After hearing so much talk about Derrick Henry, the Ravens finally silenced him.
Holding Henry to 40 yards on 18 carries, his lowest rushing total of the season, Baltimore's defense stifled the NFL's leading rusher and exorcised some demons during Sunday's 20-13 playoff victory.
Henry was the driving force when the Tennessee Titans upset Baltimore in last year's playoffs, punishing the Ravens with 195 yards on 30 carries. Henry demoralized the Ravens again in Week 11, when he dominated down the stretch and ended the game with a 29-yard touchdown run in overtime and 133 yards on his final stat line.
Facing Henry again was a defining moment for Baltimore's defense and the entire unit rose to the challenge. This will go down as one of the Ravens' best defensive efforts in playoff history, shutting down a running back who became just the eighth player in league history to rush for 2,000 yards this season.
"I got a ton of respect for Derrick Henry, he's the hardest running back to tackle," defensive end Derek Wolfe said. "You've got to bring it every time you tackle him. He'll run you over. For us to accomplish that kind of goal against a back like that? That's a testament to show you what kind of guys we have on this defense, and what kind of guys we have on this team."
The Ravens' front seven won the physical battle up front that left Henry with no room to run. Defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams were out with injuries when Baltimore lost to Tennessee in Week 11, but they were back in the lineup, and their presence was felt.
"He's the king. He's a beast – 2,000 yards," Campbell said. "But today, he wasn't going to run the ball."
Henry didn't hesitate to credit Baltimore's defense after the game.
"They executed their plan," Henry said. "All the credit goes to those guys, you know, of stopping the run. The last two times we had success and they had a plan to make sure we didn't have success, and that's what they did. Credit goes to those guys. They did a great job today for them to be able to win the game."
This was a group effort, which is necessary to stop Henry. Wolfe tied for the team lead with six tackles and manhandled whomever Tennessee tried to block him with. Veteran outside linebacker Pernell McPhee also had six tackles, as he and Matthew Judon did a super job setting the edges and denying Henry the option to bounce his runs outside.
When the Ravens acquired Campbell and Wolfe in the offseason, re-signed McPhee, and drafted inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison, it was done with games like this in mind. The Ravens wanted their defense to be faster and more physical, to better deal with the league's most physical runners like Henry and Nick Chubb of the Cleveland Browns, who have hurt Baltimore in the past.
Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale called Henry the best back in the NFL leading up to the game, but Martindale had a plan. According to Next Gen Stats, the Ravens loaded the box with at least eight players on 72 percent of Henry's rushing attempts on Sunday.
If that meant leaving cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters alone on an island to deal with Tennessee's wide receivers, so be it. The Ravens were determined not to let Henry gash them with downhill runs, and Martindale made sure he put defenders in position to cut those runs off.
However, when it comes to stopping a back like Henry, some of it comes down to winning battles in the trenches, sacrificing your body to make a tackle, or to take on a block that allows teammates to make a tackle. The Ravens were willing to pay that price. Wolfe was asked what Baltimore's game plan was against Henry.
"Physical, physical, physical. Yeah, yeah, yeah," Wolfe said.
The Ravens have had to watch highlights of Henry running through their defense in previous games. Not this time. Even when Henry was contained in the first half, you knew the Titans would feed him in the second half, the portion of the game when Henry usually feasts. But nothing changed for Henry in the second half. The Ravens kept stopping him. Henry didn't have a first-down run the entire game and his longest carry was for eight yards.
Head Coach John Harbaugh called it one of the best all-round defensive efforts he had seen during his 13 seasons with Baltimore.
"I'm going to have to say yes," Harbaugh said. "I'm going to tell your right now it's the No. 1 best win. Perspective, it's going to be top five for sure. But for me right now it's the best win ever. Not just because of the guys and what it meant to our team and to our guys – what it meant to all of our guys.
"This may be the best win I've ever been associated with. The defensive effort...it was disciplined. It was eyes on your luggage. It was finishing. It was running to the ball. It was tackling. Up front, our defensive line did a very good job against their very good offensive line. So, we had them stopped a lot of times before [Derrick Henry] got started."