When the Kansas City Chiefs face the Tennessee Titans on Sunday Night Football, there is no doubt where Kansas City’s defensive focus will begin and end.
After missing much of last season with an injury, Tennessee running back Derrick Henry appears to have returned to the form that twice made him the NFL’s rushing champion. Just a week ago, Henry rushed for 219 yards in the Titans’ Week 8 win over the Houston Texans.
The Chiefs’ defenders know that if 2020’s Offensive Player of the Year can be limited, the Tennessee offense will be easier to predict.
“Time and time again, we see Derrick Henry breaking off a lot of home-run runs,” Kansas City defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi said in the locker room on Thursday. “Their main focus offensively is Derrick Henry. They’re going to want to, ‘Feed the bull.’ If you make the run game one-dimensional — if you stop them from doing what they do best — then we have the advantage.”
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo noted that the Titans appear to have returned to form — now that they once again have the the player who may be the league’s best running back.
“[Henry’s] been on a roll — the whole team has,” Spagnuolo observed in his Thursday media remarks. “They lose the first two games, then [win] five straight. They’re geared up. It looks to me like they’ve gotten back to their Tennessee formula in the last couple of weeks — which is play great defense, run the football, control the clock a little bit [and] win on third down. All of it is generated by ‘King Henry’ — [as] they call him.
“He’s the king of the run game. A big challenge for us because he’s a big back. You can’t simulate that in practice. So you’ve just got to hope that your foundation of what you’ve done up to this point allows you to tackle him.”
Nnadi agrees that Henry’s size presents a problem.
“He’s a big running back who really wants to punish a lot of secondaries and linebackers,” said the fifth-year pro. “You’ve got to get him before he gets started. Tackle him low because no running back likes to get hit below the waist.”
But given the success he continues to have even on obvious running downs, tackling Henry is much easier said than done. Spagnuolo acknowledges that successfully stopping Henry may leave the defense exposed in other areas.
“You’ve got to find a way to get him on the ground,” the coach reiterated. “Everybody does the exact same thing — it’s not a secret. Try to get some more hats there. Commit eight or nine — or whatever it is. Take some chances in the run game and hope it doesn’t hurt you deep. But there’s focus No. 1.”
On Friday, Chiefs linebacker Nick Bolton echoed his coordinator’s sentiments on the team effort that will be required to stop the Tennessee running back.
“Obviously he’s been tearing the league up for a very long time now,” said Bolton. “We’ve got a lot of respect for him — what he brings to the table, the physicality and what he does with the ball on the second level and against the third level. A lot of guys don’t respect [him] for his speed — [but] he’s actually faster than a lot of guys think. It’ll take 11 guys every single snap to bring him down. Tackle out there in space and make it difficult for him — that’s all you can ask for.”
While Henry is the type of player that teams celebrate limiting — rather than stopping completely — Spagnuolo revealed part of his strategy will be for his players to quickly disengage from blockers.
“The thing we’ve been preaching this week is, ‘Own your role on every play,’” he explained. “A blocker is going to be assigned to every guy — it’ll be a hat on a hat. Tear off your block before he gets there. Because you’ve got no chance if you’re engaged in a block and try to tackle him — because he’s that good.”
If Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the offense are able to build on their 44-point breakout against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 7, the defense will need to keep Henry from dominating the clock. Spagnuolo recognizes the pressure that puts on his unit.
“We’ve certainly got to find a way to stop No. 22,” he declared. “If you don’t do that, it’s going to be a long day. They’re going to have the ball, and our No. 15 is over on the sideline — and none of us want that.”