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The Tennessee Titans have their engine back.
Star running back Derrick Henry was activated off injured reserve Friday, clearing him to play for the Titans (12-5) against the Cincinnati Bengals (11-7) in Saturday’s AFC divisional-round game at Nissan Stadium (3:30 p.m. CT, CBS).
It will mark his first game in nearly three months.
So what does his return mean for the Titans’ offense?
Schematically, not much changes. Running the ball has been the Titans’ identity. And they’ve proven they can do so with or without Henry in the backfield.
The reigning offensive player of the year has missed the last nine games, yet Tennessee still finished the regular season with the fifth-ranked rushing offense. It’s a testament to the running backs who have stepped up – D’Onta Foreman had 133 carries for 566 yards and three touchdowns in Henry's absence – and the offensive line, which despite ups and downs in pass protection has remained one of the best run-blocking units in football. The Titans never had to change who they are offensively when Henry went down.
What the All-Pro running back does provide, though, is the threat of a momentum-changing play every time he touches the ball. It’s one of the reasons he is a superstar.
Henry had rushing touchdowns of 60 and 76 yards earlier this season. A 94-yard touchdown in 2020. A 74-yard touchdown in 2019. A 99-yard touchdown in 2018. Scores of 72 and 75 yards in 2017.
In 66 combined games, Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard have just one rush of at least 40 yards. That was Hilliard’s 68-yard touchdown run in the Week 12 loss at New England.
The Titans have averaged 28.3 points per game with Henry this season, while posting just 21.3 points per game without him.
“He’s that kind of player where one run from anywhere on the field, he can score,” running backs coach Tony Dews said of Henry earlier this month.
Henry’s return also gives Tennessee its trio of offensive skill stars – receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones being the others – at full strength for the first time since Oct. 24, when the Titans beat the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 7. The Titans had Henry, Brown and Jones together on the field for just five games during the regular season.
With the trio on the field, the “pick your poison” offense that was hyped up during the offseason becomes a reality.
Henry has made his living running into stacked defensive alignments. Loading up the box means more single coverage opportunities for Brown and Jones, who could be a threat in the playoffs despite a disappointing regular season. And dropping more into coverage to account for Brown and Jones means lighter boxes for Henry to take advantage of. That’s the puzzle the Bengals' defense will face Saturday.
The Titans’ play-action passing game also benefits from Henry’s return. The threat of Henry forces opposing linebackers to bite harder on those run fakes, opening up the middle of the field for players like Brown, who excels in yards-after-the-catch situations.
Tennessee averaged 26.4 points per game with Henry, Brown and Jones on the field during the regular season, going 4-1 in those contests.
Henry's workload against Cincinnati remains unclear. There's the potential for rust, too.
But the star running back gives the Titans an emotional boost.
“It’ll definitely give us confidence,” Brown said Thursday of getting Henry back. “In my opinion, I think he’s the best running back in the game. … Just having that confidence with around, that any moment he can go for 70 (yards).
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: What Derrick Henry's return means for Tennessee Titans' playoff run