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New Orleans Saints defense faces formidable challenge in Titans running back Derrick Henry

'Even if you do everything right, you still have to tackle him'

Check out the faces of the New Orleans Saints coaching staff. Head coach Dennis Allen enters his second season as the 17th head coach of the Saints and his 27th year in coaching.
Check out the faces of the New Orleans Saints coaching staff. Head coach Dennis Allen enters his second season as the 17th head coach of the Saints and his 27th year in coaching.

The Tennessee Titans will enter Sunday's regular-season opener against the New Orleans Saints in the Caesars Superdome with a sledgehammer, the same one they've successfully used since 2018.

That'd be an apt – but not complete – description of Derrick Henry, Tennessee's 6-foot-3, 247-pound runner who can pound away at a concrete defensive wall until he punches a hole through, can get to the edge and unleash a stiff arm that the late Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton could appreciate, and can glide through a seam and outrun an opposing secondary for 60 to 70 yards.

"He's a dynamic back and he's one of the better backs in our league," Saints Coach Dennis Allen said.

And the Titans, undoubtedly, will lean on him Sunday.

Since '18, in 71 games Henry has rushed for 7,101 yards and 68 touchdowns on 1,464 carries, 4.9 yards per carry. Three times, he has led the league in rushing attempts and in back-to-back seasons, 2019-20, he led NFL rushers in yards (1,540 and 2,027), attempts (303 and 378) and touchdowns (16 and 17). In 2021 he played in eight games of the 17 games and ran for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns on 219 carries.

"I would say you've got to get 11 guys around the ball," Allen said. "Because I think they led the league in terms of yards after contact in the run game. He's a really good back. Strong, physical, has great speed, is able to break the long ones and then, they use him in the screen game, too. I think that's important. They do a really good job on a lot of their play-action screen game.

"I just think that this is a team that if you don't fit the run up properly and you're not where you're supposed to be, they create space in your defense and they've got home run hitters running the ball.

"So that's why it's critical that everybody remains disciplined in terms of where they're supposed to be within the defense, because the guys that are playing behind you – whether it be linebackers behind the defensive line or secondary players behind the linebackers – everybody is expecting each player to be at a certain position so that they know exactly where to fit. If a guy's not there, it creates stress on the defense."

The Saints experienced that kind of stress last season, when they ranked 24th in the league against the run, allowing 130.5 yards per game, and 20th in yards per carry allowed at 4.5.

That was a significant dip from previous seasons for New Orleans, which, between 2018 and 2021, never allowed more than 93.9 rushing yards per game in a season and in three of the four years, gave up 3.8 yards per carry or less.

Tennessee, meanwhile, hasn't averaged less than 125.4 yards per game in a season since '18.

And the Titans added rookie running back Tyjae Spears to the equation. At 5-10, 201 pounds, the former Tulane standout has added an agility and speed wrinkle to Tennessee's ground game.

"I don't think there's any question that this team runs a lot of their offense through the running game, particularly Derrick Henry," Allen said. "Obviously, with Tyjae Spears being there now they've got a couple of different runners that they can utilize. But you have to be able to stop the run and play-action game and hopefully get them into some longer yardage situations."

That would mean getting to Henry before he gets downhill, which is only part of the equation.

"Even if you do everything right – play the right gap, get off your block – you still have to tackle him," Saints defensive coordinator Joe Woods said.

"He was hurt last year and he still finished top five rushing yards," said defensive end Cam Jordan. "I think that with this gameplan, we're going to have to come in, play things tightly and know that there's going to be a heavy emphasis on tackling, everybody ganging up on Derrick Henry in the backfield type of game."

In other words, get to the hammer before he can inflict damage.

Go behind the scenes of the 2023 Saints Week 1 hype video featuring rapper and New Orleans native Juvenile. The Saints will open their 2023 NFL season versus the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, September 10 in the Caesars Superdome.

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