BEREA, Ohio — The Browns were one of the worst tackling teams in the NFL last season, and we’ll find out just how far they’ve come when Derrick Henry and the Titans come to FirstEnergy Stadium today.
Henry rushed for 1,059 yards in 2018, thanks to a surge over the final four games (585 yards). But the challenge comes from his 656 yards after contact and 37 broken tackles. Henry ranked second in the NFL in both categories.
“They want to try to run first and create that play action. We know that,” Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said. “We have to do a great job of stopping this run game. Henry is a big, physical back that loves to play downhill. He is going to try to test the perimeters of the defense. We have to do a great job of setting the edges and turning him back inside.”
Henry thrives on getting to the outside. He had 35 carries for 249 yards around the left end and 36 for 229 around the right end last season. There wasn’t a running lane Henry used more than those.
That puts the Browns’ cornerbacks on high alert.
“We know right now that our corners are going to be a major part of the game this week with as much as (the Titans) try to bounce the ball outside,” Wilks said. “The point of emphasis with those guys is chasing the hip and making sure we keep the ball on our inside pad.”
Safety Jermaine Whitehead could find himself near the line of scrimmage a lot of Sunday, and also out wide covering a tight end or slot receiver, putting him in Henry’s path either way. He knows all about trying to tackle the former Alabama Heisman Trophy winner. Whitehead went to rival Auburn and played him twice, and knows that, at 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, Henry isn’t like most NFL running backs.
“Just his running style is different than probably any other running back than we play against,” Whitehead said. “A taller guy, a high-knee guy. You’ve got to put your pads on him and take him down. You tackle him up high and you’ll bounce off. You’ve got to have a plan going in to tackle him on all aspects of the field. He’s a different tackle in the hole than he is on the sideline.”
The Titans’ offensive line has gone through changes since last season. Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan won’t play Sunday due to suspension, and nobody is certain how backup Dennis Kelly will perform. But former Ram Rodger Saffold, one of the best interior offensive linemen in the league, will be next to him at left guard.
Henry dealt with a calf injury in training camp and didn’t play in the preseason, but hasn’t been listed on the Titans’ injury report this week. Wilks expects Henry to play. He also expects to see plenty of Dion Lewis (517 rushing yards, 59 catches for 400 yards in 2018).
“Lewis a very good back, as well,” Wilks said. “(He) does a tremendous job of getting to the perimeter as well and can run in between the tackles. I think they are going to try to come in and try to establish the run game being on the road for the first game of the year. That is what they do and then create the vertical shots down the field.”
How do you keep Henry from running wild? Cornerback Terrance Mitchell has a simple answer.
“Gotta get him down,” Mitchell said, “get him down.”
Whitehead looks at Henry like every other talented running back in the NFL. They have the ability to explode for 300 yards, and they can also be stuffed, Whitehead said. To achieve the latter, the Browns will need everybody working together.
“The DNA of the defense is swarming the ball with effort,” Whitehead said. “You try to get as many hats as you can to the ball, but we have a game plan, and we’ll take our shot.”