Derrick Henry has earned Titans' workhorse RB role now, for future

Mariota loving the buzz in Nashville (2:27)

Titans QB Marcus Mariota talks about how he and his teammates are able to maintain a nice pace throughout the game and the QB jokes about his own nickname "The Silent Assassin." (2:27)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It was uncertain exactly when the time would come, but we are likely witnessing the passing of the Tennessee Titans’ running back torch from DeMarco Murray to Derrick Henry.

For the third consecutive week, Henry will be the Titans' workhorse back. As the Heisman-winning duo of Marcus Mariota and Henry marched past the Kansas City Chiefs last Saturday, it became clearer that this is the present and the future at the same time.

Although an injury to Murray officially put him here, this was a job Henry earned. Henry's ascension to workhorse back has been overdue, but now that he's here, some around him believe we're about to see his limitless ceiling.

"He has the ability to lead the league in rushing. I think he has the ability to be the league MVP," said Eddie George, the Titans/Oilers' all-time leading rusher. "The sky is the limit. We’re scratching the surface in what he can do. The more opportunities he gets, the better he gets.

"I have no question that Derrick can be a 1,500-1,800-yard type of running back when he gets the opportunities."

Saturday night at New England, Henry will play a huge role in determining whether the Titans can hang with the AFC big dog. The Patriots have a juicy run defense that's allowing 4.7 yards per carry, and a big part of Tennessee's game plan will be controlling the clock.

This is Henry's moment to show the world and the Titans' fan base what they've been waiting for. George is putting big expectations on Henry's shoulders because he believes he can meet them.

"Hearing that out of him, it fuels me and motivates me. But I got to live up to it. He's one of my idols," said Henry, who has gotten to know George during Heisman commercials and photo shoots over the past two years.

"Opportunity" has been the buzz word for Henry over the past two seasons as he has bided his time behind Murray, the versatile veteran. At 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, Henry says he "gets stronger with more carries." The numbers back it up.

Since Henry entered the NFL in 2016, the Titans are 12-0 when he has at least 11 carries. Tennessee is 7-13 when Henry plays but has 10 or fewer carries.

There has been no better closer than Henry. The second-year back leads the NFL with 6.09 yards per carry in the fourth quarter, and he was second in the NFL with 390 fourth-quarter yards during the regular season.

"Now that the tide is turning, DeMarco is out. We’re seeing Derrick with fresh legs, a new hunger, wanting to leave his mark on this league," George said. "He’s handled himself extremely well. He’s a back that needs to get the ball 20 to 25 times to see how he can really control a game."

Henry's 85 yards (on eight carries) in the fourth quarter at Kansas City were the third-most fourth-quarter rushing yards by a player in the playoffs since 1991. He finished the Chiefs game with 23 carries for 156 rushing yards, second most in franchise history, trailing only George, and it was Henry's first game of his career with at least 20 carries.

"Last time I seen him do that was in the national championship game vs. Clemson. Nobody wanted to tackle him, and it looked like that again out there," cornerback Adoree' Jackson said. "With how big he is, when he gets a full head of steam, it's over. He’s a dominant back in this league. Playoff time, he finally got his opportunity, and that’s what happened."

Henry has played 131 of 135 Titans offensive snaps in his past two games.

The biggest remaining question with Henry revolves around the passing game, the main element that kept him from gaining a feature back role earlier. George says only repetition will help Henry get better at picking up blitzes and understanding his assignments. Patriots coach Bill Belichick will surely test that this week.

Henry's balance between running downhill and attacking the Patriots outside the hashes will be interesting to watch. He's one of the best backs in the NFL at running off tackle, but it can also get him in trouble like it did in Week 17 vs. Jacksonville when he lost big yards. It was a completely different story at Kansas City last week.

"He's had a lot of success bouncing some runs, but at some point you've got to hit some of these holes that are there, and they're not big all the time," coach Mike Mularkey said. "I think he saw that, and obviously he's a quick, fast learner."

There's a decent chance that we have seen Murray take his last snap in a Titans uniform. Murray is out Saturday with a torn MCL, and he won't return unless the Titans make the AFC Championship or Super Bowl. It's time to hand the feature back keys to Henry. Murray is scheduled to make $6.5 million in 2018, probably too much money for a backup, but the Titans will owe no dead money if he's cut.

Henry has waited his time, and now it appears he has finally secured his feature back opportunity.