Derrick Henry is prone to slow starts, but the Saints can’t let him get up to speed

The New Orleans Saints have a big challenge waiting for them in Sept. 10’s regular season kickoff game: Derrick Henry. A two-time NFL rushing leader, Henry has never played the Saints before — and they’ve never suited up against him.

And Henry is going to be a massive test for a Saints run defense that fell off hard last season, leading to a complete overhaul in the spring. New Orleans signed veteran free agents like Khalen Saunders and Nathan Shepherd while drafting Bryan Bresee in the first round specifically for this kind of matchup.

One point in New Orleans’ favor? The Titans are expected to field one of the league’s weakest offensive lines, which has been eroded by injuries in recent years. They’ve been busy on the waiver wire looking for improved depth, but Tennessee is still going to be installing an entirely new starting lineup.

Here’s another reason for confidence: Henry is notorious for slow starts. He’s run for more than 100 yards in just a single Week 1 game during his seven-year career, averaging 3.6 yards per carry in those season openers (compared to his career average of 4.8). He’s also scored just two touchdowns in seven Week 1 matchups, with both of them coming against the Cleveland Browns back in 2019. He’s at his best later in the season when the temperature drops and nobody wants to be out there in the first place, least of all charged with bringing him down.

Let’s not get it twisted: it won’t take many mistakes for the 6-foot-3, 247-pound running back to break into the open field and bulldoze his way through the second and third levels of defense. If the Saints’ big men up front don’t win at the line of scrimmage, Henry will make them pay. He ranks second in the NFL in runs of 15-plus yards (with 93 of them) since he entered the league in 2016, trailing only Nick Chubb (94). No player has more touchdown runs of 15 or more yards than Henry (19).

Here are his career stat lines from Week 1 games:

  • 2016 vs. Vikings: 5 carries for 3 rushing yards, 2 receptions for 41 receiving yards

  • 2017 vs. Raiders: 6 carries for 25 rushing yards

  • 2018 vs. Dolphins: 10 carries for 26 rushing yards, 1 reception for 5 receiving yards

  • 2019 vs. Browns: 19 carries for 84 rushing yards and a touchdown run, 1 reception for 75 receiving yards and a touchdown catch

  • 2020 vs. Broncos: 31 carries for 116 rushing yards, 3 receptions for 15 receiving yards

  • 2021 vs. Cardinals: 17 carries for 58 rushing yards, 3 receptions for 19 receiving yards

  • 2022 vs. Giants: 21 carries for 82 rushing yards

The Titans are going to lean hard on their run game without a reliable quarterback under center or blockers who can keep him clean. That means a heavy dose of Henry and rookie standout Tyjae Spears is on the way for New Orleans. We’ll find out soon whether the Saints are up to the task of slowing them down.

It’s been a while since Henry last put on his cleats at the Caesars Superdome, but his feats were legendary in college: he ran for 100 yards on just eight carries (also picking up 61 yards on a reception) with Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. A year later, he returned to the venue and picked up 95 rushing yards with 54 receiving yards. Not bad for T.J. Yeldon’s backup.

Story originally appeared on Saints Wire