Packers’ run defense faces major test against Titans, Henry
An inability to stop the run cost Green Bay a Super Bowl berth in January. Playoff-bound again, the Packers are about to find out how much they’ve improved in that area.
Tennessee’s Derrick Henry should give them a pretty good indication.
The NFL rushing leader heads into Lambeau Field on Sunday night having run for 362 yards over his last two games and a career-high 1,679 yards this season. Henry has rushed for at least 100 yards in each of his last nine road games, one off Barry Sanders’ NFL record.
“They know each and every week everybody’s going to come to try to stop the run,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said of the Titans, “and nobody can do it.”
Green Bay (11-3) already has clinched the NFC North title and can guarantee itself the NFC’s No. 1 seed if it beats the Titans and the Los Angeles Rams beat or tie Seattle (10-4).
Tennessee (10-4) can clinch a second straight AFC playoff berth with a victory at Green Bay. Tennessee also can earn a spot in the postseason with a loss by either Baltimore or Miami. The Titans can clinch their first AFC South title since 2008 if Indianapolis loses to Pittsburgh earlier Sunday and they beat Green Bay.
“They’re fighting for something,” Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark said. “We’re fighting for something. I just know it’s going to be a playoff atmosphere.”
The matchup also gives each team a chance to address perceived weaknesses.
Green Bay has improved its run defense since giving up 285 yards rushing in an NFC championship game loss to the San Francisco 49ers last season. But in the Packers’ three losses, they gave up 113 yards rushing to Tampa Bay’s Ronald Jones, 163 to Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, and 90 to Indianapolis’ Jonathan Taylor.
Tennessee is on the verge of a playoff berth despite ranking 27th in the league in total defense and 29th in pass defense. That defense must deal with a high-powered Green Bay offense featuring MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers plus Pro Bowl selections Davante Adams and Aaron Jones.
Rodgers has thrown 40 touchdown passes with only four interceptions. Adams has 14 touchdown catches to rank second in the league. Jones has rushed for at least 130 yards in two of his last three games.
“I think we’re just going to have to do our best job to challenge these guys, try to be more physical than their entire offense, and forcing turnovers,” Titans safety Kevin Byard said. “I think that’s probably going to be the biggest thing in this game. (We) obviously might not have a lot of opportunities to intercept the ball but trying to punch the ball out, hammer it out, raking it out, those things.
“They’re 10-0 when they don’t turn the ball over, and they’re 1-3 when they turn the ball over. I think that’s going to be the biggest stat in the game.”
RACKING UP THE POINTS
Tennessee and Green Bay are tightly bunched with the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs among the NFL scoring leaders.
The Titans lead with 436 points. Kansas City is next with 435. Green Bay has 434.
This game gives Henry a chance to boost his MVP credentials as he will be on the same field with Rodgers, considered one of the favorites for the award along with Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Bills QB Josh Allen.
Rodgers, Mahomes and Allen have earned most of the MVP buzz lately, but Henry is working his way into the conversation. The last non-quarterback to win the award was Adrian Peterson in 2012.
Rodgers previously was voted MVP in 2011 and 2014.
LaFleur was the offensive coordinator on Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel’s Titans staff in 2018 before the Packers hired him.
This will mark the first time Vrabel has faced off with a head coach who previously worked for him as an assistant.
PROTECTING THE FOOTBALL
The Titans and Packers have each committed a league-low nine turnovers. The Packers haven’t committed a turnover in their last four games.
Although Tennessee’s defense has struggled, the Titans have 21 takeaways. Their plus-12 turnover margin is tied with Indianapolis for the NFL lead.
MISSISSIPPI STATE MATCHUP
This game features two promising linemen and former Mississippi State teammates: Packers guard/center Elgton Jenkins and Titans defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons.
Jenkins has earned a Pro Bowl invitation in his second season and could spend some time lining up against Simmons, a 2019 first-round draft pick.
“Practices at Mississippi State, we went back and forth – me playing center, him playing the nose guard – so every day I’d see him,” Jenkins said. “We used to always give each other a battle. I’m glad and happy that I’ll be able to play him this Sunday in a live game.”
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed to this report.
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