GREEN BAY – The Packers have a historical trend they need to revert back to its prior outcomes.
The NFL's top running back, Tennessee's Derrick Henry, is coming to Lambeau Field on Sunday night while on his way, most likely, to the 2020 rushing title, defending his 2019 crown.
With two games to go, Henry leads Minnesota's Dalvin Cook by 195 yards (1,679 to 1,484), so it's hard to see him not being the rushing champ once again, no matter how the Packers fare defending him.
It's the first time in four years the NFL's top rusher has visited Green Bay in the year he won the rushing title (again, assuming Henry claims it this year). The last time it was Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott in 2016.
This will be the 11th time since 2000 the rushing champ comes to Lambeau in the year he wins the crown (three times it's been Minnesota's Adrian Peterson; see full chart below), but the troubling trend is in those most recent visits.
Three of the last four times, including Elliott's trip here four years ago, the Packers have lost the game. Fortunately, the one time Green Bay triumphed in that span was the most important contest, the 2014 NFC Divisional playoff vs. the Cowboys and DeMarco Murray.
(Full disclosure: In the 2013 game vs. the Eagles and LeSean McCoy, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers was injured.)
Strangely, though, in the previous six visits from the soon-to-be-crowned rushing champ dating back to 2000, the Packers won them all. (More disclosure: In the '05 game vs. the Seahawks and Shawn Alexander, the eventual league MVP played only the first half and Seattle rested key players after halftime to prepare for the playoffs.)
All in all, it's hard to know exactly what to make of the results.
The best performance by a rushing champ against the Packers was Peterson's 210 yards in 2012, but Green Bay won the game. Yet when they held Peterson to 67 yards in 2015, the Vikings won. Go figure.
In any event, the task against Henry is a huge one. He has picked up steam as the season has worn on, rushing for at least 133 yards in four of the last five games. He posted 215 yards just two weeks ago, his second 200-yard outing this season and third dating back to last December.
The key for the Packers this week has been stated different ways, but it all means the same thing.
"Gang tackle," defensive backs coach Jerry Gray said.
"It's the swarming mentality," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "We need multiple hats at the ball."
That's because the 6-3, 247-pound, deceptively fast Henry is so difficult for any defender to bring down, one-on-one, in the open field. The Titans will run stretch plays to the outside as well as what Packers defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery calls "the downhill crunch" in the middle of the field. Henry has run over and through some defensive backs on the perimeter and poster-ized others with his vicious stiff-arm.
"This is what great backs do," said LaFleur, who coached Henry as the Titans' offensive coordinator and play-caller in 2018. "They make people look silly, and he's been doing that for a couple years now.
"If he gets a lot of space, it's tough sledding."
It's a major challenge for the Packers, not only in preparation for the playoffs, but to test their recently improved defense against the run.
Since Chicago's David Montgomery busted a 57-yard run on the Bears' first running play back in Week 12, the Packers have allowed just 268 rushing yards on 67 carries over four games, not including QB runs/scrambles.
That's an average of exactly 4.0 yards per carry by backs and receivers in that time, a respectable figure.
"I still leave those games thinking we left more out there," Montgomery said of the run defense. "We've just got to keep striving to put a game together where we're putting all four quarters together."
It'll take that to keep Henry in check, however it's defined.
"We understand that in order for us to be great, we've got to be able to stop the run and everybody's just been locking in on that and just trying their best to get the most out of each other," defensive lineman Kenny Clark said.
"This is definitely going to be a huge test for us. We're excited about it."
Year, game Rushing champ (stats vs. GB) Final score
2016, Wk 6 Ezekiel Elliott (28-157, 0 TD) DAL 27, GB 16
2015, Wk 17 Adrian Peterson (19-67, 1 TD) MIN 20, GB 13
2014, Div. DeMarco Murray (25-125, 1 TD) GB 26, DAL 21
2013, Wk 10 LeSean McCoy (25-155, 0 TD) PHI 27, GB 13
2012, Wk 13 Adrian Peterson (21-210, 1 TD) GB 23, MIN 14
2008, Wk 1 Adrian Peterson (19-103, 1 TD) GB 24, MIN 19
2007, Wk 3 LaDainian Tomlinson (22-62, 0 TD) GB 31, SD 24
2005, Wk 17 Shawn Alexander (20-73, 1 TD) GB 23, SEA 17
2002, Wk 9 Ricky Williams (14-47, 0 TD) GB 24, MIA 10
2000, Wk 12 Edgerrin James (17-71, 0 TD) GB 26, IND 24