KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The first thing that most NFL defensive coordinators prioritize is stopping the run, even in this modern pass-happy era, because that tends to make the opposing offense one-dimensional and typically leads to overall success.
For the Kansas City Chiefs, stopping the run in their AFC championship game against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday isn't just the first order of business. It's also the second and third, too.
That's because the Titans tend to be one-dimensional before they even step on the field.
Buoyed by the record-setting performances of Derrick Henry, the Titans have plowed right through the Patriots and Ravens in the first two rounds of the playoffs. The bruiser of a running back ran for 182 yards in New England and came up five yards short of the 200-yard mark in Tennessee's 28-12 route of top-seeded Baltimore last weekend.
Meanwhile, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill has yet to throw for 100 yards in a playoff game.
“They'll come in, they're going to try to run the ball 30, 35 times a game. They're going to try to get that boy to over 200 yards rushing," Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark said. “They want to run the ball to the left side of their line, mostly. We know what to expect. We've been working for the last week on it. We're ready.”
But the Patriots and Ravens knew what to expect, too, and they couldn't figure out a way to stop it.
Rarely in the NFL do teams feature their running back these days, but the Titans are in some ways a throwback to the era of Bronko Nagurski or Jim Brown. And that's because at 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, their star running back runs like them, battering his way for four or five yards when nothing is there, and breaking a 70-yard run when seams do open up.
Coincidentally, Henry's incredible late-season run began in Week 10 against the Chiefs, when he rumbled for 188 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Titans' 35-32 victory. Henry went on to average 159.1 yards over his last eight games, leading the Titans to a 7-1 record over that stretch and onto the cusp of a Super Bowl appearance.
“Well, the offensive line does a nice job,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said, "and he’s got good vision, quick feet, and he’s big and strong. He’s a heck of a player. You had one there before that I thought was good, too, with Eddie (George). Nashville has been blessed with some really good running backs.”
The question remains: How do the Chiefs stop him, or at least minimize his impact?
“I just told them that you just have to go out there and try to hit him,” said Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland, who was a teammate of Henry at Alabama. “He's a big guy and if you play defense, you've got to love to hit. This is my type of game. I think I'm used to hitting him a little bit from my years at Alabama with him, but we just got to go out here and get in the way of him and just hit him and wrap him up.”
Ragland said all the normal requirements of dealing with a big running back apply: Hit him low and take out the legs, rally to him when he gets to the edge and tackle him as a group, and above all, prevent him from finding a crease.
It doesn't end on defense, either. Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said this week that the Chiefs are putting an emphasis on a quick start that could put Tennessee in an early hole, forcing the Titans to throw more than they want. The Chiefs also want to control the ball, something they often fail to do because of their quick-strike offense and modest run game.
“It is important for us to make sure that we are maximizing the opportunities that are presented to us offensively because yes, Derrick is a force,” Bieniemy said. “Being a former running back and a former running back coach, it goes without saying, I am a fan of the kid. The kid does a hell of a job. Now this weekend, I am not going to be a fan. It is important for us to take care of business on our side of the ball, us to execute with great attention to details.”
The Chiefs have struggled to stop the run for years, a big reason they overhauled their defense in the offseason. The results were slow to come early in the season as the Chiefs learned defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's system, but they have gotten better down the stretch. No team has eclipsed 125 yards rushing against them since Week 10.
Then again, the Chiefs haven't faced Henry since Week 10, either.
“There are not a lot of guys like that,” Reid said, “but you're facing him this week. So you get yourself right to play. That's the process that you go through right now. The most important thing, on both sides of the ball and on special teams, get in and exhaust yourself on our preparation.”