DENVER — Derrick Henry led the NFL with 1,540 rushing yards in 2019, and there were times when he looked like nothing less than Superman — particularly at the end of the regular season and during the Tennessee Titans' playoff run to the AFC championship game.
The Denver Broncos, though, have been Henry's kryptonite. And former teammate Jurrell Casey just might become his Lex Luthor.
In two games against the Broncos, Henry has averaged 2.5 yards a carry, about half of his 4.8-yard overall average through four NFL seasons. When the teams meet Monday night in Denver in the final game of the opening week of the 2020 NFL season, Henry will line up against Casey, the five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman who will try to clog up the running lanes in Denver after being traded by the Titans during the offseason as part of a salary dump.
Henry was stifled in a 16-0 loss at Denver last October, gaining just 28 yards on 15 carries. That was easily the low point in a season in which the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner at Alabama was largely stellar.
"Really not dwelling on last year," said Henry, who rushed for 446 yards on 83 carries in Tennessee's three playoff games. "We know what type of game it was last year and move on from that. We're preparing for this week, ready to travel to Denver, play against a good team, a good defense, a physical team, a pretty sound team and just compete this week."
The Titans changed quarterbacks during their Mile High trip, benching Marcus Mariota for Ryan Tannehill at halftime against the Broncos. They went 9-4 to close the regular, ended Tom Brady's career in New England, took down top-seeded Baltimore and gave Kansas City a scare in the AFC title game. That run helped Tannehill earn a four-year, $118 million extension in March and Henry a four-year, $50 million deal this summer.
The chance to facilitate those big contracts undoubtedly played a role in Tennessee dealing Casey for a seventh-round pick in one of the bigger shockers of the offseason.
"Jurrell is like a brother to me," Henry said. "He's a disruptive player, I think we all know what type of player he is. You've definitely got to prepare for him, and excited to go against him on Monday night."
Casey has been looking forward to playing his former team, even though he knows corralling the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry could be one of the tougher tasks in the league. Trying to bring him down after he hits another gear in the open field might be even more difficult, though.
"The biggest thing is having all those guys to the ball. That's one. When (Tannehill) hands the ball off to him, every guy's on that pile, every guy's tackling him. If we build a wall up front, it makes the game a lot easier," Casey said. "It's when that dude gets the open lanes and starts hitting downhill and starts making those DBs and second-level guys miss is when you start getting in trouble.
"Our biggest thing is making sure we up front are building that wall, getting off blocks and making sure he's not getting just one or two guys, little guys, trying to make tackles. Us big guys have to make sure we're there."
Denver's defense took a huge hit last week when Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller sustained a major ankle tendon injury that required surgery and could sideline the veteran outside linebacker for the entire season.
"Having a player of his caliber and his leadership not be out there with us is definitely going to be a blow to the team," Casey said. "At the end of the day, this business is about adapting to situations. We've all been forced into having to adapt to something with the whole COVID that's going on.
"It's just another challenge and another hurdle we have to get over and come together as a team For me, it definitely sucks to have someone like that who you expect to be out there and take the pressure off you a little bit to get to the quarterback and help you set the edge, stuff the run up the middle."
The Broncos tried to lure Clay Matthews III to Denver after Miller got hurt, but he turned them down.
The Titans took several months to fill the void left by Casey's departure but recently signed star free agent Jadeveon Clowney.
"He's a game wrecker," Henry said. "He can change the tone of the game by his play. Physically, he's a big guy. He's an impact player, somebody that you're going to have to game plan for. I'm just excited he's on our team now and he can help us win games."
Casey wants to make sure that when this game is over, Henry is wishing Casey was still in a Titans uniform.
He was bitter at first about how the Titans handled his departure, leaving it to his agent to inform him he was being shopped around. Now he has settled into his new surroundings, though, and the buzz is about who will have the advantage in the opener.
"They know me well. I know them well," Casey said. "But the thing is we didn't have a preseason this year. They don't know what I've been working on. I don't know what they've been working on. Let's just say we're going to come into this game and make sure it's a great battle. We're going to get after it. At the end of the day, I'm going to make sure the Broncos are on top."
Titans coach Mike Vrabel, of course, will be working in the other direction.
"I've got nothing but the utmost respect for Jurrell in the time that I spent here with him and the impact he's made on our organization," Vrabel said. "This isn't the first or the last time a player has faced his (former) team the next year. We're familiar with that, and he's familiar with us and our personnel. He'll certainly be someone that we'll have to block and be aware of."