As Henry and Taylor are set to face off, Titans and Colts look to get star RBs on track

Whiteboard Wednesday Wk.4 Titans vs. Colts. TE Jelani Woods has become a (2:32)

Whiteboard Wednesday Wk.4 Titans vs. Colts. TE Jelani Woods has become a red zone weapon. Let's take a look at one of the things Tennessee can try to do to neutralize him. Video by Turron Davenport (2:32)

It’s been three years since a running back not named Jonathan Taylor or Derrick Henry won the NFL’s rushing title. Through three games, neither is the NFL’s leading rusher.

But the two top-flight backs will be front and center Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium (1 p.m. ET, Fox) when Henry and the Tennessee Titans (1-2) hit the road to face Taylor's Indianapolis Colts (1-1-1) in a game where both superstars will be looking to kick start their seasons, albeit in different ways.

Taylor's 1,811 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns last season were the most in the league. This season, Taylor has 286 rushing yards through three games, fourth among league leaders.

But there’s context within the numbers that suggest Taylor, now in his third season, is not enjoying the same kind of success as 2021. After a big performance in Week 1 against the Houston Texans (161 yards), Taylor has been limited by the Jacksonville Jaguars and Kansas City Chiefs. Against the Chiefs, Taylor’s paltry (by his standards) 3.38 yards per carry were his lowest since the 2021 season opener. And, after averaging just more than one touchdown per game last season, Taylor has just one touchdown.

Can the Colts, who have been experiencing surprising offensive line struggles, get Taylor going for this critical AFC South matchup?

“Jonathan is a great back, but it’s tough when you have a free hitter coming,” Colts All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson said. “And that falls on us and also the tight ends when they’re run blocking. But mostly it’s on the line. We need to step it up. We know that.”

In its past two games, Indianapolis’ offensive line ranks 28th in ESPN’s run block win rate. Colts coach Frank Reich added that Taylor’s now well-established reputation brings greater attention from opponents.

“Every defense that lines up against our offense, all eyes are on Jonathan Taylor,” Reich said. “It’s just going to bring a different level of focus.”

As for Henry, his 192 rushing yards so far have a lot to do with being consistently hit at or behind the line of scrimmage.

This year's offensive line for the Titans is different from previous seasons. First-year starter Aaron Brewer replaced 2021 Pro Bowl selection Rodger Saffold at left guard. Rookie Nicholas Petit-Frere is now the starting right tackle.

Tennessee is also without left tackle Taylor Lewan after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 2 against the Buffalo Bills.

Henry has been hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 27 rushes this season (11 times in both Weeks 1 and 3). That’s 50% of his carries this season. He’s averaging 6.6 yards per rush when he’s not hit at or behind the line of scrimmage this season.

"He wants to get downhill," Colts linebacker Zaire Franklin said of Henry. "He’s a one-cut runner who wants to put his foot in the ground, so the best thing you can do is make him go east and west."

Tennessee running backs coach Tony Dews said it’s not all on the offensive line.

“The back helps set the blocks for the offensive linemen,” Dews said of how his running backs set up the run game. “We have to make sure we’re doing everything right, we’re in the right place. That will help the offensive linemen.

"[The backs] just have to be where we're supposed to be."

Henry has made his mark over the years by gaining yards after contact.

Last week's game was a good sign that Henry is nearing a breakout performance. Of his 85 rushing yards, 65 of them came after contact against the Las Vegas Raiders. Henry totaled 71 yards after contact over the first two games.

"He was running hard. I think that's the Derrick that we've all come to know and love," Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "The guy who's breaking tackles, running through tackles, getting those tough yards. It's good to see Derrick back."

Henry has traditionally done well against Indianapolis. In fact, four of his past six games against the Colts have resulted in over 100 rushing yards, but he is expecting a major challenge Sunday.

“They always play hard,” Henry said of the Colts’ defense. “They’re fast, physical, disruptive. They’re going to fly to the ball no matter where it’s at, so you got to play full tilt.”

Indianapolis has allowed only 231 rushing yards through three games, the third fewest in the league. The Colts are allowing a league-best 2.6 yards per carry.

Henry's 1,540 yards on the ground led all rushers in 2019. But he was only averaging 70 yards per game in the first three games that year. It should be noted that Henry has already eclipsed 70 yards twice this year.

Henry followed up his 2019 season with a league-leading 2,025 yards in 2020. He was on pace to lead the NFL again in 2021 before suffering a Jones fracture in his right foot (against the Colts no less) that ended his regular season eight games in. He was the NFL’s rushing leader with 937 yards at the time and still finished 10th.

Both Henry and Taylor are big, explosive backs. Henry's 10 touchdown runs of 30 yards or more are the most in the NFL over the last five seasons. They've played a big role in balancing out some of the carries for a loss.

“We were close on a couple last week,” Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing said. “It’s just a matter of finishing those blocks -- that last shove, last bit of effort -- and we'll spring him into the secondary.”

A promising indicator for Taylor on Sunday would be a return to his trademark explosive runs. He leads the NFL with 93 such runs (10 yards or longer) since entering the league. Last season alone, he had 50, including runs of 67, 78 and 83 yards. Taylor has just three combined explosive runs in the past two games.

“Those are always fun,” Taylor said of the explosive plays. “But this is the NFL. Those are far and few. When you do get them, you have to make them count.”

Taylor was hit early and often by defenders against Kansas City, making it difficult to break away. His 1.05 yards before contact was the fourth-lowest mark of his career (35 games). There also have been some missed opportunities for Taylor because of second- and third-level blocks that weren’t executed by tight ends and receivers, the Colts say.

“I think we are definitely a big part of that, the explosive runs,” rookie receiver Alec Pierce said. “Our block downfield will turn those 10-yard runs into 60-yard touchdowns, or it could turn a shorter run into a 15-yard gain.”

Taylor has never had a 100-yard rushing game in his three previous meetings with Tennessee. But Tennessee comes into the matchup ranked last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per carry (5.8). New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley had a 68-yard run against the Titans in Week 1 -- the second-longest run in the NFL this season.

Ultimately, the two teams rely on their running backs to lead them, and this AFC South clash could come down to whoever has a better day running the ball.