The Pittsburgh Steelers are not unfamiliar with facing quality running backs. After all, while the dodged Nick Chubb last week, they still had to contend with a Pro Bowl runner in Kareem Hunt facing the Cleveland Browns last week, and they were able to handle him. Outside of one gaffe allowed to Miles Sanders, the run defense has been as good as anybody in the league so far this year.
Next up, however, is Derrick Henry’s turn to say something about that. Both the reigning rushing champion and the league’s current leading rusher, Henry has rushed for more than 2000 yards over the span of his past 16 games, including postseason play, and is coming off of a 200-yard game, scoring twice in each of the past three contests.
How do you gameplan to stop a running back who is tall, weighs 250 pounds, and still has 2.5 speed? Mike Tomlin aptly compared him to Bud Dupree earlier this week as the kind of physical challenge that he poses in bringing him down.
And this was the question posed to Minkah Fitzpatrick in speaking to the media on Thursday. Some of his defensive teammates earlier in the day videobombed his interview, and they said that the key was to stop him before he gets to the secondary. The free safety agreed.
“That’s the key, stopping him before he gets into the secondary”, he said. “He’s a big guy. It’s harder for people to gang tackle him to the ground. We don’t want him to get into the open field, so we’ve just got to keep him contained, from north and south, east and west, getting multiple people on him. That’s what you’ve got to do to stop a guy like him”.
Henry’s combination of size and speed is rare. Running backs that big rarely have the kind of breakaway speed that he has consistently shown over his career. The only other running backs who have posted similar breakaway numbers are Barry Sanders and Adrian Peterson.
Now, that doesn’t mean that he can’t be limited. Back in week two, he did rush for 84 yards, but it took him 25 carries to get there, averaging under 3.4 yards per carry, by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He was held to just 57 yards on 19 carries the week before last—but of course he also got into the end zone twice.
It is worth noting that the majority of the Titans’ opponents so far rank in the bottom half of rushing defense this season. Of course, facing Henry has been a part of their landing in that status, but the Steelers are simply in a different class.
Or they have been so far, and that’s largely because they have kept running backs out of the secondary. Outside of the Sanders 74-yard run, the Steelers haven’t allowed a single explosive carry, and only eight of 10 or more yards. Of their 119 total run tackles, only 28 have been from the secondary, and 10 have come from Mike Hilton, nine of which have come within five yards of the line of scrimmage.