The NFL postseason is a time when quarterbacks stake their claim to greatness or further cement it.
The remaining playoff teams have their share of quality signal-callers, including the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson and the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson.
But there is one running back that can control the pace of the game and dominate like a quarterback. The Ravens face him Saturday night in an AFC divisional-round game.
Meet Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry.
“He’s very unique,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You’d be hard-pressed to say who he’s like right now. He’s kind of his own guy, the way he runs, and does a great job with it.”
That’s a compliment when you become the standard. Henry is 6 feet 3 and weighs 247 pounds. There are multiple reports about his 40-yard dash time, but let’s just call him fast, and even faster when going downhill — like a runaway truck.
He runs with the power of former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis and the combination of speed and power of Earl Campbell, the Hall of Famer and former Houston Oilers star.
During the regular season, Henry had more carries than any other running back in the NFL with 303 and had a league-leading 1,540 rushing yards. He wears teams down. Nearly three-quarters of his yards were gained after contact, and 14 of his 16 rushing touchdowns were scored in the second half.
There are few things more imposing than a big running back coming off the edge with his shoulder pads squared. A week ago, Henry rushed for 182 yards in the Titans’ 20-13 win over the New England Patriots, the defending Super Bowl champions.
The soft Patriots wanted no part of him in the open field.
“He’s a cutback runner. He’s very patient. He’ll find creases, and guys didn’t seem like they were too interested in tackling him,” Ravens safety Earl Thomas III said. “So, our mindset is a little different. I think we’re going to try to tackle him and try to swarm, and we’re going to see how it plays out.”
Henry is a rare breed. A lot of players his size are labeled as downhill runners, but he can cut back, run off tackle or get outside off the edge. He isn’t much of a threat as a receiver, with 18 catches for 206 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season, but he is the centerpiece of Tennessee’s play-action passing game.
The Titans use him the same way the Ravens use Jackson as a runner. Linebackers and safeties have to hold for an extra second to honor the run before they drop into pass coverage.
That extra time allowed quarterback Ryan Tannehill to complete 201 of 286 passes in the final 10 games of the regular season for 2,742 yards and 22 touchdowns. Tannehill threw only 11 passes against the Patriots last week.
“They’re a big play-action, boot, a movement team,” Harbaugh said. “Ryan Tannehill has done just an excellent job with that. It’s been schemed up really well. It starts with the run game, of course. The run game is what makes all that go. The run game has been really, really good. They run most all of the schemes, but they especially base out of the wide-zone scheme, and that’s something that they do exceptionally well.
“They’ll run inside zone. They’ll run cutback zone. They’ll run counters. They’ll run power. They do a little bit of everything. Obviously, No. 22 [Henry] is about as good as you’ll see coming downhill running the ball. The offensive line is moving people off the ball. So, that’s where the play-action stuff starts. Ryan has been really good at it. They have good fakes. The line makes it look like run. They have speed outside that can make plays. So, that’s what makes it work for them.”
The Ravens have played well against the run this season. They are ranked No. 5 in run defense, allowing an average of 93.5 yards per game. Tackles Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce and Domata Peko Sr. have played well inside, but the Ravens have struggled with runs off tackle and off the edge. Cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Marcus Peters have also had problems making tackles in run support.
The Ravens have benefited from having big leads in most games, which allows them to get out of their base defense as teams look to pass. The Ravens have a surplus of good defensive backs who can also double as linebackers if necessary.
“We’re just looking at it as what it is. We have to stop the run. That doesn’t change, regardless of who we’re playing,” Ravens inside linebacker Josh Bynes said. “We played [Nick] Chubb, we played [Chris] Carson, we’ve played some really great running backs this year in the league. I’m not saying [Derrick Henry] is the same, because everybody has their own individual thing that makes them great, and he has his things that make him great.
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“But, as long as we do what we’re supposed to do, we swarm, get guys to the football and make sure we’ve got a lot of people making tackles. It’s the league, everybody gets paid, so plays are going to be made, but we just have to keep our composure and do our jobs, and at the end of the day, it’s all about coming away with a ‘W’ during playoffs.”