Soon after the Ravens had given up 217 yards rushing and lost to Tennessee, 28-12, in an AFC Divisional playoff game last January, general manager Eric DeCosta knew he had to strengthen his run defense and find a way to stop Titans running back Derrick Henry.
So, in mid-March DeCosta traded a fifth-round draft pick for Jacksonville Pro Bowl defensive lineman Calais Campbell. Twelve days later, former Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe agreed to a one-year deal with the Ravens.
The big battle against Henry, though, never materialized when the teams met in November because both nose guard Brandon Williams and Campbell were injured.
Nothing stopped Henry in the Ravens’ overtime loss on Nov. 22. The 6-foot-4, 242-pound running back from Alabama rushed for 133 yards on 28 carries, including the game-winning 29-yard touchdown run with 5:21 left in overtime.
It will be different come Sunday in Nashville when the Ravens play Tennessee in an AFC Wild Card game.
Of course, Henry will be there, but so will Campbell, Williams and Wolfe, as well as defensive linemen Justin Madubuike, Justin Ellis and maybe Jihad Ward or Broderick Washington.
The Ravens are stacked with a full rotation that includes some younger players who have gained experience since that November game. Will it make a difference?
“I think so,” said defensive coordinator Don Martindale. “I think everybody up front, that’s their main mission. And it’s not like anybody they play, that’s not their main mission as well. I’m looking forward to the fact [we’re] going in there [at] full strength, without a doubt, and keeping guys fresh throughout the four quarters of play, or five quarters — however long it takes.”
Henry had a big day against the Ravens in last season’s divisional playoff game, rushing 30 times for 195 yards including a long run of 66 yards. He dominated the pace of the game, which is why the Ravens didn’t re-sign nose tackle Michael Pierce and traded end Chris Wormley to the Pittsburgh Steelers during the offseason.
The Ravens controlled Henry for a half in the regular-season game in November, but he wore them down in the second half as he finished with 133 yards on 28 carries. It was easy to see the meltdown, especially in Wolfe, who played one of his best games that day finishing with six tackles. But he slipped off the tackle on Henry’s game-winning run.
The Ravens are hoping to avoid the fatigue factor Sunday.
Campbell and Williams have missed several games this season because of injuries but are close to 100%. Campbell, a six-time Pro Bowl pick, is used to seeing Henry twice a year when he played for Jacksonville because both teams are in the AFC South.
“When Coach [John] Harbaugh talked to me for the first time after they traded for me, he pretty much told me that we’re going to play a lot of teams that do a lot of this zone stuff and just play downhill football,” he said. “He knows from watching my tape and studying me, he knows I do that well. So, [he told me to] just come in here, be myself and play with everything I have.
“But these situations, stopping guys like Derrick Henry, I love this game of football, and it’s a great challenge,” Campbell said. “Derrick Henry is one of the best running backs to ever play this game, and he’s in the zone right now. So, yes — I take pride in the challenge of lining up and trying to shut him down.”
Few running backs can impact a game like Henry, who has rushed for more than 2,000 yards this season. He is the ideal bruiser in goal-line situations and can turn the emotion of a game with one of those vintage stiff-arms. When Henry runs well, the Titans’ play-action passing game is highly effective.
But the Ravens have usually played tough run defense going back to 2014 when Williams became a starter. Wolfe leads the linemen in tackles with 51 but Williams has 33 and Campbell 28. Campbell is the most complete player of the trio, but Wolfe has been strong in the second half of the season.
They should present Henry with a stiff challenge.
“I feel like we’ve been through some adversity,” Williams said. “Obviously, we’ve had to come up against some things and we had to get some things right. I feel like right now is the perfect time when we’re getting into our stride. We’re going into Sunday with all the horses in the stable. We had people out, we had guys banged up and such, and now, we have a full unit.”
Some of the young players have stepped up, most notably rookies Madubuike, who has 19 tackles, and Washington. While Williams and Campbell were recovering, Ellis played well as the starting nose guard.
If the Ravens need a rusher they can turn to Ward, who has 16 tackles, three of those sacks and four tackles for losses.
There are going to be a lot of bodies Henry has to wear down.
Latest Mike Preston
“Hopefully, all of us are inspired to play our ‘A’ game. It’s going to take our ‘A’ game to go out there and win this ballgame,” Campbell said. “So, we have to go out there and just lock in. For me, not being able to play in that first game, and not being able to play [in] a bunch of games, I think the benefit is that I feel really good right now. I feel really healthy in the sense where I can go out there and make some plays. So, I’m looking forward to it. I can’t wait to go out there and play some good football.”