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Stay Out Of Derrick Henry’s Way

The Tennessee Titans have taken a battering ram to the NFL in the form of their 6-foot-3, 247-pound running back, Derrick Henry. With him, not only are they knocking on the door to the postseason, but they’re threatening to blast right through.

Winners of three straight games courtesy of a record-setting string of performances by the Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama, the Titans have seen their playoff probability climb in the FiveThirtyEight prediction model from 8 percent to their current 42 percent. In each of these Titans victories, Henry has topped 140 rushing yards and scored at least one rushing touchdown. No running back since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger has had a longer streak — and only five other backs had a streak as long.

Derrick Henry’s last three games were dominant

Players with at least 140 rushing yards and at least one rushing touchdown in three consecutive games since 1970

Season Player Team Tm Games Carries Yards TDs
2019 Derrick Henry Tennessee Titans 10-12 68 496 5
2012 Adrian Peterson Minnesota Vikings 12-14 76 576 4
2005 Larry Johnson Kansas City Chiefs 12-14 87 450 7
2002 Ricky Williams Miami Dolphins 11-13 87 587 6
1984 Eric Dickerson Los Angeles Rams 13-15 88 555 6
1983 Eric Dickerson Los Angeles Rams 4-6 80 533 6
1976 O.J. Simpson Buffalo Bills 12-14 81 647 4

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Only Eric Dickerson’s Rams in 1984 and Henry’s Titans won all the games in their rushing streaks. Overall, the non-Henry backs’ teams went just 10-8 in these epic performances.

But the Titans are coupling Henry’s running with hyper-efficient passing from Ryan Tannehill. In this stretch of games, Tannehill is the NFL’s leading quarterback by passer rating,1 spurred in part by a stunning 10.5 yards per pass attempt. But Tannehill, especially by today’s standards, is barely even passing. He’s averaging fewer than 20 heaves in these games and has not topped 22 in any of them. The last team to throw 22 passes or fewer in three straight wins was Tim Tebow’s 2011 Broncos (who won five straight).

Defenses know they have to stop Henry to beat the Titans, but he keeps running them over anyway. “He is what he is,’’ Colts middle linebacker Anthony Walker said after Indianapolis was trampled by Henry (26 carries, 149 yards) in their Week 13 loss to the Titans. “He’s a great back. We know that. He’s a huge human being. We know that.’’

But even when defenses load up the box near the line of scrimmage with at least eight defenders to outman the offensive line, they can’t stop Henry. On an NFL-leading 69 carries against these stacked formations, Henry is averaging 5.2 yards per carry, or 57 percent more than the average back.

Size is what makes Henry unique, not only in today’s game but also historically. Henry entered the NFL as a physical outlier for the opposite reason you normally hear in football — he was thought to be too big to succeed at running back, who, as of 2013, are an average just under 6 feet and 215 pounds. The belief is that taller backs are easier to topple, like how a refrigerator is easier to flip over if it’s standing upright versus laying on its side.

But Henry is setting records for his unusual prototype. He is already the all-time, single-season rushing leader among backs at least 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, only two of whom have ever topped 1,000 yards in a season (Cookie Gilchrist and Brandon Jacobs). And he’s third in the NFL in rushing on the season, 35 yards behind the leader Nick Chubb.

Henry uses his size to overpower tacklers, leading the NFL in yards after first contact per run. But unlike most other titanic backs, Henry combines playmaking speed with his size. This combination has made him the NFL’s most prolific big-play running back, with a league-leading 31 carries of at least 10 yards.

Henry is also shining where there are fewer yards to gain — in the red zone. Running is generally the key to converting possessions inside the opponent’s 20-yard line into touchdowns, which is significant given that red-zone success is an important factor in determining a team’s overall record. The Titans lead the NFL in the stat and have actually increased their red-zone TD rate during their streak, getting into the end zone at a clip of nearly 80 percent. Henry’s success rate, or share of plays with positive expected points (EPA) added, on red-zone rushing attempts is 51.7 percent, compared with the leaguewide running back average of just 40.6 percent. During the winning streak, Henry has generated positive EPA on six of his nine red-zone carries.

Henry will have a tough row to hoe in Week 14 against a Raiders defense that’s 10th in yards allowed per rush. After that, whether the Titans can earn a ticket to the January dance likely hinges on how Henry and Co. perform in the two remaining games against the division-leading Texans, who rank 24th in opposing yards per carry allowed.

And if he can continue his current full-season pace of more than 1,500 yards, he’ll try to do what only two of nine backs who topped that milestone this decade have accomplished: win a playoff game.

Looking Ahead: Week 14

Best matchup:2 No. 10 Los Angeles Rams (-1) vs. No. 7 Seattle, 8:20 p.m. ET Sunday

The Seahawks find themselves in nearly the same position as last week: a slight underdog against a team trying to improve its playoff chances. Seattle fended off the Vikings in Week 13 and now face a resurgent Rams team that’s just one game back in the wild-card race. L.A. would take its playoff odds from 25 percent in the FiveThirtyEight model to 39 percent with a win on Sunday night — and if the Vikings happen to lose to the Lions, the Rams would jump all the way up to 62 percent. Meanwhile, the Seahawks are already a virtual lock to make the playoffs, but they would clinch with a win — and give themselves a 76 percent chance to win the NFC West.

What to watch for in the NFL’s Week 14

NFL matchups for Week 14, ranked according to various factors

Matchup Rankings
Favorite Underdog Favorite’s Win prob Quality Evenness Importance QBs
10 Rams vs 7 Seahawks 53.2% 4 1 3 4
14 Bears vs 13 Cowboys 54.9 5 3 4 5
12 Titans at 23 Raiders 60.5 8 7 1 6
19 Buccaneers vs 17 Colts 56.7 7 4 5 9
3 Saints vs 4 49ers 59.9 2 6 12 3
1 Ravens at 11 Bills 63.9 3 9 10 1
2 Patriots vs 5 Chiefs 63.2 1 8 13 2
8 Texans vs 21 Broncos 76.6 6 12 7 8
16 Steelers at 28 Cardinals 64.0 13 10 2 16
20 Chargers at 26 Jaguars 54.6 12 2 14 12
15 Eagles vs 31 Giants 81.9 15 14 6 7
22 Falcons vs 24 Panthers 58.6 11 5 16 15
6 Vikings vs 32 Lions 89.8 9 16 8 14
9 Packers vs 30 Redskins 87.2 10 15 9 13
18 Browns vs 29 Bengals 76.8 14 13 11 10
25 Jets vs 27 Dolphins 65.1 16 11 15 11

Game Quality is based on the Elo Ratings of both teams. Evenness is based on how close the game is to 50-50 pregame odds. A game’s Importance is based on how much it swings the playoff odds of the teams involved. A game’s Quarterbacks are judged on the QB Elo ratings of the two starters.

Biggest playoff implications: No. 12 Tennessee (-3) at No. 23 Oakland, 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday

Potential shift in playoff odds: 29.2 total percentage points

The Raiders still have a small chance to make the playoffs, at 11 percent in the FiveThirtyEight model, and they need a win here to realistically stay in the race. The Titans and Derrick Henry have surged over the past three weeks, as discussed above, but they’re still not a lock for the playoffs. A win here would boost them to 56 percent, with a 27 percent chance to win the messy AFC South. A loss wouldn’t completely sink Tennessee, but its playoffs odds would drop down to 20 percent.

Best QB duels: No. 1 Lamar Jackson (BAL) at No. 10 Josh Allen (BUF); No. 2 Patrick Mahomes (KC) at No. 11 Tom Brady (NE); No. 5 Drew Brees (NO) vs. No. 15 Jimmy Garoppolo (SF)

FiveThirtyEight vs. the Readers

As a weekly tradition here at FiveThirtyEight, we look at how our Elo model did against everybody who made picks in our forecasting game. (If you entered, you can find yourself on our leaderboard here.) These are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 13

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 13 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
JAX 60% JAX 52% TB 28, JAX 11 +7.5
MIN 51 SEA 58 SEA 37, MIN 30 +5.9
NYJ 76 NYJ 71 CIN 22, NYJ 6 +5.4
IND 58 IND 54 TEN 31, IND 17 +2.4
DAL 63 DAL 60 BUF 26, DAL 15 +0.8
GB 75 GB 80 GB 31, NYG 13 +0.7
NO 70 NO 74 NO 26, ATL 18 +0.5
CAR 79 CAR 79 WSH 29, CAR 21 -2.0
KC 83 KC 81 KC 40, OAK 9 -2.2
LAR 62 LAR 59 LAR 34, ARI 7 -4.6
PIT 51 CLE 53 PIT 20, CLE 13 -6.1
BAL 68 BAL 62 BAL 20, SF 17 -6.8
CHI 73 CHI 65 CHI 24, DET 20 -7.2
NE 60 NE 64 HOU 28, NE 22 -7.8
LAC 52 LAC 60 DEN 23, LAC 20 -10.6
PHI 70 PHI 77 MIA 37, PHI 31 -11.5

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

Week 13 saw another big win for Elo, with the algorithm beating the field for the ninth straight week, this time by a margin of 35.6 points on average. The readers picked up points for believing in Seattle more than Elo and believing in Jacksonville and the New York Jets less. But they lost big on Miami’s big upset over Philadelphia and the L.A. Chargers’ heartbreaker against Denver (not to mention Houston’s win over New England). The algorithm’s record on the season against the field is now 11-2.

Congratulations are in order, though, for Mark Ruzicka, who led all readers in Week 13 with 138.4 points, and for Aaron DiGenova, who is still ahead in the full-season contest with 865.7 points. Thanks to everyone who played — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and try your luck against Elo, even if you missed Week 13.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Among QBs with a minimum of 50 attempts in that span.

  2. Based on a combination of matchup evenness, or how close to 50-50 odds the game has; matchup quality, in terms of the harmonic mean of both teams’ QB-adjusted Elo ratings; playoff impact; and the quality of the opposing starting QBs.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

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