There is no surprise here.
The Eagles need to stop Tennessee Titans’ monster tailback Derrick Henry and his bludgeoning stiff arm. The bigger question is how? In the Titans’ 11 games this season, the 6-foot-3, 247-pound power back has rushed for 1,048 rushing yards with 10 touchdowns, averaging 4.2 yards a carry.
Henry is coming off one of his lowest season outputs last week in the Titans’ 20-16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, who held Henry to a mere 38 yards rushing on 17 carries, for an uncharacteristic 2.2 yards a carry. The Bengals did it by packing the tackle box with eight, and sometimes nine defenders, daring the Titans to throw against what was essentially a goal-line defense.
Henry has rushed for more than 1,000 yards four times over the first seven years of his NFL career. Against Cincinnati, the Bengals smothered him at the point of attack, forcing Henry into five carries of zero yards, one carry for minus-1 yard, and another carry for minus-2 yards. The Bengals created a log jam at the line of scrimmage, preventing Henry from getting his huge pistons going up field.
Once that happens, the Bengals knew they were cooked, like when Henry took a screen pass 75 yards, before having the ball stripped just as he was approaching the goal line.
The Eagles’ defensive interior—Fletcher Cox, Ndamukong Suh, Linval Joseph, Milton Williams, Javon Hargrave, and the potentially returning Jordan Davis—will need to play a balanced game where they’re more involved with clogging the middle and daring Titans’ quarterback Ryan Tannehill to pass. Suh sometimes tends to go up field, as does Williams, and that could not be more evident than in A.J. Dillon’s 20-yard touchdown run with 6:40 left in the first quarter against Green Bay on Sunday night.
Will Eagles’ defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon deploy the same scheme as the Bengals did in stopping Henry?
“They played well as a unit together,” Gannon said about the Bengals’ effort in slowing Henry. “You talk about they kind of bottled him up pretty good. Run defense, it’s all 11, and they were fitting very well together. I thought [Bengals Defensive Coordinator] Lou [Anarumo] did a good job of changing up the spacing, their defensive coordinator. They have a good front, just like us.
“They controlled the line of scrimmage for the most part and didn’t let them get going. Then as you see, they possessed the ball on offense, so they kind of limited his touches there. It was really a low-possession type game that game, which Sunday night was a high-possession game. You just don’t know how the game is going to kick out.
“I think they played complementary football, Cincinnati. Kept them off the field and had some extended drives, and when he did get his touches, they did a good job, all 11, to really bottle him up and control the line of scrimmage and tackle him.
I’ve played against this guy multiple times being in that division for three years with him, and he’s a tall order. He’s one the premier players in the world at his position, so we have our challenge cut out for us.”
The Eagles know what the Titans are going to do. The Titans are fully aware that the Eagles know. It doesn’t matter. Tennessee will still try to ram the ball down their throats with Henry.
“You have to stop him before he gets started,” Eagles’ defensive end Brandon Graham said. “That’s the key. You can’t give him clear holes to run through. I enjoy the challenge. This is a real testament for your team to how you handle things up front. Everything starts and ends up front, so I’m curious to see especially knowing some of the issues that we’ve had in the run game. I’m sure everybody is tired of it. We want to get it right. This is a great week to see what our attitude is when our back is up against the wall.”
This will be the closest the Eagles will come to facing an elite AFC team in their grand design to reach the Super Bowl. Sunday could tell where this team stands. It’s also a great barometer for what the Eagles can do if they eventually face the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC playoffs. Both the Titans and 49ers have similar run-first offense, stop-the-run-defense styles that travel well in cold weather.
It will come down to congesting the middle and attacking Henry’s legs outside. If the Eagles can do that, they have a strong chance of winning a game many feel they won’t.
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has written features for SI.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com, MLB.com, Deadspin and The Philadelphia Daily News. In 2006, he was nominated for an Emmy Award for a special project piece for ESPN.com called “Love at First Beep.” He is most noted for his award-winning ESPN.com feature on high school wrestler A.J. Detwiler in February 2006, and his breaking story on Carson Wentz for PhillyVoice on January 21, 2019. In 2015, he was elected president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.