With Derrick Henry returning to practice, let's debate rust (includes highlights)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Derrick Henry has been officially designated to return to practice and was on the field with the Titans on Wednesday.

Technically, the Titans now have three weeks before they must move Henry to the active roster or put him back on IR. Derrick Henry fans

The activation doesn’t mean he will jump right into full practices with the Titans as they prepare for Sunday’s game in Houston. The Titans always have a plan for a guy to ramp up for a return.

But the envelope of what he can do expands. There are now no limits. Previously he was only allowed to work on his own, doing conditioning or drills under the watch of trainers.

The question for this week is whether the team will activate him and use him at all against the Texans. [Unlocked]

I don't believe they will or that they should, and ESPN's Dianna Russini said she was told "there's always a chance he can play against Houston, but realistically it is a longshot."

If they win Sunday in Houston, they clinch the AFC's No. 1 seed and a first-round bye and won't play against until the divisional round of the playoffs, on Jan 22 or 23. That would be over 11 weeks past Henry's surgery to repair a Jones fracture.

Henry broke the outside of his right foot on Oct. 31 during the Titans’ 34-31 overtime win in Indianapolis. Experts uninvolved in his surgery said the timetable for a return is generally six to 10 weeks, though we saw a case take longer with Jevon Kearse. 

The Titans have maintained a strong ground game in Henry’s absence.Derrick Henry

They ran for 1,181 yards in the eight games with Henry, with 937 from Henry.

They ran for 1,099 in the eight games after that, piecing things together with D’Onta Foreman, Dontrell Hilliard and Jeremy McNichols.

Many are big on the idea that if Henry can play Sunday he should in order to "knock the rust off." We've delved deep into this on Outkick 360 (see below) and agree it doesn't make a lot of sense.

While he's coming off injury since Henry has broken big, Mike Vrabel and the Titans have never felt he needed any sort of rust knocked off.

His preseason practice was very limited in 2020 when there were no preseason games. In 2021 he was on a similar schedule. He rarely practiced. He didn't work in two days of joint sessions against the Buccaneers in Tampa and he didn't play in three preseason games.

As for gaining confidence in the repaired foot, he doesn't have to experience game conditions and risk for that when he can wait two more weeks. 

The Titans can set up anything they want now that he can practice and put him in position to cut and torque on the foot, take contact and feel the weight of defenders, etc.

And none of that would be game-action on the artificial turf of NRG Stadium, a less-than-deal surface for a back recovering from a leg injury.

I think most would agree a heavy load of work in Houston would be too much. So then we're talking token carries. And token carries for a fourth back take the Titans out of the form they've been having success with in a game they have to win.

They could carry him for work late in a blowout, but that is forecasting a blowout which isn't a way they typically operate. 

Bubble wrap him.

Win this game as they've won against Jacksonville, San Francisco and Miami. Earn the bye. Get him 11 weeks removed from his surgery and ready to give the team a lift heading into the division round game at Nissan Stadium on Jan. 22 or 23.

Recall too, that in 2019 in their 15th game that had small playoff implications, the Titans chose to sit Henry to have him ready for their more meaningful finale, when he ran 32 times for 211 yards and three touchdowns and the Titans clinched their spot.

Tennessee is in the playoffs already and should be able to forestall the use of Henry. D'Onta Foreman has topped 100 yards rushing in three of his last five games and the Texans give up 143.4 rushing yards a game, worst in the NFL.

The dynamic without him certainly has not been the same.

Seven of the team’s 10 longest plays came when Henry was playing. The results were a notch better as they were 6-2 with Henry and are 5-3 without him.

The defensive approach against the Titans, however, has not changed a lot. Poor play by receivers lacking vibrancy, missed games by A.J. Brown and unsteady pass protection have allowed teams to continue to load the box.

Since they cut their roster to 53 for the start of the season, the Titans have made 28 injured reserve moves including three players – Darrynton Evans, Marcus Johnson and Tommy Hudson -- being placed on the list twice. 

The majority have immediately returned to play the same week. But seven did not – Brady Breeze, Marcus Johnson, Evans, Daniel Munyer, Aaron Brewer, Jayon Brown and Derick Roberson.

Henry's eight-week stay matches receiver Racey McMath for the longest on IR of any Titan who has returned this season.

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