Some would call Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry an “old-school back,” referring to his power-running style and unique size that isn’t prevalent among his NFL peers. You could compare him to former players like Eddie George or Jerome Bettis, whose massive physiques made them as hard to tackle as anyone in their era.
But leave it to Kansas City Chiefs’ head coach Andy Reid to pull a comparison from deep in his library of football knowledge. When asked about a comparison to Henry during his Friday press conference, one name came to Reid’s mind.
“Marion Motley,” he offered — without any explanation. “That was a good answer, wasn’t it?”
If you’ve never heard of Motley, it’s because he hasn’t played since 1955 — three years before even Reid was born. In his nine-year career, the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee played fullback for the Cleveland Browns, leading NFL in rushing twice and in rushing touchdowns once. He earned two All-Pro honors, finishing with a career yards-per-carry rate of 5.7 yards. That still stands as the highest mark for a running back in NFL history.
But this great pull by football historian Andy Reid doesn’t inspire any more confidence in stopping Henry, who is currently on pace to run for 2,219 yards and 28 scores in 2021. Like Motley, Henry is nearly impossible to tackle without help from multiple defenders. On top of the speed he has, it’s almost unfair.
“He’s a big man that keeps himself in great condition,” Reid said of Henry. “That doesn’t just happen. That’s a year-round process to make sure that you get that done.”
Henry’s 4.8 yards per attempt rate may pale in comparison to Motley’s, but the Hall of Famer shared backfield snaps with multiple teammates. In Tennessee, it’s all Henry — and the Chiefs’ defense being unable to get a break from tackling the Titans’ behemoth won’t make it any easier.
Kansas City safety Juan Thornhill will be tasked with being the last line of defense if Henry breaks through the defensive front. He knows the challenge ahead of him — but understands that half the battle is being mentally prepared.
“We have to come in with a good mentality,” Thornhill told reporters via Zoom on Friday. “You have to be real physical, willing to tackle — because Derrick Henry is a heck of a player, great ball carrier — one of the best backs in the game. The main thing is coming in with a good mentality: wanting to make the tackle. [You] can’t be afraid or timid.”
That self-confidence is key; as painful as it looks to collide with Henry at full speed, it’s even more dangerous to be hesitant — or to close without momentum. Even if it’s fair to call him overconfident, Thornhill’s attitude is the only way to stand a chance at tackling him.
“Hitting somebody like Derrick Henry — who is like 250 [pounds] and I’m over here at 200 pounds — I just know I have to bring it a little bit more,” said Thornhill. “I have to want it a little bit more than he does. He may have 50 pounds on me, but if you have that heart and desire to make that tackle, you will — every single time.”
“Every single time” may be a little bit of a stretch — but that’s the type of optimism the Chiefs will need to limit this era’s Marion Motley.
If they can, it will lower the effectiveness of the Titans’ passing game — and Tennessee’s ability to stay ahead of the sticks. If Kansas City can’t slow him down, it will still be possible to overcome his impact— but the team’s margin for error will be much thinner.