Colts defense still searches for a way to slow down Titans’ Derrick Henry
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — When the Indianapolis Colts watch video of prior matchups against Derrick Henry, they see a whole lot of failure.
They’ve spent seven years trying to slow down the powerful 6-foot-3, 247-pound, two-time NFL rushing champ, and nothing seems to work.
The Tennessee star has run through them, around them, even stiff-armed them for seven 100-yard outings in 14 career games against Indy. And if the Colts want to snap their five-game losing streak to the Titans, the defensive game plan is no secret.
“With Tennessee, you know (coach Mike) Vrabel is going to have them ready to play, that they’re going to rally behind No. 22,” Colts linebacker Zaire Franklin said, referring to Henry’s jersey number.
Henry had 1,287 yards against Indy (2-2) — although the Titans’ AFC South rivals Houston and Jacksonville have allowed even more yards to the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner.
In his last seven games against the Colts, Henry has topped 100 yards six times. The lone exception came on Halloween in 2021 when Henry was limping to an uncharacteristic 28-carry, 68-yard performance. The next day, Vrabel announced Henry had a broken bone in his foot.
Now, Henry appears to be rounding into form. Last week at Cincinnati, he had 22 carries for 122 yards and a touchdown while throwing a 2-yard TD pass.
Henry could get even more help this week if two projected starting linemen — rookie left guard Peter Skoronski, who had an appendectomy Sept. 16, and tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere, who is eligible to return from his four-game gambling suspension this week — return.
“We’ll start working Peter back in there and kind of see how everybody goes throughout the week,” Vrabel said. “Nic’s been able to probably work a little bit more than Peter has. We’ll see where they both are, but Nic’s been able to kind of work through, even though he hasn’t been here.”
The Titans (2-2) could be facing a more complete Colts team if 2021 NFL rushing champ Jonathan Taylor plays.
He practiced for the first time in 10 months after being activated from the physically unable to perform list early this week. Taylor could work his way into a backfield that has leaned heavily on veteran Zack Moss and new dual-threat quarterback Anthony Richardson.
“He’s big, he’s fast, he’s willing and he knows where the goal line is,” Vrabel said of Richardson. “He knows where the first down (is), what he needs to get to. So it’ll be a huge challenge.”
The Colts’ mission remains the same — clogging up Henry’s running lanes.
“It’s getting population on the football, getting to his feet early because when he gets rolling, he gets downhill, he’s pretty hard to stop,” Colts two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. “Guys have to be on the details, on their assignments, run to the ball and get population on the ball.”
Older and better
Tennessee signed defensive lineman Denico Autry when Indy let him go following the 2020 season. Since then, he’s posted 20 1/2 sacks, including eight last season and 3 1/2 this season — all team highs. How is Autry still doing this at age 33?
“Just experience, you know, a seasoned vet,” the 10-year veteran said. “You know I’ve seen some of the stuff over a thousand times, so I about know what I’m getting when I get it. I know what’s going (to happen) on the field.”
Richardson has 23 carries for 123 yards and four TDs through his first three NFL starts — a historic pace. He became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era to tally four TD runs in his first three games and the first Colts quarterback to run for scores in three straight games.
One more TD run would tie Andrew Luck’s single-season franchise record by a quarterback and he can tie the franchise mark for most games in a season with a TD pass and a TD run (three). The others are Andrew Luck (2014), Peyton Manning (2001, 2006, 2007), Bert Jones (1975) and the late John Unitas (1958).
Three-time All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins caught four passes for a game-high 63 yards last week, including a 38-yarder that jump-started the Titans’ offense in the second quarter. And he’s tied for the most third-down conversion receptions in the AFC.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill appreciates what Hopkins has brought to the offense.
“Just that match-up ability for him to win his one-on-one matchup and find some space on crucial downs and sustain drives has been huge for us so far,” Tannehill said.
The Colts have lost six straight games on their home field. Their last win came nearly a year ago, 34-27 over Jacksonville on Oct. 16, 2022.
“Having not won here in a year is pretty wicked, so we definitely need to break that streak,” three-time All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard said.
The Titans come in with the NFL’s fourth-best defense against the run, allowing 70 yards per game and a league-best 2.9 yards per carry. They have gone 10 straight games without allowing an opponent to run for 100 yards total, the longest active streak in the NFL.
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.