Even in an age where the passing game is king, the best teams in the NFL can still fall victim to a dominant rushing performance.
Derrick Henry proved as much on Monday Night Football in Week 6, putting the Buffalo Bills to the sword with a 143-yard, three-touchdown performance as the Tennessee Titans claimed a thrilling primetime win.
It was Henry’s fifth successive 100-yard game and his third this season with three touchdowns.
Unsurprisingly, the man who has won the rushing title in each of the last two seasons again leads the league in yardage on the ground.
More noteworthy, however, is the fact Henry is on pace to comfortably break Eric Dickerson’s record for most rushing yards in a single season.
Dickerson’s mark of 2,105 has stood since 1984, but Henry critically has the benefit of a 17th game in which to make NFL history.
But is Henry’s pace sustainable? And, beyond writing one of the most incredible chapters in the NFL record books, what would it mean if Henry does surpass Dickerson?
A Historic Pace
Following his dominant showing against Buffalo, Henry is averaging 130.5 yards per game, putting him on track for 2,219.
Such a gaudy average would be unsustainable for most backs. However, Henry has the exceptional skill set to again prove as the exception.
He finished last season with similar numbers, putting up 126.7 yards per game while leading the league with 378 carries – Dalvin Cook was second with 312 – as the Titans star surpassed 2,000 for the first time in his career.
And his frightening combination of his size and speed has allowed Henry to display durability beyond most players at his position.
Henry has missed only one game across the previous two seasons, a period in which he carried the ball a league-high 681 times, with his 6-foot-3, 247-pound frame and his explosiveness ensuring it’s opposing defenders who typically come off worst in collisions.
A Favorable Schedule
Speaking to that explosiveness is Henry’s 2021 yards before contact per attempt average of 3.01. That figure is comfortably above the league average of 2.40 and the difficulty in stopping Henry once he bursts to the second level of the defense is reflected by his number of big-play runs.
Henry leads the league with 19 rushes of 10 yards or more while he’s the only player in the NFL with two runs of at least 50 yards.
Simply put, being in the path of this behemoth when he breaks into the open field is the most difficult position for an NFL defender to be in, and he will face plenty of defenses vulnerable to the run during the remainder of the season.
On Sunday, the Titans face a Kansas City Chiefs defense ranked 30th in rush yards per attempt allowed (5.15), and Tennessee will meet a team ranked in the bottom half of the league by that metric in six of the last 11 weeks of the season. He also faces five teams ranked 20th or worse in rushing yards allowed per play over/under the expected amount, including the NFL-worst Houston Texans twice.
The blend of Henry’s proclivity for big gains and a schedule that should present a plethora of opportunities for displays akin to his devastating effort in Week 6 is a perfect recipe for the former Alabama star sustaining his current pace and shattering Dickerson’s record, which would be significant for several reasons.
Destined for Canton?
The magnitude of Henry breaking the rushing record cannot be overstated.
At present, it is only the advent of the 17th game that would make his current pace enough for him to surpass Dickerson, who averaged an astonishing 131.6 yards across 16 games.
Yet that would not detract from the scale of Henry’s achievement, with that potential piece of history standing as a monument to his consistency.
In addition to claiming a record that has long since seemed unbreakable, Henry would become the first player in NFL history to record multiple 2,000-yard seasons, doing so in successive years.
Putting that into context, no player in NFL history has even posted back-to-back 1,900-yard seasons, with Dickerson the sole player to go over 1,800 yards in consecutive years – his record-breaking 1984 followed a 1983 campaign he finished with 1,808 yards as a rookie.
Henry may only be in his sixth season as a pro, but should he maintain his pace and make NFL history, he can surely look forward to a place in the Hall of Fame.
The argument could be made that he would require a longer spell of dominance to secure a spot in Canton. However, Henry is on course for an unmatched two-year run at a time where the unstoppable bell-cow running back is considered a thing of the past.
This is the era of committee backfields, one where any running back taken in the first round can be viewed as a reach, and yet Henry is producing at an unprecedented rate amid a workload that would physically break many tailbacks. And he’s carrying the Titans to victories that have helped establish a two-game lead in the AFC South as they look for back-to-back division titles.
Tennessee’s flaws on defense will likely prevent the Titans from seriously contending for a deep playoff run this year, but Henry has the distinct opportunity to make sure this season is memorable for entirely different reasons that would be worthy of him being immortalized and receiving a gold jacket after an increasingly astounding career comes to a close.
Graphic design by Matt Sisneros.