Packers' focus on Titans' Derrick Henry backfires in defensive meltdown
GREEN BAY – They scratched and clawed and loaded the box all night. They dug their cleats into the frozen tundra, selling out to stop the run. The Green Bay Packers were not going to let Derrick Henry beat them.
At least not with his legs.
“Our goal all week was to stop Henry and stop the run,” defensive lineman Dean Lowry said. “I think they knew that.”
The problem is a superstar this dangerous can beat defenses every which way. Nothing the Packers defense did in Thursday night’s 27-17 loss at Lambeau Field was a surprise. The Tennessee Titans were one step ahead on this short week, knowing the Packers’ 26th-ranked run defense would do everything possible to stop Henry’s ground assault, and crafting a plan to use that singular focus against them.
The Packers' inability to adapt kept delivering self-inflicted daggers all night, never more so than midway through the third quarter. On another of what seemed like an endless loop of carries, Henry took the football from quarterback Ryan Tannehill on second-and-goal from the 3-yard line. After two steps, he abruptly stopped behind the line of scrimmage. Tight end Austin Hooper was wide open in the end zone, 11 defenders sprinting toward the football.
Henry lofted a pass over the Packers defense, completing a touchdown that opened a 20-9 cushion that was too much for Matt LaFleur’s beleaguered offense to close.
“They feed him so much,” Packers rookie inside linebacker Quay Walker said, “so defenses get tuned into stopping 22 and forget about everybody else.”
Said Lowry: “That’s one small example of all night. Our game plan was to sell out for the run and have different fronts to really attack that, and credit to them. That was a great play.”
Welcome to the whac-a-mole Packers defense. It’s been one problem after another for a unit that was expected to be great this fall, loaded with first-round picks and expensive free agents. Their inconsistency, their inability to play a complete game, instead has been a season-long trend.
If the Packers defense covers one hole, another is left exposed.
The Packers unquestionably met their primary goal against the Titans. Henry finished with 87 yards, but he needed 28 carries to get there. In each of his three games with at least 28 carries before Thursday night, Henry reached 100 rushing yards. He had 219 rushing yards on 32 carries just three weeks ago against the Houston Texans.
Henry’s longest run against the Packers was 9 yards, the first time he’s been held without a run of at least 10 yards in a game since Week 2.
“When you hold Derrick Henry to 3.1 yards per carry,” defensive lineman Kenny Clark said, “you’ve got to win that game.”
The Packers allowed at least 27 points for the fifth time this season, along with more than 400 yards for the second straight game, because limiting Henry on the ground only meant Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill carved up their secondary. Tannehill was ruthlessly efficient, completing 22-of-27 passes for 333 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a season-high 127.3 passer rating. Four Titans receivers had a catch of at least 30 yards, including a 42-yard screen pass to Henry.
One hole covered. Another exposed.
“Even when we are all on the same page,” LaFleur said, “we’re not executing to the level that we need to. That’s why we’re sitting here at freaking 4-7.”
Selling out to stop the run worked on the stat sheet, but it was a disaster on the field. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry changed his alignment up front, even employing four defensive linemen on one play in the first quarter. The extra beef in the box left the Packers almost helpless to rush Tannehill. They finished with just two sacks and five quarterback hits.
With Tannehill comfortable, the Titans gained chunk plays through the air out of formations designed to look like run plays.
“They had a lot of play-action for us,” Lowry said. “Had a lot of passes out of big personnel. So run defense was really solid, but the next phase is really getting better at transition rushes on early downs and affecting the quarterback on those passes.
“We had some fronts that were more suited to play the run, loading the box a little bit and creating more one-on-ones in the run game. But then once they do go pass, we’ve got to convert.”
The Titans showed LaFleur what a commitment to the run game – regardless the results – can do for an offense. Even when Henry was unable to break off long runs, the constant barrage was key to the Titans offense. They were constantly on schedule in down and distance, third-and-shorting the Packers defense to death.
The Packers allowed the Titans to convert seven of their first 10 third downs, keeping them on the field for all but three plays in the second quarter.
“I don’t think we got off the field on third downs when we needed to today,” Amos said. “I don’t know the numbers, but that’s how it feels like right now. They had too many long drives that just kept going, kept going. It wasn’t really the last play of the drive that hurt us. It was letting the drive get to that point.”
How the Packers let their season arrive at this point left them in shock afterward. It was a silent locker room, full of blank stares. The answers have become fewer as the questions mount, an inability to find and fix the problems that have led to six losses in their past seven games.
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They aren’t eliminated from playoff contention officially, but that doesn’t feel far off. The Packers are six losses behind the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North. They aren’t remotely the same team that won 13 games the past three seasons, including a 40-14 drubbing of these Titans at Lambeau Field late in 2020.
The most troubling part might be that even when their plan works, they fail. The Packers accomplished what they wanted to on the field Thursday night, playing with toughness and physicality against the NFL’s most bruising tailback. They lost by 10 points on their home field anyway.
“Last three years,” Amos said, “we’ve been beating up on everybody. Now we’ve got adversity. We’ve got to keep playing. Of course, it’s a shock. When you go into preseason, you think you’re going to go 17-0. The reality is we’re not that right now.”