Texans' tough task: tackling Titans star Derrick Henry

Derrick Henry owns one of the most powerful stiff arms in the game, embarrassing defensive players with a jarring enough shove to launch them airborne before they skid across the turf.

One of the most imposing running backs in the history of the NFL, Henry is as large as some defensive linemen at 6-foot-3, 247 pounds. And the Tennessee Titans' prolific All-Pro runner is as fast as many defensive backs with a 4.54 time in the 40-yard dash.

Between his rare combination of size, speed, strength, athleticism, moves and vision, Henry represents arguably the most formidable runner the beleaguered Texans' defense has faced yet.

Squaring off against him Sunday at NRG Stadium one week after being trampled by Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs, the 1-4-1 Texans appear to be on the wrong side of a major mismatch.

They're the worst-ranked run defense in the NFL, yielding 164.7 rushing yards per contest, surrendering 143 yards and three touchdown runs to Jacobs, another big back, in a 38-20 road loss a week ago. And Henry has traditionally dominated the Texans, rushing for 1,035 yards and nine touchdown on 170 carries in only 10 career games against them. Henry was sidelined for both games against the Texans last season due to a foot injury, but has rushed for at least 200 yards in each of his last three games against them, including a career-high 250 rushing yards in the final game of the 2020 season.

"Big, big body, he's as big as a defensive end, and he can run like a skill guy," Texans middle linebacker and defensive team captain Christian Kirksey said. "Good vision, good speed. You put that into one player, that's pretty dominant. He's one of the best backs in the league. "We've got to swarm to the ball and run through our tackles.

"Everybody needs to be where they're supposed to be, win your one-on-ones. When it's time to make a tackle, we've got to wrap up. We didn't tackle well last game. This game, we've got make sure we get the ball carrier down. The first person has got to hit him hard. The second person has got to hit him, too." 

Signed to a four-year, $50 million contract, the former NFL Offensive Player of the Year and NFL rushing champion rushed for a career-high 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2020. He rushed for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns in an injury-shortened season last year in just 10 games. And he's building momentum now, getting stronger every week this season, rushing for 536 yards and five touchdowns. He has hit the century mark each of the past three games, rushing for a season-high 128 yards on 30 carries in a win over the Indianapolis Colts last week.

"I’ve had a chance to compete against some of the best backs to play the game, absolutely" Texans coach Lovie Smith said. "Is Derrick Henry headed in that direction? Absolutely. You just look at the best backs in the league right now, he will be a part of that debate. He’s as big as our defensive ends. Has as good of speed as some of our skill guys. 

"Plays hard, pads low to the ground. These are the kind of guys, though, that as I talk about having an opportunity to play against some of the all-time greats, we look forward to competing against him also. I’m talking for our defense. You want to see how you match up against the best."

Henry, 28, has run roughshod over the Texans, rushing for 673 yards combined with seven touchdowns in his past three games against the Texans. He has an opportunity to become the second player in NFL history to have at least two touchdown runs in four consecutive games against the same opponent, which would match former Titans running back Eddie George against the Cleveland Browns, and the first player to have at least 150 rushing yards in four games in a row against the same team.

Henry is hitting stride now.

"It looks like it to me," Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill told Tennessee reporters. He is running hard. He is running physical. These latest games, you can kind of see him getting that attitude back and punishing people, running through arm tackles, breaking tackles and getting to that second level. It's good to see Derrick being Derrick."

Henry ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing yards and has helped propel the 4-2 Titans to a four-game winning streak after an 0-2 start. The Titans are expected to lean heavily on Henry, a former Heisman Trophy winner and second-round draft pick from Alabama who has rushed for 7,333 career yards and 70 touchdowns.

"Every year is different, I really don't try to live in the past," Henry told Tennessee reporters when asked about his success against the Texans. "I've had some good games, but every year is different. So, I can't go out there expecting anything. I just have to take it day by day and get ready for Sunday."

The Texans' run defense woes are significant, and they're involved in a big change.

They cut starting linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, at his request, Thursday after the majority of his defensive snaps went to speedy rookie linebacker Christian Harris against the Raiders. Harris played 68 percent of the defensive snaps, covered All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams, without a lot of success, against the Raiders and blew up an isolation play to contribute to a tackle for a loss. He missed four tackles in his NFL debut since recording three sacks, four tackles for losses and a forced fumble in the national championship for Alabama against Georgia. The third-round draft pick is aggressive and has 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash. The Texans love his upside.

"He didn't do anything that said we should give him less," Smith said. "To me, he did things that say we should give him more."

Harris is adjusting to the NFL and to the sudden departure of Grugier-Hill, who had been helping his transition to the NFL.

"I learned it's different, for sure," Harris said. "It's tough to handle with someone that mentored me for sure. It's part of the business. I'm still trying to understand it myself."

The Texans have had so many issues with opposing running backs already, including the Indianapolis Colts' Jonathan Taylor, the Chicago Bears' Khalil Herbert and Jacobs.

"I'm just excited to get out there and really get a chance to get back on the field," Harris said. "There were some things individually and defensively as a whole we can get better at. I'm just excited to get a chance to compete again. I think it's just about us doing our job and being sound with our fits."

Although the Texans continue to lose games in part because of their inability to tackle, defeat blocks and set the edge, they don't sound like resigned to their fate against Henry.

"You've got to stay level-headed," Kirksey said. "It's the NFL. You've have ups and downs. Frustration comes, but you can't breed into that. We have a clean slate this week."

Aaron Wilson is a contributor to Sports Talk 790.

Tennessee Titans v Houston Texans

Photo: Getty Images

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