NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry has a simple test for how sore he is after plowing through and over NFL defenders.
Being able to pick up his daughter Valentina each morning.
“That is my main thing,” Henry said. “You are sore all over, especially in our position because you take so many hits, but it is just about the recovery process and getting your body back under you to come out here and do it again.”
Workload questions just keep coming for the 2020 AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year and two-time Pro Bowl running back. Henry not only leads the NFL in rushing with 640 yards this season, he also has 142 carries for the Titans (3-2).
That's an average of 28.4 rushes per game, not counting the occasional reception or 2-point conversion. Henry is on a pace for 482 carries this season. That would easily top the current record of 416 by Larry Johnson in 2006 with the Kansas City Chiefs.
For the Titans, that's just how this offense works right now. And the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry knows his role as a ball-carrying battering ram.
“We just have to try to be as smart as we can with recovery and how it is going in the game and how he feels,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “There is a fine line there in knowing what he needs and the impact he has throughout the course of the game.”
The Buffalo Bills (4-1) get the next chance Monday night to tackle Henry, with the NFL's third-best run defense allowing only 78.4 yards per game. Henry is averaging 128 yards a game with 58 yards in the opener the only time he’s finished with fewer than 113.
Bills coach Sean McDermott, who had to defend Patrick Mahomes with the Chiefs last week, called Henry one of, if not the best running back in the NFL, and a very tough guy to bring down. This time Buffalo has defensive tackle Star Lotulelei available after the lineman missed last season.
“He’s good outside. He’s good inside the tackles. He’s fast and he pulls away from DBs when he has the ball in his hands,” McDermott said. “So yeah, it’s a full plan, if you will, in making sure we understand not only how he runs, but also how to get him down.”
The opener also was the only game this season when Henry had less than 28 rushes.
“Derrick takes a lot of shots,” Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown said. “Some of the shots look tough, and he keeps going. He gets stronger as the game goes on. That's impressive to me. Him being a pro at all times and doing the little things nobody sees.”
Hits take a toll.
Johnson was 26 when he set the NFL record for most rushes in a season, and that's a bit of a magic number among running backs with at least 385 carries in a season. Of that group, only Eric Dickerson was older than 26, and he was 28 in 1988 when he had 388 carries for the Colts.
Henry, currently 27, turns 28 the week of the regular-season finale. He's coming off a season when he became the eighth man in NFL history to run for at least 2,000 yards. He finished with 2,027 yards on a career-high 378 carries. Henry had a combined 386 carries in the 2019 season and playoffs.
Titans running backs coach Tony Dews has never coached someone like Henry before and says this is a bit of a learning experience for him. Dews credits Henry with communicating just how he feels to Vrabel, himself and the team's training and strength staff.
"He and his body will tell us when it’s time to slow down,” Dews said.
For Henry, making sure he recovers from each game and is ready for the next kickoff is part of his job. When he was younger, he asked veterans for tips on keeping themselves ready and soaked in as much information as possible.
His recovery process includes everything from time in the cold tub, hot tub and massages to dry needling.
“Anything I can do to get my body ready, I am going to try it,” Henry said.
Henry is at his best in the third and fourth quarters. He has more yards rushing in the fourth quarter since 2017 than anyone else in the NFL with 1,768 yards in that span and a league-best 15 TDs. He led the NFL with 523 yards in the fourth quarter last season.
Vrabel pointed to how Henry ran last week against the Jaguars. Runs stopped in the first half for a couple yards turned into chunks of 9 and 10 yards late. Henry wound up walking in from the 10 for his third TD of the game.
“Ultimately, I think he gets better, builds more confidence, sees where the cuts should be,” Vrabel said. “I saw some runs that were better in the fourth quarter than there were in the first quarter just by him seeing the same look, or the same defense, or block the same way and then making the right cut.”
That success makes it tough not to keep giving Henry the ball as long as he keeps running the way he does.
AP Sports Writer John Wawrow contributed to this report.
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