How Tennessee and Derrick Henry finally found their groove

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The 2018 season was projected to be a time for third-year running back Derrick Henry to assert himself as a prominent weapon in the Tennessee Titans' offense. Henry's 744 rushing yards in 2017 barely edged out veteran back DeMarco Murray for the team lead.

Tennessee's playoff victory against the Kansas City Chiefs last season was a reminder of Henry's potential to run through defenses. He rushed for 156 yards in the win, averaging 6.8 yards per carry.

Murray's retirement set the table for Henry to take over. Why did it take so long for the results to show in 2018?

The answer is two-fold. At the start of this season, Henry didn't run with the same physicality that he displayed as a bruising, breakaway back in college at Alabama. Over the first seven games, Henry seemed timid running the ball and hesitant to lower his shoulder to truck defenders. It was almost as if Henry lost his confidence.

For most of the season, fellow running back Dion Lewis assumed a more significant role in the offense. Lewis was better suited to rescue the Titans' offense when it found itself behind the chains, which occurred way too often thanks to a tendency to run the ball on first down unsuccessfully.

Offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur cited Lewis' ability to get them out of tough situations as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. Lewis took over as the starter and lead back. He even took a spot in the front of the team stretch line during practice.

Over a stretch of nine games, before Henry posted a team-record 238 rushing yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 14, he reached double-digit carries only four times. Henry admitted he grew frustrated and tried to do too much with the limited carries he got.

"The frustration is because you want to do so much more," he said. "There's a lot of things I can get better at as far as my footwork, being quicker, getting in and out of the hole, getting north and south. I have to finish runs.

"During camp, I said I wanted to be an elite back, but I feel I haven't done that. I have to be efficient and finish runs, run physical. I just have to run better."

Henry committed the cardinal sin for running backs by pressing too much and trying to force big plays to happen rather than just seeing things develop and hitting the creases. That knocked the timing of the run game out of whack.

A conversation with former Titans running back Eddie George during the bye week proved to be the tough love that Henry needed. George told Henry that he had to keep his legs churning and be a more punishing runner. Henry took the criticism to heart and began to finish runs, delivering the punch to defenders. That didn't go unnoticed.

"Derrick's definitely earned more carries," LaFleur said before a Week 12 showdown against the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football. "He is being decisive and delivering some blows on contact and falling forward."

Everything came together in Week 14, and there was no turning back. Over a three-game stretch, Henry carried the ball 71 times for 492 yards and seven touchdowns. The zone-blocking scheme began to click. Everything was in sync.

"Guys are blocking their guys and Derrick is making us look good," left tackle Taylor Lewan said. "He's doing a great job of reading it. The offense is playing really well as a group together."

The tight ends contributed as well. Wide receiver Corey Davis delivered downfield blocks that helped turn runs into explosive plays. Nothing exemplified the group effort more than Henry's 99-yard touchdown run against Jacksonville in Week 14.

Tight end Jonnu Smith had a key block at the line of scrimmage and fellow tight end MyCole Pruitt's downfield block took Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith out of the play. Davis sprinted down the field and managed to get in the way just enough to keep Jacksonville linebacker Myles Jack from getting to Henry.

At 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, Henry is a load to bring down. When given consistent carries, he wears down defenses. Henry started to either make defenders miss or just run them over.

"Things started to come together. We always talk about trying to get them covered up front, let the runners get going, don't allow penetration. Receivers have to block support," coach Mike Vrabel said in his season wrap-up news conference. "At some point in time, the guy with the ball has to do a little magic. You look at big plays in this league, 20-yard runs or whatever they may be, 30 percent of them you've got the X's and O's, and you scheme them up. The other 70 is just the guy being a pro football player, and going and making a play."

It should be noted that three of the four teams the Titans faced down the stretch weren't exactly run-stopping defenses, but it was noticeable how would-be tacklers started to make "business decisions" not to tackle Henry. Tennessee's offense was imposing its will on teams because the Titans stuck to the run and didn't let up.

"We just kept working and preparing the right way," Henry said. "It's a credit to the offensive line and everybody blocking. I could feel us in our groove. The offensive line is getting a push, and I get efficient in the run game because of that. I try to see what the defense gives me, and when I see it, I fit it and try to finish forward, but deliver a blow. I just worry about getting positive yards and not getting any negative runs."

Now with a 1,000-yard rushing season under his belt and plenty of confidence heading into next season, Henry should undoubtedly be a huge part of the offense in 2019. The 2018 season didn't start too well for Henry, but he found a way to end on an upswing.

"It's a marathon, not a sprint. It's all about how you finish," he said.