Titans at Ravens – keys to the game
After an impressive 21 – 13 upset victory over the reigning NFL champion New England Patriots, the Tennessee Titans will head to Baltimore to take on the #1 seed Ravens. The Titans were able to overcome a slow start to the season and make the playoffs as the #6 seed in large part because of two factors, the promotion of Ryan Tannehill to starting QB and a strong commitment to NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry. In many ways, the Titans 2019 success parallels the Ravens 2018 season when Lamar Jackson took over mid-season and led the Ravens to a Division Championship behind a strong run game.
You can discuss the upcoming Divisional Round match-up on our message board and follow along Saturday in our game thread.
Looking ahead to Saturday’s Divisional Round match-up, the Ravens will face a tough task in Tennessee. Since week 7 when Tannehill took over at QB, the Titans have gone 7-3 and averaged 30.4 points per game, which would be 2nd in the NFL if extrapolated over the entire season. By DVOA, the Titans ended the season 9th overall with the 6th best offense in the NFL. If we look at Football Outsider’s weighted DVOA metric which gives more bearing to more recent games, they move up to 5th best in the league.
Conversely, the Ravens rank 4th in defense per DVOA (2nd in weighted defense), and the 15.2 Points per game they have allowed during their 12 game winning streak is the best in the NFL over that span. However, if the Ravens defense has an Achilles heel it would be stopping the run as they rank 19th in run defense DVOA, while they are among the best in the NFL at stopping the pass with DVOA’s 4th best rating. The Titans have been pretty evenly balanced offensively, boasting the 6th best passing attack and 5th best rushing attack per DVOA
The Titans defense led by former Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees has some very talented players, but it can also be exploited. They rank 16th in the league by DVOA, and are better at defending the run (10th) than the pass (21st). Of course the Ravens pose a significant challenge to any defense as they have proven to be able to pass or run against pretty much anyone. The Lamar Jackson led offense finished the season with DVOA’s best passing and rushing numbers, a truly impressive feat.
When the Titans have the ball, it appears that they may have an advantage when they run the ball, and if their 40 rush attempts in the Wild Card game against New England can be used as a signal of their intention, it seems likely that they will use a similar game-plan against Baltimore.
Tennessee RB Derrick Henry has been a revelation this season, rushing for over 1,500 yards and 16 TDs at a 5.1 YPC average. He ran all over the Patriots defense last week and the Ravens will have their hands full trying to slow him down behind a strong offensive line. The key to stopping Henry is penetration and good tackling. If he is allowed to get a head of steam he is very difficult to bring down.
It will also be interesting to see how the Titans use personnel in this match-up and how the Ravens counter. The Titans use 2+ TEs on the field more than most teams in the NFL, and the Ravens use sub packages on defense over 90% of the time.
Against a team that runs the ball as much as the Titans, will the Ravens decide to stay in their base 3-4 defense on a higher percentage of plays, and if they do choose to defend Tennessee in this manner, which CB is taken off the field? The Ravens true “base” defense this season is the nickel package with CBs Jimmy Smith, Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey on the field. However, Peters has been somewhat of a liability in run defense with Smith having a significant advantage in size and run defense. If the Ravens take Smith off the field and keep Peters who is the better cover corner, they may be putting themselves at a disadvantage against the run and vice versa.
Of course, the Ravens could choose an alternative approach to the traditional nickel and take an ILB off the field instead of a defensive lineman. They have used this personnel grouping at times this season and it may prove to be the most versatile option in this match-up.
While the Titans did come away with an upset victory, it should be noted that they were only able to score 14 points on offense against the Patriots. If the Ravens get out to an early lead with their explosive offense, it may force the Titans to pass more than they would like and shift to a style of play that the Ravens defense is better suited to defend.
When the Ravens have the ball, it’s difficult to see how the Titans slow them down. Lamar Jackson has proven to be extremely efficient passing the ball when opposing defenses attempt to take away the run, and of course he is always a threat to keep the ball and pick up chunks of yards with his legs.
While the Titans may have an advantage on offense with their rushing attack, the biggest mis-match in this game may be the Ravens passing attack against a Tennessee defense that has struggled against the pass at times. The Titans are particularly weak against opposing TEs and the Ravens have the best group of TEs in the NFL in Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle and Hayden Hurst.
In a game where the Titans may be focused on taking away the Ravens rushing attack and Lamar Jackson’s ability to run with the football in particular, they may be especially vulnerable to the play action passing game where Jackson and the Ravens TEs excel. It would not be surprising to see the Ravens TEs combine for 150+ receiving yards and 2-3 TDs.
One concern for the Ravens has to be the status of Mark Ingram as he has been an excellent compliment to Jackson all season long. His ability to block and catch the ball out of the backfield has been an important part of the offense, and while Gus Edwards has proven to be extremely effective running the ball, he doesn’t possess Ingram’s skill on passing downs.
In the end, it’s hard to envision a game in which the Titans are able to keep pace with the Ravens offense. The Ravens earned the #1 seed for a reason and have been dominant on both sides of the ball for most of the season. They are the more rested team and will have home field advantage. I could see the Titans popping off a couple of big plays with Derrick Henry or Ryan Tannehill taking a play action shot downfield, but it is unlikely they will be able to sustain enough offense to match the Ravens. I see a comfortable Ravens victory 31-17.
Gabe is an avid fan of the NFL and Ravens football. He grew up in Westminster, MD, and attended college at Johns Hopkins University majoring in Biology. He earned his Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and now works as a Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where he studies cartilage development and cancer. Gabe has appeared as a guest on 105.7 The Fan.