The Tennessee Titans made it two wins in a row on Sunday, besting the Indianapolis Colts by a score of 25-16 in Nashville. The expected result occurred and sent the Titans to 2-1, while their main AFC South rivals are now in a hole at 0-3.
Several talking points emerged at the conclusion of the contest, but none were more noteworthy than how superstar running back Derrick Henry continues to emerge as a trustworthy option in Tennessee's passing offense. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Henry is the best pure runner of the football in the league but has often been criticized for his lack of contributions as a pass-catcher. Running backs who are able to run routes out of the backfield while creating mismatches have become a premium asset in today's pass-happy NFL. When Henry is compared with his counterparts, analysts are quick to point out how the likes of Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara impact the passing game.
Since arriving in Tennessee, Henry has rarely taken the field on third downs and his involvement as a pass-catcher has been extremely infrequent. Henry set a career high in receptions in 2020 when he recorded 19 in 16 regular-season games, further proving how little he's been utilized in such a role.
That is no longer the case. Henry has totaled a surprising 12 receptions through three contests, good for an average of four catches per game. It’s early, but that currently projects Henry on pace for 68 catches this season, based on the new 17-game model—more than three times his previous career high. Henry may not quite reach those heights, but his newfound role as a pass-catcher is a startling and unexpected development
When trying to forecast whether or not Henry will continue to contribute in the passing game, it’s important to look at who the offensive coordinator is. The Titans decided to keep things in-house following Arthur Smith’s departure to Atlanta, opting to promote tight ends coach Todd Downing to the offensive coordinator role. Downing spent just one season as an offensive coordinator prior to landing the job in Tennessee, spending 2017 in the same play-calling position with the then-Oakland Raiders. Things didn’t go well for Downing in Oakland, but Downing’s penchant for employing his backs in the passing game was obvious then as well.
The trio of Jalen Richard, DeAndre Washington, and Cordarrelle Patterson combined to see an astounding 161 targets in the passing game under Downing’s watchful eye in 2017. It would be silly of us to write off what history tells us, combined with the data the first three games of the 2021 campaign have provided. Henry is going to keep catching passes as Tennessee’s offense continues to operate as one of the most difficult units to defend around the league.
Henry's early-season production as a pass-catcher has come as a surprise to those of us that watched him since he first entered the league back in 2016, but it makes sense when you study how Downing has used his running backs in past stops. The former Heisman winner is thriving in Downing’s system. Henry just recorded the best September of his career, totaling an astounding 453 yards in just three games. Defensive coordinators are having a difficult time gathering their bearings when preparing for Henry in a role that could see him split out wide at any given moment.
Henry's development as a pass-catcher gives the Titans another option in what's already an efficient offense and could be the key to unlocking more playoff success in 2021.