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Packers vs. Titans: Three Reasons to Worry

The Green Bay Packers will host the Tennessee Titans on Thursday at Lambeau Field. The Packers are coming off a big win. Here’s why they won’t do it again.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers got the victory they needed on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys. However, that win won’t mean anything if they can’t turn in a repeat performance against the Tennessee Titans on Thursday night.

“You’ve got to consistently go out there and do it, and I think we’re fully capable, but we got a great challenge this week,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “This is one of the most stout defenses in the National Football League, especially when you’re talking about stopping the run, so it’ll be a great challenge for us. Got a lot of respect for not only the players there but the coaches and the scheme, and they do a great job of getting their guys in some unfavorable matchups from an offensive perspective. You’ve got to consistently go out there and do it to feel like, ‘OK, here we go.’ And you’re only as good as your last game, so new game, new opportunity, we’ll see what happens.”

The Titans are 6-3. After dropping their first two games, they’ve gone 6-1. Their only loss was in overtime at the Kansas City Chiefs. This is a really, really formidable opponent, making it easy to find three reasons to worry.

1. King Henry vs. Pauper Run Defense

Green Bay’s run defense is terrible. It ranks 26th with 140.6 rushing yards allowed per game and 28th with 4.80 yards allowed per carry. That yards per carry is the team’s third-worst since 1941. The Packers have given up 117-plus rushing yards in nine of 10 games, including six games of more than 150 yards. Even without Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys ran for 159 yards at 5.1 yards per pop last week.

Enter Derrick Henry, one of the baddest men in the NFL. Henry is second in the NFL with 923 rushing yards. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s gained 766 yards after contact. Only five other running backs have more rushing yards total than Henry does after getting hit by his first defender. He’s fifth with 3.79 yards after contact per carry and 40 missed tackles.

On the one hand, the Packers did a really good job against him in 2020, when Henry gained 98 yards on 23 carries (4.3 average). In the big-back battle, Henry lost to AJ Dillon as the Packers romped 40-14.

On the other hand, Henry has truly been the king of Thursday Night Football. In five career Thursday games, he’s rushed for 477 yards (95.4 per game) and averaged 6.28 yards per carry. Those crush his career marks on Sunday (81.7 per game, 4.77 per carry) and Monday (78.7 per game, 4.87 per carry). The Packers won’t have two of their front-seven defenders with De’Vondre Campbell and Rashan Gary out with knee injuries.

“He’s just what I like to call ‘a creature.’ He’s a freak of nature,” said LaFleur, who was offensive coordinator in Tennessee in 2018. “You just don’t find guys that are that big and that fast, and if he gets going, it’s going to be a long day. So, you’ve got to do a great job of trying to contain him, bottle him up, try to get him going laterally, because once he gets going downhill, it’s just like a freight train rolling through there.

“Derrick is one of a kind. You could start to see it happening about midway through the course of the season in 2018 and, ever since then, he just hasn’t looked back. It’s going to be a great challenge for our defense. Obviously, we’ve had some problems at times stopping the run. We know that they’re going to want to run it and we’re going to have to rise up.”

2. Powerhouse Run Defense

On the other side of the coin, Tennessee’s run defense is as good as it gets. The Titans are second with 85.1 rushing yards allowed per game and third with 3.95 rushing yards allowed per carry. Over the last seven weeks, they’ve yielded only 2.78 yards allowed per carry. That’s No. 1 by 174 yards and a full yard per carry.

Talk about strength vs. strength. The consistent strength of Green Bay’s offense has been the one-two punch of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon. The Packers have rushed for at least 199 yards in four games this season, one behind Chicago for tops in the NFL. Their 4.92-yard average ranks seventh.

“We’re doing some really nice things, gotten a few explosive runs, which are always nice,” LaFleur said. “But they’re one of the better run defenses in the National Football League.”

As is the case with Green Bay’s defensive front seven, the Titans could be shorthanded. Outside linebacker Bud Dupree is out and defensive tackle Jeffrey Simmons is questionable.

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“Those are two guys that can totally wreck a game,” LaFleur said. “But I think it’s more than just those two guys. They’ve got, they can platoon their front. They’ve got a lot of depth there and they play extremely hard (and) it’s a sound scheme.”

3. Dominant on Third Down

This is related to the previous item. If the Packers can’t run the ball, it’s going to be a long day of facing third-and-long.

The Titans are No. 1 in the league on third down with an opponent conversion rate of 27.9 percent. Stathead has third-down data going to 1991. The Titans rank eighth over those three-plus decades and are the only team at better than 32 percent this decade.

Why are they so good? It starts with that run defense. On average, opponents face third-and-7.55 yards. That’s the second-longest required yardage. On third down, the Titans have the third-lowest blitz rate in the league, according to SportRadar, but have the sixth-best overall pressure rate. Denico Autry has a team-high seven sacks, followed by Simmons and Rashan Weaver with 5.5.

“You’re going to more than likely get a lot of man coverage,” LaFleur said.

And when it is third-and-short, good luck. On third-and-1 to third-and-3, Tennessee is No. 1 with an opponent conversion rate of only 34.3 percent.

Was Green Bay’s offensive progress last week fool’s gold and a byproduct of facing a defense that can’t stop the run? Or did the Packers find some season-saving magic that can carry over?

“There’s no sigh of relief. There’s no weight of the world off of my shoulders,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “Preparation stays the same. Focus stays the same. Expectations stay the same. But it was nice to play a more complete game on offense.”

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