'They don't have a chance': Why Derrick Henry's stiff-arm is so effective for Titans

Ninkovich demonstrates how to counteract Henry's stiff-arm (1:09)

Former NFL linebacker Rob Ninkovich shares the best way to stop Derrick Henry's notorious stiff-arm. (1:09)

(Editor's note: This story was originally published on Sept. 18, 2020.)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Derrick Henry takes a bully approach to running the ball. When he's on the field, he's like Deebo from the movie "Friday" -- terrorizing anyone who crosses his path.

"My aiming point is the head because I want to be disrespectful," the Tennessee Titans running back said. "I want to throw them to the ground. If you get them good on the head and push them down, they don't have a chance."

Most of Henry's explosive runs include one common denominator: the stiff-arm. Henry's rare blend of size (6-foot-3, 247 pounds), speed and strength make life difficult for opposing defenses.

"He's like a defensive end playing running back," former Titans running back Chris Johnson said. "He's so big and his arms are so long, it's hard to get into his body and get a good tackle on him. I don't think a lot of people understand how hard it is to tackle a guy that has a good stiff-arm."

Using the stiff-arm came naturally to Henry because of his long arms. It was one of the ways Henry first started breaking tackles when he played Pop Warner football.

The stiff-arm remained in Henry's toolbox as he worked his way up the ranks through Yulee High School, then to the University of Alabama, where he won the Heisman Trophy -- which fittingly includes a statue of former pro running back Ed Smith using a stiff-arm.

Henry had decent numbers during his first two NFL seasons, but he became a bona fide punisher during the 2018 season after a meeting with former Titans great Eddie George, who implored him to "impose his will" on defenders.

"When I talked to Eddie, it was mind over matter. It's either going to be you or me and it ain't going to be me," Henry said of his conversation with George.

Henry responded by rushing for 625 yards in December 2018, two months after talking to George. His record-tying 99-yard run in Week 14 against the Jacksonville Jaguars featured at least four stiff-arms and a close call with teammate Corey Davis, who was trying to get a downfield block on the play.

"He was about to stiff-arm me! Derrick was in attack mode," Davis said.

The franchise-record 238 rushing yards Henry gained against the Jaguars put him on the map as one of the hardest players to bring down. Now Henry's stiff-arm is known across the NFL, with defensive players strategizing how to overcome it.

"Definitely one of the best, if not the best, in the league," Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons said of Henry. "He’s such a big guy so when you get out into open space, he’s athletic enough to just kind of leap over you or use his long arms. He’s able to extend his arm before you can even make contact with his body. It’s tough.

"The best way to defend it is to get multiple guys to the football, trying to eliminate as many one-on-ones as you can, try and meet him in the hole before he kind of gets a head of steam and can break out to the second level."

Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard has to face Henry twice a year, so he's no stranger to the 2019 NFL rushing king's stiff-arm.

"You gotta prep yourself mentally and physically to say how you're going to attack him and get him down," Leonard said. "You have to be smart. You know he has a nasty stiff-arm. If he has an angle to the sideline, I know he's gonna hit me with a stiff-arm so I get ready to try to break the stiff-arm down then squeeze, wrap and roll."

Of all the stiff-arms Henry has dished out, his favorite came in Tennessee's 28-12 divisional playoff win over the Baltimore Ravens last season, when Henry stonewalled safety Earl Thomas twice on a 27-yard run. The Titans like to utilize stretch plays to get Henry into the alley where he can use his long arms to ward off linebackers and defensive backs as he squares his numbers up and gets downhill.

It's a sound strategy, but it doesn't work every time. When asked who's the toughest player to stiff-arm, Henry mentioned a former division rival-turned-teammate.

"I tried to do it on [Jadeveon] Clowney once. He's long and he's lengthy, so that didn't really work on him," Henry said.

Titans coach Mike Vrabel was watching clips of a Titans game against the Dallas Cowboys and noticed defensive players started to go low on Henry to avoid his stiff-arm. Vrabel decided it was time to add a new wrinkle to practice, a helmet on a stick.

"It was something that I had seen on TV," Vrabel said of the helmet on a stick used in drills. "I said, 'Hey we should probably get a couple of these.' It's similar to maybe a defensive player being cut blocked by an offensive player, that if you don't take your eyes and your hands down to the target, they're going to get into your legs, so you really have to focus on that helmet area. That's where we saw people attacking Derrick [Henry] and try to tackle him that way."

This year, they are working on another addition in which Henry fakes a stiff-arm to get the defender off balance, then he recoils and strikes him to the ground.

Added Henry, "I love using a stiff-arm, so they brought that [helmet on a stick] in to help me practice throughout the week. This is what it's all about, getting better at the things that I'm good at."