By Matt Derrick
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Tennessee Titans advanced to the AFC Championship game behind an offense averaging fewer than 100 yards passing and gashing opponents for more than 160 on the ground in two playoff games led by a punishing running back with a blend of power and speed.
The running back’s name was Eddie George and the year 1999. Now 20 years later Derrick Henry is trying to follow in those footsteps.
Maybe that’s why when Chiefs head coach Andy Reid was asked to whom he would compare Henry, he immediately jumped to a Titans running back from another generation.
“The guy played right there, Eddie,” Reid said Wednesday as the Chiefs prepare to take on Henry and the Titans at Arrowhead Stadium Sunday with a Super Bowl bid on the line. “He and Eddie are similar size. This kid might be even bigger than Eddie. Both of them were big, strong backs that could run fast. You look at them and you go, man, they would be good tight ends too.”
The parallels between Henry and George don’t end with their size. Henry is a bit bigger at 6-foot-3, 247 pounds compared to the 6-foot-3, 235-pound George. In taking the Titans to the Super Bowl following the 1999 season, George piled up 1,762 yards from scrimmage in the regular season. Henry tallied 1,746 yards from scrimmage this season.
Once the 1999 Titans reached the postseason, they relied on a steady diet of George along with some help from dual-threat quarterback Steve McNair. The Titans averaged just 83.5 yards passing through their first two playoff games while rushing for 168 yards per game.
The 2019 Titans have run a carbon copy of that strategy. Tennessee averaged 77 yards passing in their first two playoff games while piling up 209 yards per game on the ground, with Henry plowing through the defenses of New England and Baltimore for 377 total rushing yards.
Now it’s up to the Chiefs’ defense to figure out a solution for Henry. Safety Tyrann Mathieu said no matter the situation, he knows Tennessee will build their strategy around their punishing running back.
“Even when they are down, they are still feeding him the ball,” Mathieu said. “It is kind of like playing basketball and your coach tells you, ‘Keep shooting.’ You build that confidence and you know that the team believes in you. I think that is the kind of confidence they are playing with.”
Henry’s punishing running style also fits well with Tennessee’s underrated offensive line, Mathieu said.
“They are mean,” Mathieu said. “They are nasty. They believe in themselves. They play together. Ultimately, they believe in the guy behind them.”
Linebacker Anthony Hitchens laid out the defense’s strategy against Henry in simple terms – hit him often and hit him low.
“You just got to take his legs out,” Hitchens said. “We’ve talked all week about taking out the engine. We need to just chop him down. When you tackle him high, he tends to carry you for five more yards. Hit him low.”
The Chiefs are familiar with Henry and the Titans’ rushing attack. Henry sliced through the Kansas City defense for 188 yards and two scores in Tennessee’s 35-32 win over the Chiefs in Week 10. Henry had nine carries in the first half for 48 yards before dominating in the second half.
“His first halves, they aren’t that great, but second-half football, he takes off,” Mathieu said. “We have to be well-rested and hydrated in order to kind of finish the game, really try to compete against him and slow him down when it matters the most in the fourth quarter – four-minute drives, six-minute drives and seven minutes left.”
Hitchens believes the Chiefs’ defense is much improved since that Week 10 matchups. Kansas City surrendered at least 118 yards rushing in seven of their first 10 games. That’s happened just once in their last seven contests when they have allowed an average of just 94.9 yards.
“We’ve been focusing on our details of our defense,” Hitchens said. “It’s very detailed, so if one guy misses an assignment or a gap, you can get gashed, just like we played them last time. We held them pretty good in three quarters then he busts a 70-yard run on us.”
In the AFC Championship game in 1999, the Jacksonville Jaguars couldn’t stop the Titan’s winning formula. McNair threw for just 112 yards while the Titans ground game led by George rushed for 177 yards. That – combined with six Jaguars turnovers – sent Tennessee to their lone Super Bowl appearance with 33-14 victory.
If the Chiefs want to avoid a similar fate, Mathieu says they have a simple mission regarding Henry
“I think the mentality is somebody is going to have to stop him and somebody is going to have to make a tackle on him if we want to get to Miami,” Mathieu said. “It is one goal, one objective to win the game, but in order to do that, we know we have to slow down No. 22 – no doubt.”
Matt Derrick is the lead beat writer for ChiefsDigest.com and a contributor for Sports Radio 810 WHB. Follow him on Twitter @mattderrick.