Colts’ top priority vs. Titans? Dealing with Derrick Henry, of course

Indianapolis Colts

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry rushes during an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

INDIANAPOLIS – Derrick Henry did not practice Wednesday. The Tennessee Titans gave their dynamic running back the day off.

That’s after he wore down the Seahawks defense last Sunday in Seattle in the Titans’ dramatic overtime victory and in preparation for when the Indianapolis Colts visit Nashville Sunday.

Trust us, Henry can anticipate another heavy workload. And the Colts know it.

“Obviously their go-to is just handing it to 22,’’ defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said Wednesday. “We’ve got to do a good job from start to finish, just hammerin’, hammerin’, hammerin’ out the run.

“They’re going to keep going to it. That’s their bread and butter.’’

The Titans are coming off an offseason of offensive change. Arthur Smith, their coordinator the last two seasons, took the head coaching position with the Atlanta Falcons. Julio Jones, who laid the groundwork for a spot in the Pro Football of Fame during his 10-year career in Atlanta, was acquired in a trade.

A.J. Brown, Tennessee’s 2019 first-round draft pick, is coming off the best season of his career –70 catches, 1,075 yards, 11 touchdowns – and suddenly forms one of the NFL’s top tandem’s with Jones’ arrival. Jones led the Titans with six catches and 128 yards in Seattle.

 But so much of what the Titans do revolves around the irresistible force that is the 6-3, 247-pound Derrick Henry.

“Nobody’s like him,’’ Buckner insisted. “Derrick is on a level of his own.’’

Since 2018, Henry leads the NFL with 4,866 rushing yards. Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott is a distant second with 3,874. Henry also has handled a league-high 948 attempts. Elliott is second with 876.

Henry is just the third back since 1998 to win consecutive league rushing titles, joining the Colts’ Edgerrin James (1999-2000) and the Chargers’ LaDainian Tomlinson (2006-07), and sits atop the charts again with 240 yards after two weeks.

And after almost single-handedly dismantling the Seahawks in the 33-30 overtime win. Henry handled 41 touches – 35 rushes, six receptions – and accounted for 44.6% of the Titans’ 532 total yards: 182 on the ground, another 55 in the passing game.

In typical Henry fashion, he wore down the Seahawks. After being limited to 35 yards on 13 attempts in the first half, he broke loose for 147 yards on 22 attempts. He was the fourth-quarter catalyst – the Titans trailed 30-16 2 minutes into the final period – with eight carries, 86 yards and touchdown runs of 60 and 1 yard.

The initial burden falls on Buckner and the Colts’ defensive front. But slowing down Henry or any top-tier back must be a group effort and involve swarming from the linebackers and defensive backs.

“There’s no one like him, just like DeForest said,’’ safety Julian Blackmon said. “We know that they’re going to give him the ball. Last week they got him the ball like, what, 42 times?

“We know what we’ve got to do. We have to take him away, try to make them one dimensional and go from there.’’

Easier said than done, which the Colts know from first-hand experience.

Henry has faced Indy 10 times since the Titans selected him in the second round of the 2016 draft. In eight games since becoming the focal point in ’17, he’s averaged 107.6 yards per game and 6 yards per attempt with six touchdowns. He’s rushed for at least 100 yards four times, including in three of the last four meetings.

That includes a 178-yard, three-TD bludgeoning in week 12 last season in Indy. The Titans capitalized on Buckner and end Denico Autry missing the game while on the COVID-19 list. They rolled 45-26 and finished with 449 total yards and 229 rushing yards, both season-high totals allowed by the Indy defense.

The key to at least containing Henry, insisted Blackmon, is being on “our P’s and Q’s,’’ gang-tackling and dealing with Henry’s lethal stiff-arm,

“You’ve really got to punch that thing down and do it another time and maybe try to get other guys, ‘Hey, come help me out. Come help me out.’ You know what I’m saying?’’ he said. “‘I’m over here slapping his hand down, somebody gotta come run (to help).’

“You see it on film. You see me on film me tackling him, too. All I’ve got to say is we’re going to tackle him. Yes, we know he’s going to stiff-arm. Yes, we know we’re going to tackle him. We have to. We have to.

“It’s a point of emphasis to tackle him. Two-two. He’s going to get the ball. Get him down, you know? It’s a mentality of a want-to. As soon as you pause, you’re a highlight. You’re on ESPN. You can’t second-guess. You’ve got to go in there and want to tackle.’’

Chase for AFC South title

The Colts can ease the mounting criticism from their 0-2 start with a successful business trip to Nashville.

And historically speaking, that’s been the case.

Since the formation of the AFC South in 2002, the Colts are 14-5 in Nashville. More telling, they’ve won three straight and eight of the last nine.

The Titans swept the series in 2002 but are just 8-28 against the Colts in the last 18 seasons. Indy has won 20 of the last 25.

The last two Colts’ QBs to lose in Nashville: Jacoby Brissett in 2017 and Curtis Painter in ’11.

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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