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Those Criticizing Derrick Henry Need to Point Elsewhere Too, for Now

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Singling out Henry’s Struggles Isn’t Fair in Context

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Based on headline alone, I’d bet some readers are already headed to the comment section to disagreeably pound their fists on the MCM round table and bemoan how much of a disappointment Derrick Henry has been through four games. Admittedly, they wouldn’t be wrong.

Henry has done next to nothing statistically (on plays that count at least) and Matt LaFleur is seemingly wasting downs the majority of the time he calls for the ball to go to 22. The problem is, Henry isn’t alone in his struggles on the ground and, taking an objective view, I recommend Titans fans hit pause on their ire towards the former Heisman-winning RB.

In no way is this examination intended to praise Henry. It is simply advocating for patience and for the current umbrella of blame to be opened wider. This team is in a great spot at 3-1, the defense has been stout overall, and the passing game finally showed signs of life this past Sunday. The run game is the one phase which is not trending in the right direction under this new staff and I’m sure everyone directly involved recognizes it as a weak link in need of strengthening.

First thing’s first, here are some unbiased statistics to factor in. I’ve listed each of the Titans’ first four opponents’ yards per carry allowed against their other three opponents (i.e. I excluded the Titans to avoid overlap), with one small adjustment. To better filter out anomaly plays, I omitted the 2 longest and 2 shortest runs against each defense. Here’s what I wound up with:

Miami Dolphins

Discarded Runs

-5 yards
-4 yards
22 yards
23 yards

Adjusted Total

77 attempts
279 yards
3.62 ypc

Houston Texans

Discarded Runs

-5 yards
-3 yards
15 yards
24 yards

Adjusted Total

62 attempts
221 yards
3.56 ypc

Jacksonville Jaguars

Discarded Runs

-4 yards
-3 yards
15 yards
68 yards

Adjusted Total

49 attempts
130 yards
2.65 ypc

Philadelphia Eagles

Discarded Runs

-6
-3
14
20

Adjusted Total

44 attempts
111 yards
2.52 ypc

Next, I tallied both Derrick Henry’s and Dion Lewis’ yards per carry against each opponent to date, after excluding any runs that would have been discarded from the previously calculated defensive totals had the Titans been included. For instance, against the Eagles I excluded both a -4 yard run and a 14 yard run from Derrick Henry’s average, because both fell on or outside of the parameters set within the first section. This way, the backs did not receive credit for runs that wouldn't have factored into the defensive totals.

Derrick Henry

Adjusted Totals:

Dolphins: 2.6 ypc
Texans: 3.47 ypc (discarded a -3 yard run)
Jaguars: 3.53 ypc (discarded a -3 yard run)
Eagles: 2.33 ypc (discarded a -4 yard run and a 14 yard run)

Dion Lewis

Adjusted Totals:

Dolphins: 3.86 ypc (discarded a -5 yard run and a 26 yard run)
Texans: 3.46 ypc (discarded a -3 yard run)
Jaguars: 3.63 ypc (discarded a -3 yard run)
Eagles: 0 ypc

At first glance, Lewis appears to have been the more consistent back. I realize it runs contrary to the basis of this analysis to bring up Henry’s called-back 60-yard run in Miami (which would have been discarded even if it had counted), but I think it’s fair to at least mention it in the context of the gap between Henry and Lewis in week one. Going into that game, Lewis was viewed as a better stylistic match-up against the Dolphins defensive front. Especially when omitting outlier runs, one could have predicted the gap in efficiency in that contest.

Outside of that game, though, the two have been right on par with one another. Both narrowly under-performed vs. the average against Houston and outperformed the average against Jacksonville. Lewis only received 4 carries against the Eagles (compared to Henry’s 8) and he may have brought up his average slightly if given a couple more opportunities. Very few backs, if any, are going to find consistent success against Philadelphia.

Not factoring in their current season stats, Henry and Lewis have both achieved high yards per carry historically. During his first two pro seasons, Henry averaged 4.3 ypc (not adjusted in the same manner as above). Over the five seasons prior to 2018, Lewis earned 4.8 ypc (again, non-adjusted).

I have no beef with anyone who suggests that Dion Lewis is a better pro running back than Derrick Henry. Lewis certainly offers more as a receiver. Henry may develop into a better pass blocker as his career elapses, but right now Lewis is more reliable in that facet too.

As runners, they’ve both been successful. It’s important to recognize the reality of their respective “styles”, however. To make a baseball analogy, Henry is like a designated hitter who bats for power, not average. Lewis is like a shortstop—he’s a more complete player who does a little bit of everything at the plate but isn’t going to go yard as often.

To continue with the analogy, the pitchers they’ve faced—the opposing run defenses—have played a significant role in a shared lack of success. I also don’t think the other members of the line-up—the Titans OL—have given either many chances to knock in RBIs or advance runners.

Getting back to a real sport, I think it’s reasonable to allow some more time for the offensive line to gel both as a unit and within this new blocking scheme. Matt LaFleur is still learning when and how he can get the most out of each back. There will be games for both in which they prove more valuable than the other. Strictly in terms of run plays, my proverbial scorecard would award Jacksonville and Philadelphia to Henry, Miami to Lewis, and call Houston a draw (Welcome to the wide world of cross-sports analogies!)

According to Football Outsiders’ Rush Defense DVOA, the Titans have played the 6th, 3rd, 7th, and 2nd highest-rated run defenses in the league through four games. In the next quarter of the season, they’ll face the (current) 14th, 9th, 25th, and 13th highest-rated run defenses. We should get a more balanced sample with which to evaluate Henry, Lewis, the OL, and LaFleur’s run-play selection. Here’s hoping each can improve enough to make the ground game an asset for the Titans down the stretch.