Titans-Ravens Divisional Preview
Outside of the fans in and around Tennessee, there are few who thought that this matchup would occur! After keeping the Patriots in check for the majority of the game, the Titans pulled off the road upset and are now scheduled to visit the Baltimore Ravens, the number one seed in the AFC, and the team that finished the regular season with the best record in the NFL. Compared to the Patriots, this matchup for the Titans has some identical factors, and some that are a complete 180 of what they just saw in Foxborough.
Last week I brought up on how strong the Titans rushing attack is, led by this season’s rushing yards champion, Derrick Henry. After a dominating performance against the Patriots, which saw Henry run for 182 yards, and a rushing TD off of 34 carries, the Titans offense hopes to keep this tempo going strong against the Ravens defense. While we may not see similar results that occurred against the Patriots, don’t count out Henry on accumulating 100+ rushing yards and a rushing TD in this game. Prior to the Wild Card game, the Patriots were the 6th best rush defense in the league on least rushing yards allowed, and the 1st ranked defense in rushing TDs allowed.
There’s little reason to think that the Titans will abandon this mindset against the Ravens. QB Ryan Tannehill was quiet for the Wild Card game, throwing for 72 yards on 8 completions with 15 attempts. Tannehill also only had two passes that went for more than 10 yards, one being a 12- yard pass to TE Anthony Firkser for a TD in the first quarter, and a 22-yard completion to, who else, Derrick Henry. Expect to see Tannehill to get a few more attempts in, though it should remain south of 25. That being said, this could rise significantly if the Ravens find a way to minimize the yardage gained on rushing plays, which in turn, will put the game on Tannehill’s passing ability.
WR Adam Humphries has been ruled out for this week’s game against the Ravens, though the Titans have made their necessary adjustments for this already, considering he hasn’t played since December 1st. WR Cody Hollister was listed as questionable on the final injury report as well and was inactive last week against the Patriots.
Two words can sum up the Ravens’ offense, and they’re honestly the only two words that are needed for this section. Lamar Jackson. The odds-on favorite right now to win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award for this season, (and for legitimate reasons), Jackson is the heart of not only this offense, but the team as well. Not only do you have to worry about Jackson’s throwing abilities, his mobile game is second to none, especially after breaking Michael Vick’s record of most rushing yards by a QB during the regular season, with 1,206 rushing yards. With a 66.1 completion percentage, 36 passing TDs which was tops in the league this season, and only 6 interceptions, don’t categorize Jackson as a rush first quarterback.
Jackson has proven that he can get it done with his arm, with TE Mark Andrews being his favorite target. The Jackson-to-Andrews combination has been effective nearly all season, especially in the red zone and on first down conversions, where Andrews leads the team with 44 completions for first downs, which is nearly double of Jackson’s next favorite target. Rookie WR Marquise Brown, who exploded on the NFL scene in his first game with 147 yards receiving and 2 receiving TDs, has been largely inconsistent since, posting up only two games with 80+ receiving yards. Since December 1st, Brown has 11 receptions off of 13 targets, with only 62 receiving yards, and one TD reception.
As of now, the biggest issues are the status of RB Mark Ingram II, who rushed for 1,018 yards and 6 TDs during the regular season, and Andrews, who were both listed as questionable on the latest injury report. At this point, I’d assume that both will suit up for the game.
One of the keys that I mentioned last week for the Titans to keep up with the Patriots, let alone to beat them, was to force the Patriots to abandon the rush game and force QB Tom Brady to air it out. Coming off one of his worse seasons statistically, it was the smart move, and one that proved to work. Sadly, the Ravens offense is nothing like the Patriots, and even if you were able to limit Lamar Jackson and the Ravens’ pass offense, they’ll turn it around and rush through you. That being said, they need to do the opposite this time around. Baltimore’s pass play percentage comes in at 43.98%, compared to 56.02% for rushes. With Ingram accounting for 202 rush attempts, and Jackson taking 176, expect the Ravens to establish the rush early, and challenge the Titans to try and account for it.
The Titans have held opponents to 4.1 yards per rush attempt thus far, which is 7th best in the NFL, and will need to keep this going to allow the team any shot at getting the upset win. This gets even more difficult however, considering that ILB Jayon Brown, the third leading tackler for the Titans (105 total tackles, 69 solo), has been ruled out for the game. Also, with their defense being 17th or worst in most major categories for pass defense, the Titans will have their hands full trying to keep Lamar Jackson and company contained. Beating a 42-year old QB, with an offense that has no deep threat, and a marginal rushing attack, may not translate well when you go up against arguably the best offense in the NFL.
Some would assume that teams who command respect and emanate excellence on one side of the ball may see a slip on the other side. With the Ravens’ top-notch offense, they are also followed by a defense that ranks in the top five in most major categories as well. With a secondary that is potentially one of the best in the NFL, CBs Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters were both named to the NFL All-Pro team this season. Both finished the season with 3 interceptions, and 24 pass deflections combined between them. Add in S Earl Thomas III, LB Matthew Judon, and it translates to this Ravens team being fully stacked on both sides of the ball.
Need to find a weakness for this Raven’s defense? Well there are a few, though they may be as marginal as you’d expect. When’s the best time to score against the Ravens? The second quarter, where the Ravens defense is allowing an average 7.7 points, versus 4.9 points or less in every other quarter. Quite the dig for dirt on that one, wasn’t it? Well, that goes to show how well rounded this defense is. The one way to beat this team, in which the Chiefs and Browns showed us during the regular season, is to attack early and attack hard. Conservative play calling won’t work against this defense, and they’ll quickly remind of this as they send your offense back to the sidelines on yet another 3-and-out drive.
The 3 Keys to the Game for Each Team
1. Get Derrick Henry going and keep him going. The Ravens have been burned a few times this season by RBs.
2. 15 pass attempts for Ryan Tannehill won’t work this time around. They need to get him comfortable and allow him to find the mismatch. This could prove difficult, considering the Titans have the highest allowed sack percentage thus far.
3. If Ingram does miss this game, then the Titans will HAVE to limit Jackson’s ability to run. Easier said than done, but they stand a better chance having to play against the pass versus the Ravens’ rush attack.
1. Plug the gaps to keep Henry limited in his rushing gains.
2. Peters and Humphrey will need to keep their normal play tempo up and limit the options that Tannehill has to throw to by keeping a blanket on WRs A.J. Brown and Corey Davis.
3. Let Lamar Jackson be… Lamar Jackson. Don’t try to constrain him simply because it’s playoff football. Let him make the decisions that he’s done all year long.
The Final Thought:
As my Whole Nine Sports colleague, Dan Ambrosino, pointed out in his column, the run that the Titans have going for them right now after their upset win against the Patriots has been enjoyable, but this game is about as much of a mismatch as you could possibly make it. While I expect Derrick Henry to have another 100+ rushing yards game, I don’t see how Tannehill will make much of an impact throwing the ball while trying to play catch up, considering that the Raven’s offense may end up using this as a scrimmage for the AFC Title game. This one could be over in the third quarter, and all eyes will focus towards Kansas City to see who Baltimore plays host to next week.
Ravens 31 – Titans 17