Looking for the Death Star exhaust port in Baltimore’s season
Listen, by any numerical measure, the Ravens aren’t likely to lose. They led the NFL in wins, they led the NFL in DVOA, They led the NFL in SRS. They have two home games. From everything we know across the history of professional football, these Ravens are loaded.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
But let’s imagine a world where we’re trying to find a way for them to lose. How could it happen? They lost two regular season games, one to the Chiefs, and one to the Browns. Both of those games were early in the season, before Baltimore traded for Marcus Peters. Neither of those games had a clear consistent pattern emerging. But we do have plenty of elements we can take from other games. In particular:
Don’t let Lamar Jackson run on you
A variety of techniques have been used this year to limit Jackson’s ability to run. Steven Ruiz over at USA Today went over a bunch of them — scrape-exchange, double scrape-exchange … he’s seen it all.
Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees aggressively went after the quarterback on zone-reads in the Super Bowl that Baltimore won. The won against Colin Kaepernick.
Jackson is simply a much more efficient runner than any of the running backs Baltimore has played this year. He has averaged 6.9 yards per attempt compared to Mark Ingram’s 5.0. That doesn’t mean that Ingram (or Gus Edwards) won’t be able to run over a defense, but it has to be noted at this point that it’s a preferable option. Lamar Jackson has been so good in this area of his game that nothing defenses have tried to this point can stop what Baltimore has been doing.
Win your one-on-one matchups
The Ravens are a fancy defense. They’re also a defense that comes after your quarterback a lot. They lead the NFL in blitz rate this year at 54.9% of opponents dropbacks — second-place Tampa was only at 43.4%. Baltimore’s cornerbacks, naturally, are the five most-targeted players on the team. Even Anthony Averett, who only started three games this year, drew more targets than Chuck Clark or Patrick Onwuasor.
The best quarterback remaining against the blitz this year is Patrick Mahomes, who threw for 9.1 yards per attempt against it. He also threw zero interceptions and took just two sacks against five-man rushes. Ravens corner Brandon Carr was in coverage on five touchdowns this year, which is a big reason why No. 2 receivers were the biggest sore spot in the Ravens defense this year. Baltimore allowed a 2.8% DVOA against them — as compared to every other spot being negative.
I know, I know, we shouldn’t look past the Titans or the Texans. But a Chiefs-Ravens playoff game with Mahomes trying to find Tyreek Hill in a blitz is going to be terrifying and exciting for pretty much every Chiefs and Ravens fan.
Fight back in the game-scripting business
The only two teams to get within seven points of the Ravens since their bye are the 49ers and the Bills — it should come as no surprise that those two teams are the ones that ran the ball well. The 49ers racked up 174 rushing yards on Baltimore and almost outrushed them. The Bills got to 104.
Baltimore narrowly won time of possession in each game, and the 49ers were able to limit them to 8 drives. Buffalo forced seven punts.
This is the major danger this week, as Derrick Henry has feasted on every team’s rush defense. The Titans will almost certainly try to play normal underdog tactics and limit the number of possessions. With Tennessee, if you stop Derrick Henry, you likely win this game.
Win the turnover battle
Another major cliche, but something that has to be stated. The Ravens have only turned the ball over 14 times this year, and they’ve collected two or more defensive turnovers in nine of their 16 games. So, this won’t be easy for any team to make happen. Kansas City probably stands out as the team left on the AFC side of the bracket that has the best chance to win that, as Mahomes rarely turns it over and the Chiefs defense has created 2 or more turnovers in seven different games of their own this year.
As far as this week, the Titans just haven’t had that kind of defense often this season. They did manage to do it to the Patriots though — taking it away twice and turning it over only once.
Rivers McCown is a writer and editor who has written for ESPN.com, Bleacher Report, USA Today, and Deadspin, among other places. He’s edited for Football Outsiders, Rookie Scouting Portfolio, and Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue.