If the Indianapolis Colts have proven anything in eight games, it’s that their defense is one of the NFL’s best.
Now linebacker Darius Leonard and his No. 1-ranked defense must tackle Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry with three days of rest in a Thursday night road trip to Nissan Stadium.
“I always joke around with him,” Leonard said Tuesday. “I tell him he’s a defensive end playing running back. He’s huge. He’s about what, 250? 260?”
Henry is listed at 6-3 and 247 pounds, but he sure seems to play bigger than that. The 2019 NFL rushing leader has amassed 843 rushing yards and eight TDs for the Titans (6-2), who have a one-game AFC South Division lead on the Colts (5-3). Henry’s rushing yards are just 15 behind Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook for the league lead.
In the Titans’ 2019 sweep of the Colts, Henry had 41 carries for 232 yards and two TDs. The last time these teams met on Dec. 1 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Henry rumbled for 149 yards on 26 carries with one TD.
Yeah, Leonard and the Colts know what’s coming. They know Henry too well.
“The thing with him, which is crazy, I would rather see him between the tackles,” Leonard said. “He’s not that guy between the tackles, that pounder that’s going – he’s still powerful, but he’s more dangerous in space because he’s so big. You don’t know what he’s going to do. He has speed, he has a stiff arm and he has the size to run you over as well.
“In my mind, it’s 11 versus one against him. We always talk about hamstring tackles, get him to stop his feet and just gang tackle him. That’s what it’s going to take. To beat this team, you have to stop the run, you have to be seven-plus to the ball, 11-plus to the ball and squeeze, wrap and roll on his hamstrings and just go from there.”
The Colts rank third in rushing defense, and have been solid against other running teams. Despite losing 24-10 at home to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, the Colts limited the NFL’s No. 1 rushing offense to just 110 yards on 38 carries (2.9 yards per carry). At halftime, the Ravens had just 18 rushing yards and 55 total yards, but the visitors then dominated time of possession by a 2-1 margin after that and the Colts defense wore down.
That’s the concern when facing Henry. It’s not so much that he can’t be stopped on a series here or there. But he keeps pounding away. Especially in a short week, the Titans also want to wear down this Colts defense. The fatigue factor can be key entering the fourth quarter.
The Titans also like to get Henry out into space on screen passes. He’s caught 10 passes for 81 yards, but that includes a 53-yard gain.
“Yes, that’s one thing about them, they are so run-heavy and when they go to the passing game, their play-action, their screens, they are so effective in that because of their first- and second-down run efficiency,” Leonard said. “With them, having their screen game and their play-action off of that, that is what makes them so good.
“That’s what (quarterback) Ryan Tannehill does well, is the boot-game. Once you add in that screen aspect and you get blockers in front of Derrick Henry, that’s something that you really don’t want to see. So, you have to keep your eyes on him and you have to make sure the D-line – we’re hustling out of the stack, setting edges, and just keeping the cup.”
But everything revolves around the ground game. Henry is averaging 4.6 yards per carry, his long rush went 94 yards for a touchdown, and he’s gained 42 first downs on his carries.
Despite his exceptional game against the Ravens, Leonard was critical of the defensive effort because the Colts allowed more than 100 yards and lost.
“I just hate losing,” he said. “Even though we did stop the run, but in my mind – I don’t care if it’s all of them together, it should be under 100 (yards). That’s my mindset every game. They should not rush over 100 yards, no matter who it is. I didn’t think that we played well enough to stop the Baltimore Ravens’ run game. I think they had 110, and a lot of that came from quarterback runs.
“This week right here, like I said earlier with Tannehill, he does a lot of play-action. When he’s scrambling, he’s scrambling to throw and he scrambles to run like Lamar (Jackson) did. We have to be on our keys. We have to be able to stop that if we want to get to that goal with less than 100 rushing yards. If you want to win this game, you have to stop the run.”
(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is email@example.com.)