Dougherty: Mike Pettine, Packers' defense pass the Derrick Henry test
GREEN BAY - You have to give it to Mike Pettine and his Green Bay Packers defense: They rose up to the Derrick Henry challenge.
The same run defense that has suffered a couple of noteworthy meltdowns the past two seasons came through in a big way Sunday night in the Packers’ dominating 40-14 win over Henry and the Tennessee Titans.
It’s a given the Titans thought they could hammer the ball down the Packers’ throat with Henry, a punishing and also explosive 247-pounder who came into the game as the NFL’s leading rusher.
But Henry never got on track on a snow-covered Lambeau Field as Pettine’s defense played its best game of the season. The Packers held a Titans offense that was averaging 31.1 points a game to only 14 and never allowed Henry to get rolling — his numbers looked OK (98 yards rushing and 4.3-yard average), but he basically was a non-factor in this game, and the general rule is, as he goes so go the Titans.
The biggest question coming into this game was whether the Packers’ uptick in defense the last month more a function of recent improvements in several areas, or of facing lesser opponents. This performance suggests it’s more the former.
“I just sense a different energy with our defense,” coach Matt LaFleur said afterward. “Guys are flying around making plays, making plays on the ball — I want to say we had 10 passes defended tonight. We were getting after them up front, putting pressure on the quarterback. That’s what it’s going to take, because from here on out it’s nothing but playoff-caliber teams.”
The win keeps the 12-3 Packers on track for the top seeding, first-round bye and home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs. A win at Chicago next Sunday clinches all those, as would a Seattle loss at San Francisco.
And Sunday showed just how valuable that home-field advantage can be. You would have thought the snowy and slick conditions would have been tailor-made for Tennessee because of Henry. A huge, physical back on a cold day (windchill 16 degrees at kickoff) with the snow falling for the first three quarters should put him in his element.
But it was the Packers’ big back, untested second-round pick AJ Dillon, who had the big day, not Henry. Dillon, who had only 24 carries all season coming in, like Henry is listed at 247 pounds, and he outrushed his more decorated foe in yards (124 to 98) and yards per carry (5.9 to 4.3).
The Packers handled the elements much better than the Titans with Dillon and Jones (10 carries for 94 yards) pounding the ball inside and out, and Aaron Rodgers (128.1 rating, 21-for-25 passing) dealing off play action. If the Packers needed a sign of their advantage at Lambeau in December and January, they got it, and finally finding out that the rookie Dillon can play only enhances that edge.
“This is a tough place to play,” Rodgers said. “The weather we had tonight, it was beautiful lying around all afternoon on the couch watching the snow come down and just hoping it was going to last, looking at the phone seeing what the percentages were, just ‘cause these are the special ones. Haven’t had too many like this where there’s been consistent snow.”
It was eye-opening to watch a Packers run defense that Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook had blown up two months ago, and had appeared fragile a couple other times this season, including a loss at Tampa Bay, rise up against the game’s best back.
Pettine spent much of the game in his rarely used base defense — basically, a five-man front with two inside linebackers behind it — and that group won the trenches. Christian Kirksey and Kamal Martin rotated as the second inside ‘backer opposite the emerging rookie Krys Barnes, and the three combined for nine tackles and an interception.
Tennessee helped by spending most of the game in two tight ends, which meant Pettine could keep his best run defenders on the field. After watching a season’s worth of tape on the Packers last week, the Titans clearly thought Pettine couldn’t stop Henry no matter how many big bodies the coordinator put out there. The Titans were wrong.
The decisive moment came early in the third quarter, after Tennessee had scored to cut the Packers’ lead to 19-14. The Packers had dominated yet suddenly were in a tight game. Then Jones ripped off a 59-yard run that set up a touchdown, and Pettine’s defense got a quick three-and-out, including Martin tackling Henry for only a three-yard gain on second down, and the rout was on.
Just as with losses and bad days, this was just one win and but one stellar defensive performance (Tennessee had only 260 yards in total offense) in a long season. But with the recent upgrade at inside linebacker, ascending play of second-year safety Darnell Savage (one interception, one dropped interception and five tackles), and a revitalized pass rush (two sacks and five hits on Ryan Tannehill) the Packers now have seen their defense come through against a good team and outstanding runner in a big late-season game.
That matters, considering the run-stopping disaster that ended their 2019 season at San Francisco in the NFC championship game.
“I thought (Pettine’s) play calling was excellent,” Kirksey said. “We’ve been practicing all week just making sure we limit (Henry) from becoming the spark. It was all about attitude and guys just flying around to the ball and being in the right spot.”
LaFleur can thank Pettine for this big win, and now it’s all in front of him and his team. A win at Chicago, and the road to the Super Bowl runs through Lambeau Field. Sunday gave a glimpse of just how important that might be.