How the Broncos Win: Stopping Chargers TE Hunter Henry
When the Denver Broncos traveled to Carson City, California earlier this season, the defense caught a break with Los Angeles Chargers standout tight end Hunter Henry shelved due to injury.
The Broncos won’t get such a reprieve on Sunday.
Since returning from a knee injury six weeks ago, Henry has caught fire for the Chargers, hauling in 35 of his 39 targets on the year for 427 yards and three touchdowns this season.
With Henry back, teams have been unable to take away wide receivers Mike Williams and Keenan Allen in the passing game. On top of Henry drawing attention in coverage, he’s helped the Chargers’ running game out a ton, too, serving as the in-line blocking tight end Los Angeles has craved this season.
His biggest impact though comes as a receiver, where he’s consistently chewing up the middle of the field, winning in all different ways.
Henry is a cerebral tight end who has a high football IQ, knows what defenses are trying to do and really knows how to exploit holes in the defense even before his quarterback is aware.
Here against the Green Bay Packers at home in Week 9, Henry knows he has to try and get depth behind Packers linebacker Blake Martinez in the red zone.
However, Henry also knows that if given the opportunity to sit down in the Packers’ zone, he has to do it to give Rivers a hot route.
At the snap, Henry eyes Martinez and sees that the veteran Packers LB is shooting outside to cover the flat. Seeing Martinez do that, Henry flips his hips in an instant and whips his head around to show Rivers his numbers, leading to a quick 5-yard completion to set up an eventual touchdown.
Most tight ends would just continue their route to gain depth and hope to draw a defender in the process. Not Henry; because he’s reading Martinez the entire way, he sees an opportunity to sit down in the zone and give his quarterback a quick, easy throw.
A week later on the road in Oakland, Henry shows just how smart of a football player he is, again in the red zone.
Are you sensing a theme here?
Prior to the snap, the Chargers are motioning players all over the place as Philip Rivers tries to get his offense into the best situation possible.
As players move around and Rivers adjusts the protection and the routes, Henry puts both hands in the air to single to Rivers he’s changing his own route. He does this because he senses the Raiders’ secondary is confused.
He was right.
This might not look like much, but Henry knows there’s a ton of confusion and a simple corner route is going to leave him wide open. He runs the perfect route in this situation, finds himself all alone in the back of the end zone and catches a strike from Rivers.
When you have an experienced quarterback who is smart, has seen it all from defenses and can adjust on the fly, it’s great. But when a young tight end just coming back from injury can see the defense is confused and signals to his quarterback to help him out, it’s pretty darn impressive.
Henry isn’t your typical move tight end in today’s game. While he’s athletic and can run a full route tree for the position, he’s typically lined up in-line or in tight, rather than lining up in the slot or outside the numbers.
Despite that, Henry is still a matchup nightmare.
Los Angeles does a great job scheming up ways to get him matched up one-on-one with safeties, which is a matchup he’s consistently able to exploit.
Against Green Bay, Henry won twice down the field on the same exact route.
Lined up to the left of the formation as an in-line tight end each time, Henry runs a standard over route. Because he’s matched up against a safety in both instances, it appears that the defense is in a winnable situation.
That’s not the case though, largely due to Henry’s athleticism and attention to detail in his route running. There’s simply no wasted movement in his route running, which allows him to get on top of the safety each time before cutting across the field, creating ample separation for Rivers to fire a dart.
Finally, Henry has some really impressive ball skills for the position. Find me a tight end who can high-point the football with more consistency on contested catches than Henry right now.
You probably can’t.
Coming out of Arkansas, Henry was known to have great hands for the position. Since returning from the knee injury, Henry has dominated in contested-catch situations. Tyrann Mathieu was his latest victim in Week 11 in Mexico on Monday Night Football.
The burst out of his cut at the top of his stem gives Henry just enough room on his route to give Rivers the green light to make this throw. That’s a perfectly-placed football from Rivers on a night in which he was horrendous, and that’s a really special leaping, twisting grab by Henry to keep the Chargers alive.
How Denver Stops Henry
No team has really figured out a way to take away Henry since he returned from his injury. However, teams have shown what not to do: put a safety on him in man coverage.
Denver certainly has the talent at safety to do that with Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson, but Henry is on such a roll right now that doing that seems counterintuitive.
No, what Denver needs to do is put Alexander Johnson (if he plays) and Todd Davis on him depending on where Henry lines up, and then provide some safety or slot corner help in the process.
Cornerbacks like Chris Harris, Jr. and Davontae Harris should be able to handle their assignments with Allen and Williams, but it would be nice to have that help from Jackson and Simmons over the top.
Sending Duke Dawson (health willing) to help on Henry might be the solution there, which would allow the Broncos to keep the safeties engaged on Williams and Allen, providing help to the cornerbacks, while also giving Johnson and Davis help.
What Denver can’t do is forget about Henry. He’s too smart, too talented and too important of a piece in Los Angeles’ attack in recent weeks to simply punt on.
Taking away Henry takes away Rivers’ security blanket in the middle of the field. Taking away the middle of the field from Rivers puts the onus on him to try and throw outside the hash-marks. Considering how weak his arm looks lately, that’s a win for the Broncos.