Raiders

Raiders' primary objective vs. Titans: Stop 'machine' Derrick Henry

Raiders' primary objective vs. Titans: Stop 'machine' Derrick Henry

ALAMEDA -- Ryan Tannehill is receiving credit for Tennessee’s recent resurgence. That’s appropriate given how well the former backup quarterback has been playing during a 5-1 stretch since becoming the starter.

Let’s not forget who’s really driving the Titans' offense. That’s the 6-foot-3, 247-pound freight train coming out of the backfield.

Derrick Henry has been a monster this season, proving as tough to take down as ever. He has 1,140 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground, currently on a run of three straight games with at least 145 yards and a touchdown.

A repeat performance on Sunday against the Raiders at Oakland Coliseum would make Henry the only player to do so in four straight games.

The Raiders would like to prevent that and are armed with the No. 12-ranked run defense. They’ll try to slow a back that never seems to wear down.

“The secret sauce in Henry is he’s got all the talent, and size, and running instincts, but he never tires,” Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said. “He does not get tired. He’s a machine, man. This guy wears you down -- physical -- he can wear you down. You’ve got to gang tackle him. He’s a better-than-advertised receiver, but he just never tires. The more they give him the ball, the better he gets. It’s an impressive human being.”

Tannehill obviously benefits from Henry’s threat and a balanced offense that has the Titans going strong. Stopping the run, or slowing it at least, will be key for the Raiders' defense in this important game. It will not, however, be easy.

“We’re looking forward to the challenge, but we know it’ll be a challenge dealing with Superman Derrick Henry,” defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins said on this week’s Raiders Talk podcast. "... He’s a great back. He’s big. He’s fast. He sheds tackles like there are kids trying to tackle him. I think, overall, we have to do a good job of keeping him in the backfield and not giving him open lanes or creases to work. We also need to hit him as much as we can, because he’s a big guy. Overall, I think we’re ready for the challenge. I’m excited for this game.”

[RELATED: Raiders' offense takes big hit with Brown out vs. Titans]

It’ll take the entire defensive unit playing disciplined football to slow Henry down. Give him an inch of space or leverage or poor tackling technique and he’ll take chunk yards by the mile.

“I just think you’ve got to be in good position,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “You’ve got to have eleven guys to the ball. You’ve got to play the blocks. First and foremost, you’ve got to be in the right spots, play the block, and then when he gets through there you’ve got to have eleven guys to the ball. He does a good job of trying to get extra yards, so we’ve got to put hats on him wherever he is, on his body as he’s trying to get those extra yards. We’ve got to make sure we get eleven to him.”

Raiders' Darren Waller honors Frank Smith for unlocking true potential

Raiders' Darren Waller honors Frank Smith for unlocking true potential

Darren Waller used to hate football. With a passion.

That fact contrasts with the joy exuded while playing now as an elite NFL tight end. He loved every minute of a breakout Raiders season where he had 90 catches for 1,145 yards, but he's most proud of being consistent and, for the first time in forever, being someone you can count on.

Waller has been clean and sober more than two years now. That change has brought happiness back to his life and the game he once despised.

“I hated football from high school up until I got suspended [in 2017],” Waller said. “The sport was just a means to impress people and seem cool and cover up all these voids. I thought that, if I was successful, I could be happy. It wasn’t doing the trick, so there was a huge void in me I thought I could fill with drugs and alcohol.

“It took me having a near-death experience to question the things I was doing in my life. I stepped away from the game for a bit. If it was God’s plan for me to come back to the game, it’s now clear that it was. I came back with a new perspective and started enjoying it. I was open to coaches and have relationships with these people.”

The near-death experience came from a bad batch of pills two months after his yearlong suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy while with the Baltimore Ravens, when he sat in his car fighting to stay awake while thinking he might not make it out alive. Waller went to rehab shortly after that, a life choice he considers the foundation of all the good that has come since.

Waller’s personal life improved quickly, but his career didn’t really take off until the Raiders signed him off the Ravens practice squad late in 2018 and he started working with tight ends coach Frank Smith.

Smith challenged Waller to be great, a goal achieved in a shockingly short span. Waller’s now considered among the NFL’s elite tight ends and has become a role model for so many struggling with addiction by telling his story to anyone who will listen.

Waller believes that Smith unlocked true potential by caring about the person over the player, helping him in recovery and on the football field. That’s why Waller honored Smith at this year’s Coaching Corps’ Game Changer Awards, where athletes from different Bay Area professional sports teams honor coaches special in their lives.

Waller honored Smith at a Thursday ceremony in San Francisco, which will be broadcast Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. PT on NBC Sports Bay Area.

“I never had a relationship with a coach like I do with Frank,” Waller said. “I honestly text him more than I text my friends. We laugh every day at practice, but I seriously respect him as a teacher and a coach and an authority figure you can talk to as a friend. Nothing’s off limits. We can be real and honest with each other about everything. That’s so important to me, having him in my life.”

Smith values his relationship with Waller, which has grown over their two years working together.

“He’s an extremely intelligent person who is athletic,” Smith said. “But, if you don’t love football and give it everything you’ve got, you won’t progress. He’d be the first to tell you he wouldn’t sacrifice for the game. We weren’t seeing the best version of him. We were seeing a clouded version of himself blurred by his substance abuse. Then football was taken away, and he learned what he wanted to do.

"Now we’re seeing the full commitment, the full potential be realized.”

Smith admits that coaching Waller is different. His commitment to recovery mandates more involvement in Waller’s personal life, making sure his support system is in place. Smith took on that responsibility without hesitation, balancing his personal and professional duties while remaining an authority figure. He recognized Waller as a special case right away, that he was working with someone who could be great.

“He was humble. He was hungry to learn and hungry to work,” Smith said. “With his story, you can see every day how he cherishes life and embraces every obstacle. He never makes an excuse for anything, even with things that somebody else does. He’s the type of person who really has an effect on you, especially if you let him show you his transformative process.”

[RELATED: Carr 'looking forward' to being Raiders' QB in Vegas opener]

Waller let Smith in right away. He’s an open book about his struggles with drugs and alcohol and could tell that his position coach would help him in all aspects and stoke his passion for the game he thought he’d lost forever.

“Frank helped so much with my transition to the Raiders,” Waller said. “He has a friend that was in recovery like I am, who worked the 12-step program and went to rehab. He was able to understand me by understanding his friend. We learned a lot from each other, and he was able to welcome me in without putting too much pressure on me. But he wasn’t allowing me to be someone just happy to be there. He had me set goals, something I never did before that.

"He really opened my eyes to the fact that I could be great. I never really thought I could be great. I was too worried about all the pressure and the negative things. I never saw the game in a positive light. He helped me see that football can be so much fun if you’re not worried about things outside of what you can control.”

“Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards” presented by Levi’s airs Tuesday, January 28 at 7:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area

NFL rumors: Chargers have 'moved on' from longtime QB Philip Rivers

NFL rumors: Chargers have 'moved on' from longtime QB Philip Rivers

For 14 seasons, the Raiders and Philip Rivers have been rivals. Rivers' first NFL start fittingly came against the Raiders in 2006, his third professional season. 

That rivalry might be done, though. The Athletic's Jay Glazer said Monday on FS1's "The Herd with Colin Cowherd" that the Los Angeles Chargers have "moved on" from Rivers. 

Rivers, 38, will become a free agent this upcoming offseason. The 16-year veteran has spent his entire career for the Chargers, but it's unknown if he will continue playing in 2020. He already has moved his large family to Florida this offseason. 

The gunslinger was the No. 4 pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. He has an 18-9 career record against the Raiders with 47 touchdown passes -- his most against any opponent -- and 22 interceptions.

[RELATED: Carr 'looking forward' to being Raiders' QB in Vegas opener]

If the Chargers do move on from Rivers, they could try to grab a QB early in the 2020 draft. The Bolts own the No. 6 pick, and our own Josh Schrock has them taking Oregon's Justin Herbert in the first round. 

As the Raiders move to Las Vegas, it could be the end of an era with their Philip Rivers rivalry.