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Dougherty: Packers' run defense facing ultimate test in Titans bulldozer Derrick Henry

Pete Dougherty   | Packers News
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GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers know better than anyone that bad run defense can still get you beat in the NFL.

That’s why their game Sunday night against Tennessee is a must-see. The Titans aren’t just a good team (10-4), they have a running back (Derrick Henry) capable of blowing up a Packers run defense that has been blown up before.

While coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense has improved in recent weeks, it has made those strides against some of the NFL’s lesser lights (Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and Carolina). The question is whether it can stop the NFL’s leading rusher and most imposing ball carrier from inflicting the same humiliation the San Francisco 49ers’ Raheem Mostert inflicted in the NFC championship game 11 months ago, or Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook did in early November, to cite two games the Packers lost because they couldn’t stop the run.

“It’s going to really test us,” coach Matt LaFleur said Tuesday of facing Henry, “and we’ll see where we’re at.”

Yes, we will.

The Packers’ defense, in fact, has seen some developments that had to happen if it was going to be better down the stretch than through the first half of the 2020 schedule.

Rashan Gary has been a hustling, ascending young edge defender. Safety Darnell Savage has started making plays (three interceptions, a sack, two quarterback hits, two tackles for a loss and four passes defended in the last four games).

Adrian Amos has stood out in a new dime package lining up at linebacker in place of injured Raven Greene. Last week against Carolina, Amos had two pass breakups from that position plus a sack when he moved up as a more traditional box safety.

And rookies Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin have upgraded the talent at inside linebacker in recent weeks, even if they’re also as green as they come.

At the same time, and perhaps not coincidentally, Pettine’s defense has moved up in league rankings in recent weeks (it’s No. 15 in points and No. 8 in yards). It has averaged giving up only 20.2 points in the last four games, albeit against teams with a collective 20-35-1 record. So it’s still hard to say how much of the improvement is based on players, and how much on opponent.

One thing you can say for sure this week, the Titans are going to run the ball. Even if they fall behind, they’ll keep running it. They have the most rushes (453) and fourth-highest run-pass ratio (61.2% to 38.8%) in the league.

They also have the most imposing runner in the game. Henry (1,679 rushing yards, average of 120 yards a game) is a huge man (6-3, 247) whose 4.54-second 40 time at the NFL scouting combine was actually a hair faster than the Packers’ Aaron Jones' (4.56). If the point isn’t clear, Henry had a 94-yard touchdown run against Houston earlier this season.

But it’s his power to go with speed that stands out. On a few occasions this season when a defensive back has tried to take him down, he has thrown the guy to the ground with one arm and kept chugging.

Jerry Gray, the Packers’ secondary coach, has been a coach or player in the NFL for all but three seasons since 1985. He described Henry as sort of a combination of Eddie George (235 pounds) and Steven Jackson (240 pounds), who were two of the league’s best backs in the 1990s and first decade of the 2000s. And neither was as big as Henry.

“Gang tackle,” Gray said he’s telling his players this week. “The guy’s a really good football player. When you look and see a big physical guy like that that can actually outrun you to the end zone, you don’t want to try to take a side, you don’t want to try to hit him up high.”

Yes, this really will be the ultimate test for Pettine’s run defense. Can it prevent Henry from dominating the game? And if so, at what cost against the pass?

Pettine has usually preferred playing dime over nickel in his 30 games as Packers defensive coordinator — according to Pro Football Focus, he ranks lowest in the league in deploying nickel personnel (26.8%) this season. But he won’t have much choice in this game. He has to have two inside linebackers on the field to deal with Henry, because that’s where Henry is going to hit them, between the tackles. In fact, Pettine might end up resorting to a lot of base defense, too, in effect using a five-man line plus the two inside linebackers to stop the run.

The question is, which two inside linebackers? Barnes, the undrafted rookie, recently became the starting middle linebacker ahead of Christian Kirksey, and deservedly so. Unless he gets hurt — an eye injury knocked him out of last week’s game, though LaFleur has said Barnes appears good to go this week — he’ll be out there almost every play.

But who will get the most snaps as the second inside 'backer? I’m guessing Martin, who at 240 pounds is the most explosive and physical inside linebacker on the roster, and has the best chance going toe-to-toe with Henry in the middle of the line. That’s hardly a defensive coordinator’s dream, playing two rookies in the middle of the defense. But sometimes talent and physicality have to win out over experience.

And maybe we’ll see recently signed behemoth Anthony Rush (6-4, 361 pounds) for a few snaps as well. He has played but one snap in his two games with the Packers.

But this will be a test for everyone on the Packers’ defensive side of the ball. Not just for Barnes and Martin, but Kenny Clark, Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith as well.

It will be a test of pure strength and grit and pride as much as of tactics and personnel. 

Yes, facing Henry should make for one of the most revealing games of the Packers’ 2020 season.

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