ASHBURN, Va. — The comparison isn’t the one Washington Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan wanted to hear, but his teammates wanted to speak the truth. Several Redskins were in the weight room discussing Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry. Some of Henry’s former Alabama teammates wanted a comparison. So they used Kerrigan.
“It’s like you,” they told him, “but maybe even a little bigger, running the ball.”
Kerrigan happens to be 6-foot-4 and 259 pounds. Henry isn’t quite that big, but at 6-foot-3 and 247, he’s a rather big load. For the Redskins to continue their quest for the playoffs, they must slow Henry, something that has been hard to do lately. Of Henry’s 882 rushing yards this season, 408 have come the past two weeks. He has carried the ball a combined 50 times; he had 138 carries the first 12 games.
“He’s a monster,” Kerrigan said. “He’s playing at a high level. He’s a big guy who can break off the long runs. He’ll be a tough matchup. It’ll be a tough week for sure.”
Some Redskins know that better than others, especially rookie linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, who played with Henry for two years at Alabama. Four other Redskins defenders played with him in college as well, including starting linemen Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
“He’s a guy you want to gang-tackle because he’s so big,” Hamilton said. “We met in the hole a few times [in practice]. He’s a big guy. … He’s a taller guy than I am, so in football, it’s all about leverage, so the low guy’s gonna win.”
Henry’s rushing numbers weren’t impressive the first 13 weeks, with 474 yards and a 3.7-yard average per carry.
In the first seven games, the Redskins’ defense allowed 3.84 yards per carry and 80.1 yards per game. In the next seven games, they allowed 5.2 yards per carry and 153 yards per game. They actually had a better showing against Jacksonville, though the numbers aren’t reflective. The Jaguars rushed for 172 yards, but 68 were off quarterback scrambles, and another 20 came on a jet sweep to a receiver.
Several Redskins players said a Friday meeting in which every defensive group participated was a help. Often on Fridays, the line and linebackers will watch film together to discuss run fits. This time, the secondary was there as well. They went over two of the Jaguars’ series from a previous game to discuss how they would handle such plays. Linebacker Mason Foster and safety D.J. Swearinger led the meeting.
A week earlier, the New York Giants rushed for 227 yards, finding huge cutback lanes thanks in part to botched assignments by Washington. The Redskins hit wrong gaps, missed tackles and failed to get off blocks.
“We really sat down and ironed everything out. ‘OK, if I get this look, I’ll go inside and try to beat him, and I’ve got your back,'” Foster said. “That’s what we’ve been doing all year, but now we have to be locked in.”
“It helps,” Kerrigan said, “because it gives guys a sense of, ‘All right, I know what we’re going to do on this goal line play.’ If we get this certain look in third down, and they line up in ‘trips speed,’ how are they gonna play the coverage in the back end? It helps in that end.”
Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette gained 25 yards on one run, but his other 10 netted 21 yards as the Redskins did a better job of limiting yards after contact. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Redskins allowed 1.05 yards per carry after first contact — their second-lowest average of the season.
They secured gaps better than in previous weeks. The defensive backs were more consistent as well. On one play, cornerback Fabian Moreau closed a gap with an aggressive fill. Other times, it was the defensive line’s dominance that mattered most. The Redskins’ run defense works best when the line is able to shed blocks. They often attract double-teams, which should make life easier for the back seven. But they have been inconsistent against the run.
They need a strong showing Saturday. The tricky part is that quarterback Marcus Mariota runs, too, and the Titans like to run their other former Heisman Trophy winner on bootleg plays. That often prevents linebackers from being aggressive in filling gaps. That could lead to problems. But they first must stop Henry, who won college football’s top award three years ago.
“He’s extremely talented,” Foster said. “You get a big guy like that running hard in the middle of December, that’s the type of football it’s going to be: physical. Our team is built for that. … We’re ready for it.”