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Opposing Defenses Show Us Just How Scary Derrick Henry Is

Derrick Henry is on quite a tear. Through Week 7, the Tennessee Titans running back leads the league for the third time in as many years in rushing yardage. His 43 regular-season rushing touchdowns since 2019 are best in the league. And this past week against the Kansas City Chiefs, he even threw a touchdown pass, the second of his career.

In 2020, Henry became the first back to rush for 2,000 yards or more since Adrian Peterson in 2012.1 Through Week 7, Henry is averaging 124.1 yards per game. If he can keep up that pace, because of the expanded 17-game season, he would break Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record of 2,105 by almost 5 yards. And while extrapolating future production in this way is usually a terrifically bad idea, it’s not entirely out of the question: Last year, Henry averaged 126.7 yards per game over a 16-game season.

Henry’s gaudy stats have tentatively put him in the MVP discussion. Betting markets currently give him about a 6 percent shot to win the MVP, good for eighth place on a list dominated by quarterbacks. 

So how might a team’s respect for Henry’s dominance manifest itself, and what parts of his game strike the most fear into his opponents? The first problem is that he’s damn fast. Henry leads the NFL with 120 runs of 10 yards or more since 2019,2 and he has eight runs of 50 yards or more, also tops in the league. Henry can reach speeds of up to 21.8 miles per hour in the open field, so stopping him before he gets going is a point of emphasis for defenses.

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Related: Our 2021 NFL Predictions

Next is his size — a mere 6-foot-3, 247 pounds. Even if you can catch Henry, you still have to tackle him, which can be both challenging and dangerous, especially for lighter defensive backs. Since he entered the league in 2016, no running back has more yards after first contact than Henry. His average rushing yards before contact ranks 27th, further highlighting the need to gang-tackle and wrap him up early in the play.

The final problem for Henry’s opponents is perhaps his most dominating skill: He has the best stiff arm in the game. And getting the heavy hand from Henry isn’t just for show. The 2015 Heisman Trophy winner doesn’t often waste his signature move on mere 5-yard runs. Instead, on the league-leading 41 rushing plays since 2016 in which Henry utilized a stiff arm,3 he’s gained 460 yards after contact and has averaged over 15 yards per run. 

With his freakish combination of size and speed joined with a stunning stiff arm, Henry rightly strikes terror in the hearts of defenses tasked with tackling him. So far this season, teams have done the smart and rational thing and brought extra help when facing the Titans.

Using our Defenders in the Box Over Expected metric, we calculated which running backs have seen the most stacked boxes in 2021 after adjusting for the probability of a play being a dropback.4 Plays on third-and-long rarely need extra defenders near the line of scrimmage, while plays on third-and-short in the red zone often have many defenders crowding the box. By adjusting for these situations, we can get a clearer picture of just how much respect a defensive coordinator has for each back.5

Of the backs that meet the minimum threshold for rush attempts,6 Henry ranks second, averaging over half an extra defender near the line of scrimmage over what we would expect given the game state.

Defenses respect and fear King Henry

Defenders in the Box Over Expected (DBOE) faced by runner on designed runs through Week 7 of the 2021 NFL season

*Ingram was traded to the New Orleans Saints on Oct. 27.

Limited to running backs with at least 50 rushing attempts on the season.

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information Group, nflfastR

Leading the league in rushing attempts, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and stiff arms would be ample reason to heap praise upon Henry, but doing it while seeing stacked boxes with the frequency Henry has is remarkable. Rushing success is largely a function of field position and defenders in the box, but Henry is overcoming the odds with his unique athleticism. 

And while we shouldn’t give Henry too much credit for enticing opposing defenses to overreact to things like play-action,7 there are ways that Henry affects a defense that could bolster his case in the MVP discussion. As Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley pointed out earlier this year: “If you’re just a passing team, there’s a physical element to the game that the defense doesn’t have to respect.”

Defenses are respecting Henry and the Titans, and for at least for now, both the eye test and the quantitative evidence seem to respect the idea that Henry is the best back in football.

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  1. Peterson won the MVP for his performance that season, the last running back to win the award.

  2. Including the playoffs.

  3. Again, including playoffs.

  4. The probability of a dropback comes from open-source modeling by Ben Baldwin and is available on nflfastR. Features include yard line, whether the possession team is at home, the stadium roof type, down, distance, quarter, time remaining in the half, the score differential, timeouts remaining for each team, the win probability and the era in which the game took place.

  5. It’s worth noting that the converse can also be true. Stacking the box even when a pass is probably coming is a clear sign of disrespect for a QB, and it may help explain the presence of running back Mark Ingram — who played the first seven weeks of the season in Houston, but was traded to the New Orleans Saints on Oct. 27 — at the top of the list.

  6. Minimum 50 attempts.

  7. There’s little evidence that rushing success is a prerequisite for effective fakes.

Josh Hermsmeyer was a football writer and analyst.