INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Derrick Henry is the NFL’s two-time defending rushing champ.
Jonathan Taylor hopes to become the top challenger for the title belt.
On Sunday, the league’s top two rushers will showcase their styles in Round 2 of a classic matchup between AFC South contenders Tennessee and Indianapolis.
“He’s a beast. You see it, he’s really raising the level, the standard for running backs,” Taylor said. “You need to be a dominant presence on the ground so all of us backs look at him (Henry) and try to figure out how can I become a dominant presence on the ground each and every single week?”
Taylor has found some of those answers as he heads into Week 8 ranked second in the league behind Henry. And the Colts need Taylor to produce again in Sunday’s high-stakes matchup.
Indy has won three of four since losing to the Titans in late September and can move within one game of the division lead with a win. Tennessee has won five of six and would take command of the title chase by sweeping the Colts.
Naturally, the two coaches with run-first philosophies will ask their workhorse backs to do more heavy lifting.
The powerful 6-foot-3, 247-pound Heisman Trophy-winning Henry is more than capable of succeeding.
He’s 131 yards away from a fourth straight 1,000-yard season and with 10 games left, Henry is on pace to become the league’s first back-to-back 2,000-yard runner.
Indy’s defense, meanwhile, has allowed the second-fewest 100-yard rushers since 2018, five, with Henry doing it four times. So the defensive challenge is clear.
“You know what you’re going to get with Derrick Henry,” 2020 All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. “You know it’s going to be a fistfight for all 60 minutes. You have to be mentally and physically prepared for it.”
Taylor is a relative newcomer to this rivalry.
He had seven carries for 12 yards in last year’s first contest, sat out the rematch after going on the reserve/COVID-19 list and had 10 carries for 64 yards behind a banged-up offensive line last month.
Since then, the second-year back has run 63 times for 408 yards, with three 100-yard games and scored six touchdowns. He’s producing 5.5 yards per carry and now, he’ll take 579 yards, into this game.
Yes, Henry has noticed the competition is getting tighter between himself and his friend — even if he still holds the upper hand.
“He’s been running the ball very physical,” Henry said. “He’s got speed, gets north and south, runs hard and (Nyheim) Hines. They’re definitely a great tandem and they’ve been playing good football.”
Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked a league-high 20 times through this season’s first five games.
But the Titans have only allowed one sack in the past two weeks and have scored on 11 of 13 drives with the exceptions coming on kneel-downs at the end of each half against Buffalo. Tannehill has a simple explanation.
“We are playing better football,” Tannehill said. “As the season goes on, you look at lessons learned. Being efficient, getting the ball out, not being in long-yardage situations and trying to help your offensive line out.”
Colts quarterback Carson Wentz is starting to look more like the player from his first two NFL seasons than last season. He’s completed 64.4% of his throws for 1,695 yards with 11 TDs and one interception — most of it despite playing on two sprained ankles.
On Sunday, Wentz can even become the first Colts quarterback to throw multiple TD passes with no interceptions in five consecutive games and this time his mobility won’t be limited against the Titans.
“There were some plays we made in that (first) game from the pocket and plays that I definitely want back,” he said. “There were a handful of times I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m stuck in mud out there.’ Definitely in a much better place.”
The Titans weren’t at full strength in September, either. Receiver A.J. Brown, a Pro Bowler in 2020, left with an injured hamstring after only eight snaps and seven-time Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones was limited to 34 plays with a hamstring injury that kept him out of the next two games.
Brown had his best game of the season last week with eight receptions for 133 yards and one TD after dealing with food poisoning all week. Jones caught two passes for 38 yards against Kansas City.
“They are huge playmakers for us,” Tannehill said. “Hopefully, we can get them both out there and they’ll play big for us. They have made huge plays for us at different times, both of them throughout the season.”
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, also contributed to this report.