PITTSBURGH (AP) — Sure there are options when facing Derrick Henry. None of them, however, are particularly fun.
Try to hit the NFL’s hottest running back high, and he will stiff-arm you into GIF-worthy oblivion ( see Norman, Josh ). Try to hit him low one-on-one, and you risk Henry turning you into highly paid roadkill.
Try to run him down and you might come to the realization that not only is the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Tennessee Titans star keeping you at bay, but he might also be pulling away from you in the open field.
Henry is a sprinter who happens to be built like a linebacker. A throwback on the surface, but look beyond the 26-year-old’s sheer brawn and you’ll find a player who has moves that appear to be ripped right out of a video game.
While Henry, in typical fashion, diligently deflects attention to his teammates — “Ain’t nothing about me,” he said after r unning for 212 yards and the game-winning touchdown in last week’s overtime win over Houston — the NFL’s second-ranked run defense is not fooled.
The Pittsburgh Steelers (5-0) understand their best chance at knocking off the unbeaten Titans (5-0) starts with succeeding where so many have failed over the past year or so: by neutralizing a player rarely stuck in neutral.
“He wears you down,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He’s capable, and they’re capable, of winning by attrition. As you saw last week, he’s also big-play capable. It’s really astounding that a back his size is capable of going to the house just about every time he touches it.”
Henry has rolled up 1,818 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns over his past 16 regular-season games and already has 11 career scores of 50 yards or more, including a 94-yard dash through Houston’s stunned secondary last week.
“Over the course of the last 10 or 12 games, dating back to last year, this guy has a highlight reel of big runs unlike which I have never seen over that type of a time span,” Tomlin said.
A time span in which Pittsburgh’s defense has been among the league’s best at stuffing the run no matter who happens to be in the backfield. The Steelers have allowed just one opponent to top 100 yards over their past 21 games, and that was by Baltimore’s Gus Edwards in a meaningless 2019 regular-season finale with the playoffs already out of reach.
New York Giants Pro Bowler Saquon Barkley managed just 6 yards on 15 carries in the 2020 opener. Melvin Gordon ran for 70 yards in Week 2, but remove back-to-back snaps where he found room in the first half, and he rushed for 37 yards on his other 17 carries. Cleveland came to Heinz Field last week with the NFL’s top rushing attack and was held to a season-low 75 yards while getting rolled 38-7.
Still, Henry is different. So is what the Titans try to do with him. Unlike Cleveland or Denver, Tennessee will not abandon the run when it falls behind.
“Not only do you have to stop the run initially, but this is a guy who averages about 25 carries a game,” Tomlin said. “Regardless of how the game is going, you better be prepared to answer that element of the challenge over the course of the game.”
A challenge that includes Henry’s ability to score from anywhere, putting the commitment by the defensive line to try and at least slow him down at a premium.
Once Henry gets to the second level, he’ll have a size advantage over anyone who happens to come into his path.
Norman, now a cornerback for Buffalo, found that out the hard way when his attempt to tackle Henry — a good 3 inches and 50 pounds heavier — ended with Henry extending his right arm and shoving Norman to the ground like a toddler brushing aside a helping of vegetables when there’s pizza to be had.
“You’ve got to stress tackling,” Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward said. “You can’t just arm tackle. As a defense and as a front seven, we understand we can’t put the onus on the (defensive backs) to tackle the entire game. Keep him inside from tackle to tackle and gang tackle … It’s a group effort, but I think we’ve got the time to do it.”
Maybe, but not much. Henry reached 21.7 mph while putting all 11 Texans defenders firmly in his rearview mirror during the second career touchdown run of 90 yards or more. While he joked he needs to get that number up to 22 mph, he admitted to having a one-track mind once he gets past the initial wave, so much so that he eschews taking a glance at the scoreboard while he’s in the open field. There will be time to admire his handiwork later.
“Thing you need to know about me, I’m looking forward,” Henry said. “If you’re in my vision, I’m trying to run past you, run through you, or make you miss. I’m going to the end zone. That’s all I’m focused on. When I see grass, I’m thinking, ‘Let’s go.’”
Now it’s Pittsburgh’s turn to see if it can stop a player who at times looks unstoppable.
“There are people that are intimidated by (Derrick Henry),” Tomlin said. “There are tangible things to be intimidated by … You can see DBs having issues with that. Hopefully, we minimize the amount of time our guys are in those circumstances, and hopefully, when our guys are in those circumstances, they do what they have to do. They do what the job requires them to do.”
No matter how painful the prospect.
NOTES: Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee), DB Mike Hilton (shoulder), FB Derek Watt (hamstring), C Maurkice Pouncey (foot) did not practice on Wednesday. … RG David DeCastro (abdominal strain), who missed last week’s win over Cleveland, was limited. … WR Diontae Johnson (back) was a full participant.