NASHVILLE – There is something of an Ali-Frazier feel to Sunday’s matchup between Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry and his Indianapolis Colts counterpart Jonathan Taylor.
Muhammad Ali was the world’s undisputed heavyweight boxing champion but was suspended and stripped of his title in 1967 when he refused induction into the U.S. Army. It was three years before he fought again, and during that period Joe Frazier emerged as an equally dominant and respected titleholder. The two finally met on March 8, 1971 in what is regarded as one of the great fights history of the sport.
Henry, a load at 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, was unquestionably the NFL’s most dominant ball carrier from midway through the 2019 season until he sustained a broken foot last year. He posted the fifth-highest single-season rushing total in league history in 2020 and was well on his way to a third straight rushing title when he got hurt.
In his absence, Taylor emerged and claimed the crown in decisive fashion.
Sunday, the last two men to lead the league in rushing yards will be on the same field when the Titans (1-2) face the Colts (1-1-1) at Indianapolis. And while they won’t go toe-to-toe with another, the one who fares better between Henry and Taylor likely will give his team a leg up in the critical matchup of AFC South rivals given each team’s reliance on the run game and the backs who make them go.
“They are each a different type of running back,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said. “They have a different running style. That's the challenge this week, is what they'll try to do and how they've used (Taylor) and the different schemes. Whether it's under center, in the gun, inside zone, outside zone or gap scheme. There are a lot of different things that they present.”
It is much the same way the Titans use Henry, who has had the ball in his hands for slightly more than one out of every three offensive plays Tennessee has run in its first three games. Taylor has had it in his hands for exactly one of every three Indianapolis plays.
To make things even more interesting, the contest takes place on the very field where Henry was injured in the eighth game of last season.
“One foot felt different than the other,” Henry said about when he left Lucas Oil Stadium that day. “I wanted to figure out what was going on.”
It was clear during that contest, a 34-31 Titans victory, that something wasn’t right. Henry averaged just 2.4 yards on 28 carries, just the second time in his career that he averaged fewer than three yards with 25-plus rushes. His long run was nine yards, which snapped a streak of 32 straight games in which he had at least one run of 10 yards or more.
Still, his 68 rushing yards against the Colts gave him 937 through the first eight weeks of the season. That also was his total at the end of the season as surgery to insert a plate and some screws in his foot sidelined Henry until the playoffs.
Taylor, who checks in at 5-foot-10, 226 pounds, was second in the NFL at the time with 649 yards, a difference of 288 yards. Henry’s 10 rushing touchdowns also led the league while Taylor was tied for third with six.
Coming into this one, Taylor is fourth in the NFL with 286 yards and Henry is 14th with 192 yards but had his best performance to date in last Sunday’s victory against the Las Vegas Raiders.
“[Henry is] still running really hard,” Indianapolis defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said this week. “They still utilize him on the perimeter, breaking tackles. He looks very similar to what I’ve seen. … We have to be aware of [him] – his running style – and definitely have a tackling plan for him.”
In the 10 weeks that Henry was sidelined in 2021, Taylor rushed for 1,162 yards, which were 337 more than anyone else had over the same span. He also scored 12 rushing touchdowns, which led the league during that time.
After the loss to Tennessee, he rushed for more than 100 yards in seven of his next eight games and finished with three of the league’s seven highest single-game rushing totals.
“One of the best running backs in the league, if not the best,” Henry said of Taylor. “He’s young. He’s dominated the league at an early age, and I think he’ll be doing it for a while. He’s exciting for the game. He’s a big playmaker for them, and it’s going to be a challenge for our defense to stop him. He’s a load.”
Over the last decade, only four running backs have rushed for more than 1,800 yards in a season. Henry ran for 2,027 in 2020, his last full season, and Taylor finished with 1,811 last season.
Henry was the 45th overall pick in the 2016 draft and took some time to get to the top. His first 1,000-yard season came in 2018 and his first rushing title came the next year.
The Colts selected Taylor 41st overall in 2020, and he quickly established himself as a force in the NFL. He finished third in rushing as a rookie with 1,169 yards and then took Henry’s spot at the top in 2021.
““We have to do a good job making sure we don’t give (Taylor) any creases in there,” Titans defensive coordinator Shane Bowen said. “Because if he sees it, he hits it and has a knack for bursting through and getting the second and third level pretty quickly. So, we’re going to have to do a good job keeping him bottled up.”
The two have squared off three times previously (Taylor missed one matchup late in his rookie year). Never has each gone for 100 yards in the same game, and oddly the one who finished with more rushing yards was on the losing end in two of the three.
This, however, is the first time they have gone against each other as NFL rushing champions.