Derrick Henry's return vital for Ryan Tannehill, Tennessee Titans offense

Here's the "Nifty 50s" takeaway after Titans win that clinched AFC's top seed (0:59)

Here's the "Nifty 50s" takeaway after the Titans 28-25 win over the Texans clinched the top seed in the AFC at NRG Park. Video by Turron Davenport (0:59)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- If everything goes according to plans, the next time the Tennessee Titans take the field, fans will once again get to chant, "Hen-ry! Hen-ry!"

Titans running back Derrick Henry is expected to be back in action at Nissan Stadium when No. 1-seeded Tennessee opens its playoff run after earning the AFC's bye in the wild-card round.

The Titans designated Henry, who missed the past nine games with a fractured foot, for return to practice from injured reserve on Jan. 4, giving them 21 days to add him to the 53-man roster.

Even though he hasn't seen any game action since Oct. 31, Henry will have an impact as soon as he puts on a Titans jersey.

"Derrick is a heck of a player," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "Any time we can get him back out here working, and working his way to going out and competing with us, is going to be huge for us."

Before his injury, Henry was leading the NFL with 219 carries for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns through eight games. He finished tied for sixth in the league in rushing touchdowns and ninth in rushing yards even though he missed the rest of the regular season.

Tennessee had a 6-2 record before Henry was injured. The Titans' winning formula was simple: Keep feeding him.

"The balance is wins and losses," offensive coordinator Todd Downing said in October. "That's the scale that I'm trying to keep balanced. Getting Derrick Henry the ball gives us a better chance to win."

Downing vowed to avoid "jerking the wheel" on the offense when Henry went down. That was his way of saying that he would stick to the run.

The rushing attack remained solid without Henry, as the Titans went 6-3 without him.

D'Onta Foreman's 133 carries, 566 yards and 3 touchdowns led a committee that included Adrian Peterson, Dontrell Hilliard and Jeremy McNichols.

They combined for 223 carries for 1,036 yards and 6 touchdowns. But the offense was missing a true, consistent home run threat.

Henry's return brings back one of the team's most explosive players.

Foreman and Hilliard combined for five rushing attempts that gained 20 or more yards, including Hilliard's 68-yard touchdown run against the New England Patriots.

By comparison, Henry alone had three of his carries go for 20 or more yards, including a game-changing 76-yard touchdown run in the Titans' 34-31 win over the Buffalo Bills and another 60-yarder in Tennessee's 33-30 win over the Seattle Seahawks.

Since entering the NFL in 2016, Henry's 44 scrimmage plays that have gone for at least 20 yards is seventh among all running backs, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Henry has 16 scrimmage plays that resulted in at least a 40-yard gain, which ties him with New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley for the most over that same span.

Simply put, Henry changes how defenses attempt to stop the Titans.

Opposing teams will at times put eight in the box to try to stop him. But well-executed blocks, along with Henry's ability to get yards after contact and accelerate from the defense, lead to long touchdown runs.

Stacking the box also opens up passing lanes for Tannehill when the Titans utilize play-action because Henry greatly influences linebackers who are forced to respect his rushing ability.

Tannehill's play-action passing numbers in 2019 and 2020 with Henry in the backfield have been impressive. According to ESPN Stats & Information, in 2019, Tannehill completed 76.9% of his pass attempts for 1,353 yards and 12 touchdowns off of play-action. Tannehill averaged 12.53 yards per attempt that season.

Last season, Tannehill completed 62% of his passes for 1,618 yards and 11 touchdowns on play-action, and he averaged 9.46 yards per attempt.

Henry has a week of practice under his belt and is working with head trainer Frank Piraino to get his conditioning up to par. Nothing can replicate reps that come in games, so it remains to be seen how much Henry will be able to handle in his first game back.

Tennessee has found success with Foreman and Hilliard, which shouldn't force the Titans to run Henry too much in his return.

But, the Titans are a team that will go with the hot hand on game day.

If Henry gets into a groove, they will likely keep feeding him. That will allow them to play the physical style of football that steadily grinds away at opposing defenses like a steady flow of water erodes rocks.

"One thing that always amazed me about Derrick Henry was it seemed like the more he got the ball, the better he played," said Nick Saban, who coached Henry at Alabama, before the 2020 season on a radio show. "When he gets the ball, the more he gets it, the better he runs it. I don’t know if it’s a confidence thing with him. I don’t know if it’s because he’s so big, strong and physical that it just wears the other guys down."

Henry's playoff performance in the 2019 season was one for the ages, as he finished with 446 rushing yards. He became the first player in NFL history to run for 175 or more yards in back-to-back games, as he led the Titans to the AFC Championship game.

However, considering last season was a bitter ending -- when the Baltimore Ravens held Henry to 40 yards on 18 carries and beat the Titans 20-13 win in the wild-card round of the playoffs -- the Titans' star could have an extra bit of motivation.