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NFL Stats That Matter: Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill keep the Titans offense balanced

NFL Stats That Matter: Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill keep the Titans offense balanced
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - OCTOBER 18: Derrick Henry #22 of the Tennessee Titans rushes toward Bradley Roby #21 of the Houston Texans a game at Nissan Stadium on October 18, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

Derrick Henry leads the NFL with 588 rushing yards entering Week 7, despite having only played five games so far in the 2020 season. Ryan Tannehill is having an MVP-caliber season: first in the NFL in Football Outsiders DVOA, and third in the league with a 113.1 passer rating. Both are obviously indispensable cogs in the undefeated Tennessee Titans machine. But this edition of Stats That Matter breaks down the real secret of the Titans’ offense: the way Henry and Tannehill complement and create opportunities for each other.

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Derrick Henry Broken Tackle Stats

Before we get to the interplay of Tannehill and Derrick Henry’s strengths, let’s talk about Henry’s most recognizable, electrifying, Josh Norman-obliterating skill: his ability to barrel through tackles.

According to Sports Info Solutions, Henry leads the NFL with 19 broken tackles on running plays. No other rusher in the league has more than 12 broken tackles, according to that source. Henry also leads the league with 386 yards after contact, per Sports Info Solutions; no other back has more than 316. And keep in mind that most of the league leaders have played six games, while Henry has only played five.

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Broken tackles are an unofficial statistic, and it’s important to note that different sources have different tallies. Pro Football Reference lists Henry with just 12 broken tackles, which is still good enough to tie him for second in the NFL behind Mike Davis of the Carolina Panthers, with a league-high 365 rushing yards.

That PFR total looks a little light, and it’s hard to fathom that Davis has broken more tackles than Henry. Pro Football Focus counts avoided tackles, a critical distinction which allows them to count open-field jukes and such. Derrick Henry leads the NFL with 27 avoided tackles, per PFF, including two on receptions. 

Broken tackles may be in the eye of the beholder, but there is no question that Henry is among the best running backs in the NFL at generating yards after contact. Not only does that allow him to rip off the occasional 94-yard touchdown, but it helps him routinely turn two-yard gains into five-yarders. And Henry’s ability to hammer out routine yardage has helped Tannehill become one of the NFL’s most efficient passers.

How the Titans offense is so balanced

Derrick Henry leads the NFL in first down carries (80) and yards (426). He’s the first-down yardage leader by a wide margin — Aaron Jones is second with just 310 yards — but a 94-yard first-down run against the Houston Texans inflates his total. Henry averages 5.0 yards per first-down rush; the NFL average is just 4.4 yards per rush. Yes, that 94-yarder again fluffs Henry’s average a bit, but there are plenty of other long runs in the league average, too. 

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So Henry excels at setting up 2nd-and-medium opportunities. And Tannehill excels at making the most of being “on schedule.” Here are Tannehill’s stats on second down with six yards or less to go: 36-of-47, 441 yards, six TDs, zero interceptions. Tannehill leads the league in touchdowns and in passer rating (144.6) in 2nd-and-short-to-medium situations, with a 76.6% completion rate and 9.4 yards per pass attempt.

Henry also keeps the Titans offense out of 3rd-and-long. Tannehill has only dropped back to pass 21 times on third down with 7-plus yards to go. Nick Foles, Sam Darnold, and Dwayne Haskins are among the quarterbacks who have faced more 3rd-and-long situations than Tannehill, even though they haven’t been full-time starters for all of this season. Poor Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles has faced 3rd-and-long 42 times, twice as often as Tannehill. 

Tannehill isn’t a very effective passer in 3rd-and-long: a 50.0% completion rate, just 5.6 yards per attempt, three sacks. But few quarterbacks excel when 3rd-and-long comes around. Often, the difference between a Pro Bowl season and one where the local fans are screaming for the backup comes down to avoiding the 3rd-and-long situations which lead to sacks, turnovers, stalled drives, and losses.

So Derrick Henry helps keep Ryan Tannehill out of 2nd-and-long and 3rd-and-long situations. Tannehill, meanwhile, returns the favor by keeping opponents from stacking the box against Henry.

Derrick Henry Stacked Box Stats

Close your eyes and picture the Titans offense. You pictured Henry running straight up the gut, didn’t you? Of course you did: As we just detailed, Henry carries the ball more than any other running back in the league. 

Now picture the opposing defense. Do you see eight or nine snarling defenders crowding the box to stuff Derrick Henry? If so, you are in for a surprise. Here are Derrick Henry’s rushing stats broken down by the number of defenders in the box, per Sports Info Solutions:

  • 8 or more defenders: 36 rushes, 120 yards, 3.3 yards per attempt.
  • 7 defenders: 52 rushes, 327 yards, 6.3 yards per attempt.
  • 6 or fewer defenders: 35 carries, 141 yards, 4.0 yards per attempt.

Let’s walk through that data slowly. Typically, a base defense lines up with seven defenders in the box. When loading up to stop a strong running game (or, if facing a team like the New York Jets, just scoffing at the passing game), opponents will add an eighth or even ninth defender. When facing some team like Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, a defense usually has no choice but to keep just six defenders in the box so it can cover all those receiving weapons.

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You would expect Henry to face lots of stacked boxes. And Henry is tied with Kareem Hunt for second in the NFL in rushes into stacked boxes, with Josh Jacobs of the Las Vegas Raiders leading the league with 42. But Henry leads the league in rushes against a seven-man box and is a surprising seventh in carries against soft boxes. 

In other words, opponents know Derrick Henry is coming, but they can’t really over-commit to stopping him, even though the splits above suggest they could hold him to 3.3 yards or so per rush. Why? Because Ryan Tannehill will light them up, of course. 

Nowhere is that more apparent than in goal-to-go situations.

Tennessee Titans Goal Line Stats

Derrick Henry’s box splits are even more remarkable when you consider that he has rushed 17 times inside the 10-yard line. Only Ezekiel Elliott has more carries (18) in such situations. As you might expect, Henry faces a stacked box inside the 10-yard line often: a total of 10 times, per Sports Info Solutions. But opponents cannot even load up to stop Henry near the goal line as often as they would like. 

Henry’s goal-line stats — 41 yards, five TDs — won’t blow you away. But Ryan Tannehill’s will: 11-of-12, 53 yards, and nine touchdowns, plus a rushing touchdown.

The Titans offense likes to line up in the shotgun near the goal line with two tight ends and two receivers spread across the field. Henry and the tight ends force the defense to worry about the run, but the formation suggests pass. That leaves the defense in a bind that often leads to a short touchdown catch by Jonnu Smith or Anthony Firkser. Throw in the occasional direct snap to Henry, and defenses all-but surrender to the Titans near the goal-line: The Titans have the NFL’s best goal-to-go offense, per Football Outsiders DVOA.

Derrick Henry-Ryan Tannehill synergy

When coaches talk about a “balanced” offense, they don’t really mean a 50-50 split; modern NFL teams will almost always pass far more often than they run. “Balance” means that the opposing defense is forced to respect the threat of both a run and a pass on every play, preventing them from loading up to stuff the run, blitzing the house to stop the pass, or getting into easy-to-defend 3rd-and-forever situations.

Henry and Tannehill give the Titans the NFL’s most balanced offense in 2020. That makes the Titans one of the toughest teams to stop, even though opponents have a pretty good idea of what’s coming every week.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are the Titans’ toughest test yet in Week 7. The Steelers thrive on stuffing the run (they allow just 3.3 yards per carry) and generating sacks (a league-high 24). Henry and Tannehill will need each other more than ever on Sunday, especially with left tackle Taylor Lewan out for the year.

But if the last 12 months have proven anything, it’s that Derrick Henry, Ryan Tannehill, and the Titans offense can give any opponent they face as much as they can handle.

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