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Packers must tackle 'the law of physics' to stop Titans running back Derrick Henry

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GREEN BAY – He stopped dancing. Stopped being something he wasn’t, a scatback trapped inside a defensive end’s body, the most ferocious halfback in the NFL running to avoid contact.

That was Matt LaFleur’s evaluation of Derrick Henry's evolution from underachiever to superstar, at least. It’s easy to forget now, after Henry has become the most dangerous ball carrier of his generation, putting himself in position to make a run at the Hall of Fame, that his career didn’t start this way. Back in 2018, Henry was still finding his way in this league.

LaFleur had a front-row seat to his rise. Before the Green Bay Packers hired him as their head coach, LaFleur was Henry’s offensive coordinator and play caller with the Tennessee Titans.

Early that 2018 season, LaFleur was bombarded with questions about why his oversized running back wasn’t getting more carries. Henry, a Heisman Trophy winner, was a second-round pick in 2016. At 250 pounds, he was built to be a workhorse. He also hadn’t produced a 750-yard season in his first two years.

LaFleur watched something click for his running back midway through that third season.

“I think he made the decision,” LaFleur said, “that he was going to make the one cut and go. And just lower his pads.”

Henry had a slow start in his one season with LaFleur. He failed to reach 100 yards in a game through the first 12 weeks of 2018, almost unfathomable now. It was on a Thursday night game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in December of that season his career changed. Henry exploded for 238 yards and four touchdowns, including a 99-yard score.

On only the second 99-yard touchdown run in NFL history, Henry made one cut in the backfield and went. He broke three tackles on the play, the first with a stiff arm LaFleur calls “one of a kind.”

That night entrenched Henry as the NFL’s best running back, a pedestal he’s yet to relinquish when healthy. Henry crossed the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in 2018. He had 1,540 yards, 16 touchdowns and second-team All-Pro honors in 2019. He exploded for a historic 2,027 yards, 17 touchdowns and first-team All-Pro honors in 2020.

A broken bone in his foot kept Henry from reaching 1,000 yards last season. He still had 937 yards and 10 touchdowns in only eight games. It hasn’t kept him from reasserting himself as the league’s top back this fall. Henry enters Thursday night’s game at Lambeau Field second in the NFL with 923 rushing yards, only 8 behind New York Giants tailback Saquon Barkley. His nine touchdowns are second in the league, two behind Cleveland’s Nick Chubb.

“He’s what I like to call a creature,” LaFleur said. “He’s a freak of nature. You just don’t find guys that are that big and that fast, and if he gets going, it’s going to be a long day. So you’ve got to do a great job of trying to contain him, bottle him up, try to get him going laterally. Once he gets going downhill, it’s just like a freight train rolling through there.”

That, more than anything, is what the Packers defense is trying to figure out on this abbreviated week. LaFleur’s run defense, which ranks 26th in the NFL with 140.6 yards allowed per game, will face a monster partly of their own coach’s making.

To win, the Packers will need to learn how to tackle a freight train.

They know the task that awaits them. Defensive lineman Kenny Clark said Henry is the toughest running back to tackle in the NFL. Safety Adrian Amos said only Adrian Peterson was tougher to tackle in his career. “That’s who I think is the best ever,” Amos shrugged. Henry, at 28 years old, has a chance to put himself in that category if he can overcome the short shelf life that ends many running back’s careers prematurely.

“You definitely don’t want to tackle him up top,” Amos said. “Because that’s where his power comes, that’s where his stiff arm, and stuff like that. So the size factor. It’s the law of physics. He’s bigger than you. You’ve got to figure out a way to get him down any way you can.”

If he were just big, he wouldn’t be Derrick Henry. His speed is what makes him a game-breaking playmaker. Henry has had a 70-yard run each of the past five seasons. His longest at the midway point this fall is 56.

That doesn’t happen with 250-pound running backs. Jerome Bettis had a 70-yard run just once in his 13-year career. It came during his rookie season. He had only one other run of 50 yards in his Hall of Fame career.

“There’s running backs that are big,” Amos said, “that are just trying to run over everybody and run straight, but he’s trying to score. I think that’s what sets him apart.”

LaFleur knows that better than anyone. He was on the sideline for Henry’s greatest run, the night he launched his career. Now the Packers, needing a win to keep their season alive, must deal with the consequences.

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They had success two years ago. When the Titans traveled to Lambeau Field in December of the 2020 season, it came during a hellacious stretch of games for Henry. He’d had 215 yards against the Jaguars two weeks earlier. He added 147 yards against the Detroit Lions one game before.

The Packers held him to 98 yards on 23 carries.

He finished the season one week later with 250 yards against the Houston Texans.

The Packers won that matchup 40-14 in 2020. If they can keep Henry under the century mark Thursday night, they’ll have a good chance of winning again.

“Derrick is one of a kind,” LaFleur said. “He is a guy who can wear you down, and a lot of times he gets stronger as the game goes on. It was cool to be with him for that one year. I’ve got a lot of respect for how he goes about his work. He is not scared of the hard work.

“I felt like he really grew that one year that we were together, and you could start to see it happening about midway through the course of the season in 2018. Ever since then, he just hasn’t looked back.”

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