The Tennessee Titans knocked off the AFC’s top seed, the Baltimore Ravens, on Saturday to become the first No. 6 seed to reach an NFL conference championship game since the New York Jets and Green Bay Packers in the 2010 season. And while the quarterback is the hero of most underdog runs, the Titans are winning by relying on a running back: Derrick Henry.
That’s especially surprising considering that running backs have been steadily losing importance in the pass-happy NFL. Teams are spending less on the position (the average salary cap hit for a running back dropped from almost 5 percent in 2013 to 3 percent in 2019), and they are using rushers at a historically low rate because passing plays tend to provide more value than rushing plays. Yet here is Henry, the regular season rushing leader, rewriting the record books by gaining more yards in his first four playoff games than any other back. Henry is the first player to run for 175 yards or more in two games in the same postseason, and he is the only player in NFL history to record three consecutive games (including the regular season finale) with at least 180 rushing yards. He’s also the first NFL rushing leader to reach a conference championship game since LaDainian Tomlinson in the 2007 season.
How is this happening? The Titans can buck analytical wisdom because they have a running back with a unique blend of size and speed that consistently allows them to make game-changing plays on the ground. And they aren’t afraid to use Henry in situations normally reserved for the passing game.
The 6-foot-3, 247-pound bruiser led the league with 4.2 yards gained after contact per rushing attempt during the regular season, and he has improved during the playoffs (4.7), according to Pro Football Focus. The rest of the league’s running backs are averaging less than three yards after contact. In fact, 472 of Henry’s 588 rushing yards over the past three games came after contact.
And because he is able to extend runs, Henry’s explosive-play potential is greater: He turned in a run of 15 or more yards once out of every 16 carries this season; the rest of the NFL’s running backs averaged one every 22 carries. Henry’s 23 runs of 15 yards or more, in the regular season and playoffs, are the most in the NFL; only two other players (Cleveland’s Nick Chubb and Oakland’s Josh Jacobs) had more than 13.
“[He has] the size that is extremely rare in a running back, but then he also has the speed to go with it,” Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “So he has the size to run those physical two-, three-yard runs inside where there’s no hole, and he’s getting three yards and keeping us ahead of the chains. But then also if he breaks free, he gets through the first level, he has the speed to take it 60, 70 yards, which is extremely rare. And for that reason, he’s special.”
Tennessee Coach Mike Vrabel and offensive coordinator Arthur Smith have been leaning on Henry much more in the playoffs, including in unconventional situations. The Titans ran the ball 47 percent of the time during the regular season but have done so 70 percent of the time in the postseason, per data from TruMedia. They even ran the ball 60 percent of the time when they trailed the New England Patriots in the first round; the other teams have run the ball 33 percent of the time when trailing in this year’s playoffs.
Those two ingredients — an elite, tackle-breaking running back with breakaway speed who is given extraordinary opportunities to impact the game — make up Tennessee’s successful recipe for the postseason, and it’s one that is difficult to replicate. The Titans are scoring three more points on rushing plays from running backs per playoff game than expected after taking into account the down, distance and field position of each attempt. No other playoff team is in positive territory.
Give some credit to Tennessee’s offensive line, too. Right tackle Jack Conklin was the NFL’s third-best run blocker this season, per Pro Football Focus, and left tackle Taylor Lewan ranked 10th. PFF also ranked Ben Jones the ninth-best run-blocking center. Henry’s success rate running behind each of these players has been significantly above average in the playoffs, according to data from Sharp Football Stats. For example, 82 of his 195 yards against the Ravens were gained running behind Conklin.
“I think [offensive line coach] Keith Carter and [Smith] do a great job of kind of figuring out what we want to do based on the looks that we’re getting and to be able to hit some of those runs, and guys are finishing blocks,” Vrabel said after the win against Baltimore. “When Derrick gets to the back side and is able to get to the second level, most of the time he’s able to gain a lot of yards.”
Next up are the Kansas City Chiefs, who have given up plenty of ground to opposing running backs. Pro Football Focus rated the Chiefs as the fifth-worst run defense of 2019, and the outlook at Football Outsiders was equally grim, with the Chiefs judged fourth worst against the run after adjusting for strength of schedule. The Chiefs’ defensive line isn’t adept at stopping rushers at or behind the line of scrimmage (it does so at a 14 percent rate, the lowest mark in the NFL during the regular season and playoffs combined, per TruMedia), nor is Kansas City strong at preventing opposing rushers from moving the chains. In 2019, running backs were successful on 42 percent of carries against Kansas City, the third-highest mark against any NFL defense, according to TruMedia. Only two non-playoff teams, the Carolina Panthers and Cincinnati Bengals, were worse.
The Titans exploited that weakness in Week 10, with Henry rushing for 62 of his 188 yards (including 46 of those yards after contact) on 13 carries right up the gut. One of his carries that day went for 68 yards.
“That running back’s not a bad player,” Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said of Henry, via Sports Illustrated. “He brings it every snap. He’s a big fella that can really move. Did it in college, does it now.”
And he is doing things that no other NFL running back can.
What happened in Super Bowl LIV
The Chiefs defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 31-20, in the Super Bowl to deliver Kansas City’s first NFL championship in 50 years. Find all the highlights here.
How it happened: Patrick Mahomes had a play in his back pocket for when the Chiefs needed it. Now “Tre Right, Three Jet Chip Wasp” will live in Kansas City lore.
Commentary: Patrick Mahomes, in Super Bowl comeback, showed why he is the best quarterback in the NFL.
Parade: Fans gather early and in mass numbers to celebrate Chiefs’ Super Bowl in Kansas City.
Photos: The best photos from Hard Rock Stadium | The plays the Chiefs made to win
Halftime show: Jennifer Lopez and Shakira teamed up to become the first two Latina singers to perform at the Super Bowl. It was a truly riveting, wildly entertaining performance. “You may have heard the American Dream itself pulsing in a space where it will always be allowed to live,” pop music critic Chris Richards writes, “inside a pop song.”
Commercials: The very best from Super Bowl Sunday, and the very worst.
Go a little deeper...
• Patrick Mahomes became the NFL’s best quarterback by refusing to specialize in football
• In tragedies’ wake, Andy Reid and the Chiefs found success through second chances
• The Chiefs brought Native American imagery, and the ‘tomahawk chop,’ to the Super Bowl stage
• Len Dawson smoked his way through the first Super Bowl. The photos are priceless.
• For Chiefs owner Clark Hunt and his family, this Super Bowl trip was 50 years in the making