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Patriots’ run defense prepares for its toughest test yet: Derrick Henry is the ‘best back we’ve seen this year’

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Related: 2020 NFL playoff schedule: Patriots slated to host Titans on wildcard weekend

New England Patriots v Tennessee Titans Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

Despite the final game of the regular season, the New England Patriots defense looked good throughout the year and allowed the team to keep playing competitive football even when the offense struggled to find a groove. On Saturday, a similar performance will be needed if the Patriots want to advance past the Tennessee Titans and into the divisional playoff round — especially when it comes to slowing down the running game.

After all, the Titans feature arguably the best back in the NFL this year: Derrick Henry. Despite playing in only 15 games this year, the fourth-year man led the league in both carries and rushing yardage gained during the regular season and finished the regular season with an impressive 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns on 303 attempts — making him the only back in the league to average more than 100 rushing yards per game this season.

“He’s tough. He really does everything well as a runner,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick about the former second-round pick during a media conference call earlier this week. “He’s got good vision. For his size, he sees things well. He has good quickness, he can get into space quickly and make the right cuts. He’s elusive in the open field, but he’s also very strong and powerful, and he can run through tackles.”

“He has the speed to make long runs. He’s got a good stiff arm. He’s got good lower-body strength. He’s a very hard man to tackle, but he’s got excellent quickness, vision and speed for his size. So, he’s not just a one-dimensional runner at all,” added Belichick about the Titans’ most productive offensive weapon. “He’s the best back we’ve seen this year. He’s having a great year and he’s a tough player to handle.”

Stopping Tennessee starts with stopping Henry, and the Patriots know it. However, the task at hand will be a difficult one despite the team’s run defense performing well recently after an inconsistent stretch earlier during the year. After all, Henry has played at a very high level all year long and behind an offensive line that has cleared the path for an average of 5.0 yards per carry — no matter if Henry, ex-Patriot man Dion Lewis or quarterback Ryan Tannehill advanced the ball.

“They have a lot of good players up front, veteran players from [Taylor] Lewan to [Ben] Jones in the middle, to [Rodger] Saffold to obviously they have [Nate] Davis in there, who’s a rookie,” said Patriots defensive line coach Bret Bielema about Tennessee’s O-line. “There’s just a lot of continuity there with that group that I think does a lot of things that allow Henry to get started, and when he gets going, he’s a tough man to tackle.”

So what will the Patriots have to do in order to slow Henry and the Titans’ running game down? It all starts with strong fundamental football, something Bielema pointed out during his own conference call earlier this week: New England’s defenders need to be able to take on the opposing blocks and be able to get off them in order to make plays against the ball carriers, and finish tackles whenever the opportunities to make stops arrive.

“You know, as a defensive lineman, linebacker, outside linebacker, nobody’s going to just let you run free to the ball,” Bielema said. “So, you have to take on the block, you have to defend it and get off it. And after you get to do all of that, you get to tackle one of the best in the NFL. It’s a tough task, but I think the fundamental is the pad level, and being very smart about how you disengage a blocker and being able to use the right leverage to make sure the ball is funneled in the right direction to our defense.”

“Kind of makes it all go together, but it’s going to basically get up into how well we can tackle this guy — obviously, a very strong, very talented [player],” the veteran assistant coach continued. “He has great speed with great power, and that in conjunction with all of the others they have on the perimeter with the receivers and the way that [Ryan] Tannehill’s been able to deliver the ball to them, that makes it a very difficult challenge for a defense.”

Over the last three years, the Patriots have played Henry twice and the results were different both times. During the divisional playoffs after the 2017 season, New England held him to only 28 yards on 12 carries as well as three receptions for 21. The following season, however, Henry was able to gain 5.3 yards per attempt against the Patriots and find the end zone twice on 11 carries that went for a combined 58 yards.

If the Patriots can duplicate their performance from 2017, their chances of beating the Titans should look good. If not, however, the team could be in for a long day — and in turn see its season come to an end after only one postseason contest.