.

Still, the Titans have contingency plans if Murray can't go -- which would include a lot of Henry. Practice-squad running back Khalfani Muhammad would also likely be called up to provide more depth behind third-string running back David Fluellen.