Mike Herndon: Identity win in Houston meant Derrick Henry, Jeffery Simmons

BY MIKE HERNDON, columnist

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans' 17-10 win over the Texans in Houston was a near-perfect encapsulation of what Mike Vrabel’s team needs to be at this very moment.

They ran the ball 45 times for 314 yards while attempting just 10 passes and suffocated the Texans' offense with a dominant defense. Short of a bad special teams gaffe by Robert Woods and a garbage-time touchdown drive by the Texans, this may as well have been a Vrabel fever dream.Derrick Henry

Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, the extreme reliance on the running game was partially dictated by Malik Willis being inserted into the starting lineup for an injured Ryan Tannehill, but this was always going to be a Derrick Henry game facing a Texans defense that ranked last in the NFL at stopping the run coming into this matchup.

Tennessee’s identity as a football team is among the clearest in the league, and it’s a big part of why a flawed, banged-up group is sitting at 5-2, currently holding the tiebreaker for the two-seed in the AFC heading into their primetime matchup with the Chiefs on Sunday night.

That identity can be summed up with three words: physical, tough, prepared.

Mike HerndonNobody embodies those traits more than the Titans' two biggest stars, Derrick Henry and Jeffery Simmons.

And it was those stars who have stepped up to carry them over this five-game winning streak. Since the debacle in Buffalo, Henry has rushed 132 times for 648 yards (4.9 yards per carry) and six touchdowns while adding another 140 yards through the air. He’s posted four straight 100-yard performances.

Simmons has tallied 3.5 sacks and 23 pressures while keying a run defense that is giving up an average of just 57 yards rushing per game at a 3.0 yards per carry clip. He has a sack in three straight games now.

So, this week I wanted to take a deeper look at Henry and Simmons and whether their A-game could be enough to trouble elite teams like the Bills, Chiefs, and Eagles.

Henry’s Historic Performance

Derrick Henry breaking the franchise touchdown record in Houston with that performance certainly felt fitting. His 32-carry, 219-yard, two-touchdown showing – unbelievably his fourth consecutive 200-plus-yard and two-plus-touchdown game against Houston – felt like a microcosm of his career.

He dominated a division opponent while making the impossible look easy on his way to eye-popping stats. While Henry now owns the franchise’s total touchdown record, he’ll have to wait until his next touchdown to tie Earl Campbell for the most rushing touchdowns in Titans/Oilers history.

That record will fall soon, and others may not be far behind.

He’s 2,457 yards away from Eddie George’s franchise rushing yards record, a number that sounds high until you realize that Henry would reach it by December 2023 if he maintains his current pace. He’ll pass Chris Johnson in 413 yards and Campbell in 1,022.

He should have third before the end of this month and would eclipse Campbell for second during the final regular season game at this rate. He’ll need to be around (and healthy) through 2024 to take down George’s yards-from-scrimmage record of 12,153, but that’s not out of the question either.

So what about the Hall of Fame? What does Henry need to accomplish over the next few years to guarantee himself a bust in Canton? My guess is that he needs to hit the 10,000-yard mark at the very least. Only one running back has made it to the Hall without getting to five figures since 1991, and that was Terrell Davis, who won an MVP, a Super Bowl MVP, two Super Bowl rings, and two Offensive Player of the Year awards.

Henry has one Offensive Player of the Year award on his mantle, but nothing close to the hardware that carried Davis in. Henry’s 2,000-yard season should help his case, as would his continuing to rack up rushing touchdowns. Only eight players have ever hit 10,000 rushing yards and 100 rushing touchdowns. Seven of them are in the Hall of Fame, and the eighth, Adrian Peterson, will join them in about five years.

So 2,448 more yards and 25 more rushing touchdowns should do it, at least in my view. If he can add in a few more accolades in the process, that would help too, but barring a significant injury, it seems highly likely that he’ll get there.

However, individual honors aside, let’s talk about what Henry means to this Titans team and how far he might be able to carry this offense down the stretch.

Certainly, the Titans won’t want to be this reliant on the run game when Tannehill returns but running the ball will always be central to what this team does on offense as long as Henry is in the backfield.

Vrabel made his view of that perfectly clear when he said “the difference between our team and this league is we’ve got Derrick Henry” during his postgame speech after his star put together another ridiculous performance in a career full of them.

It’s hard to blame Vrabel for feeling that way either. After all, that’s the formula that led them to a 10-0 lead in the AFC Championship Game three years ago and it’s the formula that’s helped them win more games than any team besides the Chiefs, Bills, and Packers in the 40 games since.

They need to find the ability to supplement with some explosive plays in the passing game – and maybe they will when Treylon Burks makes his return to the lineup – but the schedule sets up well for the Titans to lean heavily on a Henry-centric attack moving forward.

Tennessee won’t play a defense currently ranked higher than 13th in rush defense DVOA for the rest of the season, and seven of their remaining 10 games will be against teams ranking 20th or lower at stopping the run.

For all the issues the Titans' offensive line has in pass protection, they are really starting to get in a rhythm as a run-blocking unit. (PK wrote about this Tuesday.) They rank sixth as a team in run blocking by PFF grading, and while you might discount their 314-yard performance against the league’s worst run defense, it’s harder to write off strong showings against the Commanders and Colts, who rank second and sixth in run defense DVOA.

Against Houston, both Henry and the offensive line were humming in the run game. The very first drive featured a 41-yard run, Henry’s longest of the season, on a nicely designed split flow zone look with jet motion. Aaron Brewer perfectly times his combination block and gets Henry the second level before a fantastic cut and stiff arm combo puts him in the open field.

The next run gets called back by a very questionable holding call on Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, but watch the interior trio of the offensive line again. Nate Davis, Ben Jones, and Aaron Brewer were absolutely fantastic in this game consistently and this is a good example.

There is another example here as Brewer pancakes the 3-technique while Davis pulls and kicks out the end.

Henry’s long touchdown run was another well-blocked play with Davis and right tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere making the key blocks, but it’s Henry’s brilliance that does the rest as he runs through an arm tackle, shakes a safety out of his shoes, and then finishes inside the pylon.

I will admit to having some concerns over Henry’s ability to maintain his top-of-the-league performance coming off a major injury and getting into his late-20s, but he hasn’t lost much, if anything, off his peak form based on the last five weeks.

Jeffery Simmons Leads a Surging Titans Defense

I mentioned Simmons’ stats at the top, but wanted to mention the kind of numbers that he’s on pace for through his first seven games of 2022. He’s on track for 13.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss, 22 quarterback hits, and 75 pressures, all up significantly from his monster 2021 season that saw him earn his first Pro Bowl appearance.

Only one defensive tackle in the past 15 years has posted at least 13.5 sacks in a single season. You guessed it, Aaron Donald, who has done it twice – 13.5 exactly in 2020 and his incredible 20.5-sack season in 2018. That total would be the most by a Titans player since Jevon Kearse’s 14.5-sack campaign as a rookie in 1999.

Simmons is now to the point where it’s not crazy to throw him into Defensive Player of the Year conversations. Micah Parsons, Nick Bosa, Aaron Donald, Myles Garrett, and Quinnen Williams all have good arguments. Matthew Judon is probably on the fringe as well, but Simmons isn’t out of place with that group.

And yes, his price tag is going up every time he takes the field, but that’s a conversation for another day. Right now, for the Titans, Simmons is the key figure in a defense that is beginning to look more like the unit many expected them to be heading into the season.

Jeffery Simmons Scream Denico Autry, Bud Dupree, and the emerging Teair Tart give Simmons plenty of help up front, while the back end is starting to round into form thanks to improved play from Kristian Fulton and Roger McCreary over the last few weeks.

The performance against Houston, both by Simmons and the defense as a whole, was the best of the season for Tennessee, narrowly topping the week prior’s showing against the Colts. The Titans were on the verge of setting a franchise record for the fewest yards allowed in a game before the Texans' final drive and Simmons was a big part of that, posting a season-high seven pressures despite missing practice all week with an injured ankle.

If his ankle was bothering him in Houston, he certainly didn’t show it on the field. This demolition of Texans first-round pick Kenyon Green which created a tackle for loss is becoming a weekly feature for Simmons.

But it’s his development as a pass rusher that has put him into the upper echelon of NFL defenders. He’s got a full arsenal of pass rush moves, including a rip move:

Just a straight bull rush, as this snap that nearly resulted in a strip sack features:

And my personal favorite, a club-swim combination that he unleashes with a stunning combination of power and agility.

The Titans are built to be the NFL’s schoolyard bullies. Yes, they have flaws – a flailing passing attack being the most glaring – but few teams are as uniquely defined by an identity as Mike Vrabel’s crew. It starts with Vrabel and flows through his top players, Henry and Simmons.


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