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Running backs take center stage in Packers-Titans clash

Green Bay’s dynamic duo, Tennessee’s singular star will play big roles Thursday night

Packers' running backs Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon & Titans running back Derrick Henry
Packers' running backs Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon & Titans running back Derrick Henry

GREEN BAY – The Packers have rushed for more than 200 yards in two of their last three games.

The Titans' Derrick Henry just had his streak of 100-yard rushing games snapped at five.

Under the Lambeau Field lights on a mid-November Thursday night with temperatures in the 20s, it's a good bet these two ground games will have a lot to say about who emerges victorious.

Green Bay has found some rhythm with the run lately, piling up 208 yards at Buffalo in Week 8 and 207 vs. Dallas this past Sunday, with backs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon accounting for all but 15 of those yards.

"AJ and Aaron are both running their butts off, breaking tackles, running hard, attacking the line of scrimmage," offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich said. "Good block finishing across the board. I think we're doing a good job just keeping defenses off-balance, which is half the battle right there."

In between, though, Detroit loaded up to stop the run and held the Packers to just 106 yards on the ground – and only 66 if you take away quarterback Aaron Rodgers' scrambles.

So getting production, and staying committed, is no sure thing, especially against a Tennessee rushing defense that ranks second in the league. The Titans are allowing just 85 yards per game, a number that drops to 59 yards per game since Week 1, when the Giants rolled up 238. Tennessee hasn't allowed even 100 rushing yards in a game since then.

The Titans' 31st-ranked pass defense (272 ypg) is certainly the more enticing element to attack, but by the same token, the Bills were ranked first in the league against the run and that didn't stop the Packers from finding success.

Which way this goes will be intriguing, because the Titans have a dynamic pass rush (29 sacks, five players with three or more), and the best way to keep it at bay is to be able to run effectively. That's how Green Bay kept Rodgers upright against an even better Dallas pass rush, and the Packers continued to run the ball despite being down 14 points in the fourth quarter.

Oh, and one other thing worth pointing out: the best game of Dillon's young career came against the Titans, at night, in the cold … a 124-yard, two-TD performance in December of 2020.

That was the first game Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry watched late last week when he started preparing in advance for the matchup with Henry and the Titans.

The Packers managed to limit Henry to "just" 98 yards on 23 carries that night, one of only two times over the final eight games of that regular season Henry didn't hit at least 100 (and he reached 200 twice in that span).

As mentioned, this year Henry was on a streak of five straight 100-yard games (with one 200-yarder) until last week, when the Broncos held him to 53 yards on 19 attempts.

If there's anything the Packers can glean from that, they will, but they also have their own issues to clean up on a unit that hasn't defended the run very well outside of the Week 3 win at Tampa Bay.

Green Bay is ranked 26th in the league against the run, allowing an average of 140 yards per game. Last week against Dallas, the problem was the Cowboys' draw plays, which gashed the Packers for 10-plus yards time after time.

Those "infuriated" Barry, because he felt his two young inside linebackers, rookie Quay Walker and second-year pro Isaiah McDuffie, got out of sync with their run fits relative to the safeties filling in behind them. Whether the Packers can get that corrected on a short week, or possibly get veteran De'Vondre Campbell back from a knee injury, remains to be seen.

Head Coach Matt LaFleur referred to the 6-3, 247-pound Henry, whom he coached as Tennessee's offensive coordinator in 2018, as a "creature," a "freak of nature" and a "freight train," while Dillon himself called Henry a "menace," and Barry said, "He literally looks like Preston Smith when he breaks the huddle."

However he's characterized, both coaches have emphasized the term "tackling plan" as a necessity against Henry, whose ability to overpower and stiff-arm defenders fills highlight reels. Against Henry, a guy getting off his block won't stop him.

"It's not going to take one, two. It's going to take five, it's going to take six," Barry said. "It's going to take gang tackles. It's going to take swarming. It's going to take effort."

Do the Packers have that in them on a short week after playing 79 defensive snaps against the Cowboys? For the record, the Titans played 73 defensive snaps in their win over the Broncos, so the stamina of both defenses will be tested by these accomplished running backs.

The 1-2 punch against the one-man gang. The bell rings Thursday night.

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