EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Wink didn't blink when he was asked about Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry.
"He's like our modern-day Jim Brown, I think," Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said today. "He's just that much different when he has the ball in his hands, so it's a challenge every time he touches it."
Martindale has coached defense in the NFL since 2004, so his comparison of Henry to arguably the best running back whoever played should not be taken lightly.
"There's a reason why they call Derrick Henry 'The King' because he's on the iron throne, for all you Game of Thrones fans," Martindale said. "They just gave him a raise; I think he's the highest paid running back. And I still don't think they gave him enough."
Neither, apparently, does defensive lineman Leonard Williams.
"One of the best backs of all time," Williams said of Henry. "He's always the guy people circle and try to prepare for, and he still happens to have 100 plus (yard) rushing games all the time."
This is all relevant because when the Giants open their 2022 season Sunday against the Titans in Nashville, the first objective of Martindale's defense will be to mitigate the impact of Henry.
As the saying goes, that's far easier said than done. In 2021, a foot injury limited Henry to eight games. But he still rushed for 937 yards, or an NFL-best 117.1 yards a game (minimum 200 attempts.). Since 2017, he leads the NFL with 6,307 rushing yards and 60 rushing touchdowns. Henry is the only player with 10+ rushing touchdowns in each of the last four seasons.
"He's just a really good football player," said Giants coach Brian Daboll, who was an assistant at Alabama in 2017, two years after Henry won the Heisman Trophy and led the Crimson Tide to the national championship. "I know him as a person, too. I met him down a few times in Alabama. Got a ton of respect for him as a man and certainly as a player. He's one heck of a player. You name it, he can do it."
The Giants witnessed that on Dec. 16, 2018, when Henry tore through their defense for 170 yards and both of the Titans' touchdowns in a 17-0 victory.
Tennessee finished no worse than seventh in the NFL in rushing in each of the last four seasons, when Martindale was the Baltimore Ravens' defensive coordinator. He faced Henry and the Titans four times – twice each in the regular season and playoffs. In the first and last of those games, Henry had 25 carries for 61 yards (2.4-yard avg.) and no touchdowns. But in the middle two games, he ran for 318 yards on 61 attempts (5.2-yard avg.), including a 66-yarder and a 29-yard score.
Tennessee has an experienced quarterback in Ryan Tannehill and a promising receiving corps that includes veteran Robert Woods and first-round draft choice Treylon Burks. The NFL might be an aerial show, but that hasn't changed Martindale's long-held objective.
"Our number one goal on defense is to stop the run every week – every week," he said. "It's a passing league. Well, you better make them pass. Don't let them have both. So, we're going to take away the run game and make them throw the ball. Playing a game like this is just going to challenge all the fundamentals and techniques you've been working all training camp on stopping this guy."
That is a point he emphasized to his players, though they have enough evidence of the 6-3, 247-pound Henry's elite status.
"He's just different because he's bigger," defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence said. "He does what a lot of little backs do. He does a little of what the big backs do. … That's their key guy. We've got to stop him from getting going. But our thing is getting 11 to the ball, stopping him before he gets going, and that's the game plan."
"Nowadays, it's a passing league, but this is one of those old-school stick to the run type of offenses," Williams said. "They have a good boot play action style of passing game and they play off of that. We just got to really take out the head of the offense, which is Derrick Henry."
Defensive linemen love to collect sacks, but Williams is looking forward to posting different achievements on Sunday.
"There's definitely something that you've got to love about playing the run as a defensive lineman," he said. "Getting the sacks is pretty and playing the run is where coach to player and player to player, a D-lineman respects another D-lineman that can stop the run. It might not be that way for fans because they like to see the pretty sacks and stuff like that, but we know that it takes a lot to stop the run."
View photos from practice as the Giants prepare for the season opener against the Titans.
*The Giants released their first injury report of the season. All 53 players practiced and four were limited. The list included defensive end Azeez Ojulari (calf), outside linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux (knee), wide receiver Sterling Shepard (Achilles) and defensive back Dane Belton (clavicle).
*Second-year pro Gary Brightwell is listed as the Giants' No. 1 kickoff returner on the team's unofficial depth chart this week. He did not have a kickoff return as a rookie last season. Brightwell returned two kickoffs for 47 yards in the preseason and averaged 17.2 yards on five runbacks at the University of Arizona.
"Gary is a dependable football player," special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey said. "A young player. Up and coming. Smart, tough, dependable. He's everything that we want in a returner. He's got good speed. He's tough. Got good quickness. Has good vision. And again, the most important thing is dependable. So, I look forward to seeing him make some plays."
View photos of the New York Giants' 2022 roster as it currently stands.