The lasting images from the previous two meetings against the Tennessee Titans were an eyesore for a proud Ravens defense.
First, it was running back Derrick Henry turning around safety Earl Thomas III with a vicious stiff-arm in the Ravens’ divisional-round loss last season. Then it was Henry galloping into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown in overtime in Week 11.
If the Ravens were to get past a Titans team that troubled them so much in the past calendar year, stopping the NFL’s rushing champion would have to be priority No. 1.
In Sunday’s 20-13 wild-card win, the visiting Ravens defense held Henry — who last week became the eighth player in NFL history to rush for at least 2,000 yards in a season — to a season-low 40 yards on 18 carries.
“We set a goal: Let’s try to keep him under 90 [rushing yards], and I think we held him to 40 [rushing yards] or something like that — 2.2 [yards] a carry on like 18 or 19 carries, which is huge,” said defensive end Derek Wolfe, whose six tackles tied the team lead. “I’ve got a ton of respect for Derrick Henry. He’s the hardest running back I’ve ever had to tackle. So, you’ve got to bring it every time you tackle him.
“Every touch, you’ve got an offensive lineman hanging off of you, so he’ll run you over. I’ve got a ton of respect for him. So, for us to accomplish that kind of goal against a [running] back like that, who just got 2,000 yards rushing [this season], that’s a testament to show you what kinds of guys we have up front, what kinds of guys we have on this defense, and what kinds of guys we have on this team.”
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The Ravens defense brought a stacked box — eight-plus defenders — on 72% of Henry’s runs, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. It was the fourth-highest rate of the season for any running back with at least 10 carries in a game and Henry struggled against it, with just 13 carries for 24 yards. In last season’s 28-12 win over the top-seeded Ravens in the divisional round, Henry faced a stacked box on 63% of his carries but rushed 19 times for 124 yards on such occasions.
Before Sunday’s game, Ravens coach John Harbaugh was asked about the idea of limiting a back as imposing as Henry, who seemed to wear down defenders late in games. Harbaugh said that as dominant as Henry could be, his defensive players were “not conceding anything in any play.”
Harbaugh’s reply proved to be revelatory. Henry, who rushed for a league-leading 98 first downs in the regular season, did not move the sticks Sunday. The Ravens hit Henry at or behind the line of scrimmage on 11 of his 18 carries, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and only 12 of his 40 rushing yards came before contact. Henry’s longest gain was 8 yards.
“It was eyes on your luggage. It was finishing. It was running to the ball. It was tackling,” Harbaugh said. “Up front, our defensive line did a very good job against their very good offensive line. So, we had them stopped a lot of times before [Henry] got started. All of those things came into play.”
In the teams’ late-November meeting in Baltimore, defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams, sidelined by injuries, watched helplessly as Henry busted past Wolfe’s arm tackle and delivered a score that would drop the Ravens to 6-4. It was the type of game, and matchup, that Campbell said he and Wolfe were brought to Baltimore for.
And while Campbell (two tackles) and Wolfe played pivotal roles in stopping Henry, it was a collective effort, from their work inside to outside linebackers Pernell McPhee (six tackles) and Matthew Judon (three tackles) staying disciplined and setting the edge against outside runs to the players who swarmed in pursuit to bring Henry down.
“[Henry] is the king. He’s a beast. 2,000 yards,” Campbell said after the game. “But today, he wasn’t going to run the ball. “He wasn’t going to run the ball.”