JACKSONVILLE – Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash clearly stated the obvious.
"We have to win the physical battle," he said.
If there's a theme for the Jaguars' defense against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn., Sunday, 1 p.m., that's it:
Derrick Henry must be stopped, but how to do that?
"Hit him fast, hit him early – basically just hit him as hard as you can before he takes off running," Jaguars defensive end Josh Allen said Thursday. "It's easier said than done, for sure, but we have a good game plan. We're excited for this matchup."
The Jaguars have had varied success against Tennessee in recent seasons. They have had little-to-no-success in Nashville for a long time. To change the latter, Wash and defensive players said they must stop Henry – a physical running back who led the NFL in rushing in 2019 with 1,540 yards and who has had remarkable success against the Jaguars at Nissan Stadium the last two seasons.
"Obviously, we know he was the rushing champ last year," Jaguars safety Josh Jones said Thursday. "We know the majority of their offense runs through him. To be able to stop him and hold him to less than what's used to would be big for our defense."
Henry, who played locally at Yulee High School just outside Jacksonville, has rushed for 714 yards and nine touchdowns in eight career games against the Jaguars.
Much of that success has come in two games. In five of his meetings with the Jaguars, he has rushed for 60 yards or fewer – including a Week 3 Jaguars victory last season when Jacksonville held him to 44 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.
He has rushed for 397 yards and six touchdowns in the teams' last two meetings in Nashville – 238 yards and four touchdowns on 17 carries in a 30-9 Titans victory in 2018 and 159 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries in a 42-20 Titans victory last season.
"The first game [last season] I thought played pretty well, and in the first half of the second game we played pretty well," Wash said. "Then the wheels kind of fell off. That's a little credit to Tennessee. They're a big physical team and they wear you down. I think we have the numbers [of players on the interior of the defense] that we need to go in there and rotate and stay fresh for 60 minutes."
The Jaguars last season had issues against the run beyond Henry and the Titans, allowing 200 or more yards rushing in five games and finishing 27th in the NFL in run defense. They moved to improve the area in the offseason, drafting nose tackle DaVon Hamilton in the third round and signing multiple free agents to add size and bodies to the interior line.
Interior linemen Rodney Gunter (retirement, health reasons) and Al Woods (COVID-19 opt-out) never made it to the regular season, with the team signing free agent defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan during training camp.
The Jaguars held the Indianapolis Colts to 88 rushing yards in the regular-season opener.
"I thought we did some things well and I thought we did some things not so well," Head Coach Doug Marrone said of the Week 1 run defense. "I thought we tackled well as the game went along. I thought we were aggressive. I thought our guys up front were battling…. Now there's a lot of things to clean up, a lot of things technically, like just technique stuff and footwork and hand placement, leverage. But some of those guys—there were some good plays out there by those guys."
While the Colts have one of the NFL's better offensive lines, the Titans are expected to be an equal test – and yes, the Jaguars on Sunday must win what Wash said absolutely will be a physical battle.
"[Titans Head Coach Mike] Vrabel does a great job of developing his team, that they are physically going to pound you for 60 minutes," Wash said. "That has to be the mindset we have – that we have to come back and counter that and battle them for 60 minutes. Once again: 'Let's keep this thing close and let's find a way to win it late.'''