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As Bears’ run defense slides from great to average, here comes Derrick Henry

It’s a massive (literally) challenge as they try to contain the best running back in the NFL.

Last season, Derrick Henry became the first player to run for more than 1,500 yards since 2016.
Last season, Derrick Henry became the first player to run for more than 1,500 yards since 2016.
Jay LaPrete/AP

There’s something almost unbelievable about Titans running back Derrick Henry, and the Bears have spent all week marveling at his film.

At 6-3, 238 pounds, he’s almost the size of Bears linebacker Khalil Mack, and he has speed. He led the NFL in rushing last season and is on his way toward doing it again.

“I haven’t been able to go against nobody like that . . . guys that look like they should be playing D-end or something,” safety Tashaun Gipson said. “He’s huge, but the scary thing about it is that he’s probably one of the fastest guys on the field, as well. I haven’t seen nothing like him.”

The Bears had better get their heads around this threat because there’s no doubt the Titans will try to beat them with Henry on Sunday. As solid as the defense is, it has been unreliable against the run. That’s a major concern against a player who averages 4.8 yards per carry, including 2.8 after contact.

The Bears are 16th in rushing yards allowed per game — down from ninth last season and first in 2018 — and have held an opponent under 100 yards just once.

So what exactly would they consider a good day against the NFL’s best running back?

“That’s a great question,” defensive coordin-ator Chuck Pagano said. “We’ve got some goals set. I’m not gonna share those. There’s numbers out there that say if you hold him to this [amount], the win percentage for the defense goes way up.”

There’s nothing quite like a coach guarding information like it’s a state secret when it’s readily available on the internet. Here’s the deal on Henry the last three seasons:

• When he has rushed for fewer than four yards per carry, the Titans have gone 7-8. Other-wise, they’re 16-7.

• When he has hit 100 yards, they’re 11-1. When he has been under 80, that flips to 8-11.

• When quarterback Ryan Tannehill (91.1 career passer rating) has passed 30-plus times, the Titans are 2-5, including the playoffs.

It’s not a secret. And it’s not complicated. The Titans are built around Henry’s bruising running style. When he’s rolling, they’re very good. When he grinds to a halt, they’re nothing special. They have run 46.9% of the time, compared to the Bears at 34.7%, and Henry gets nearly three-quarters of those carries.

“If you can get him under control, then that offense is a different offense,” Gipson said. “That’s not saying anything about Ryan Tannehill. I think he’s doing a great job in that system. But it’s just a testament to the type of player that Derrick Henry is.”

Tannehill is exactly the type of quarterback the Bears have manhandled the last few seasons, but a big reason they’ve been able to do that is their run defense. When average QBs have to beat the Bears without any help from the running game, they usually can’t.

That’s what Pagano likely is contemplating as he schemes for Henry. The Bears might need to load up at the line and hope their defensive backs can handle their matchups with limited help from a safety. Up front, they might have more run stoppers than pass rushers.

“It’s gonna be all hands on deck,” Pagano said. “If you don’t set an edge and [Henry] gets the sideline, we’ve seen that. If you aren’t great inside and your gap integrity isn’t great, then he’s gonna split the defense and make a guy miss in the open field, and then he can take it to the house. We’ve all seen those plays.”

If they see more of them Sunday, there’s no chance they’ll win.