During the 2019 regular season, the Tennessee Titans had the NFL’s 21st ranked rush defense. One underlying reason that the Titans have been a below-average unit against the run is the makeup of the Tennessee front seven. In the middle, DL Jurrell Casey and Jeffery Simmons combine to make up one of the better pass-rush tackle pairings in the league. OLBs Harold Landry and Kamalei Correa are far more talented at rushing the passer than at setting the edge against the run.
On the second level, ILB Rashaan Evans is a playmaker and a leader who could develop into one of the better ILBs in the league over the next few years. His battery mate, Jayon Brown (listed as OUT due to a shoulder injury), has more than enough speed to run sideline to sideline and succeed in coverage, but is too undersized to hold up against waves of Ravens run blockers. Simply put, the group is far better suited to defend the pass than they are the run.
At the moment, Mark Ingram’s official status for the Ravens matchup with the Titans is Questionable. Despite dealing with a strained calf that has kept him out of practice, it seems as if Ingram is expected to be available to play in some capacity on Saturday night. But regardless of whether Ingram is hampered by his injury or considered to be 100% healthy, the Ravens should give Gus Edwards all the work he can handle against Tennessee. In his backup role during the 2019 regular season, Edwards carried the ball just 133 times. His 133 carries are less than half the carries of Titans RB Derrick Henry, who led the NFL with 303. After a light load during the regular season and a bye week to rest, Edwards is as fresh as any RB in the playoffs. To make things even better, at a listed weight of 238 pounds, Edwards is heavier than every ILB on the Titans roster.
If Greg Roman decides to lean on him in the run game, Edwards could be in for a career game against Tennessee.
Exploit the Middle in Brown’s Absence
Allowing 255 yards per game during the 2019 regular season, the Titans had the NFL’s 24th ranked pass defense. Part of the reason for their ranking in the bottom third of in the NFL was that tight ends tore them up. In fact, Tennessee was the 7th worst team in the league in yards allowed to the position. Former 1st round pick Rashaan Evans has improved in pass coverage, but is better when he’s allowed to roam and make plays around the line of scrimmage. Jayon Brown is a speedy LB who is one of the best coverage LBs in the league, but as mentioned above is dealing with a shoulder injury and has been ruled out for Saturday’s game.
With Brown unable to play, the Titans’ suspect pass defense against tight ends becomes even more vulnerable.
Against an already vulnerable pass defense now missing their best coverage ILB, the Ravens have to find a way to target their trio of talented tight ends over the middle. In an effort to slow Lamar Jackson, Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards and the rest of the Ravens’ historic rushing attack, it’s likely that Tennessee will stack the box and leave one-on-one matchups in the passing game.
As the Ravens run the ball up the middle, the Titans will be more aggressive with personnel and run blitzes that will leave room over the top for open tight ends to run. Against a below-average Titans defense committing extra men to stopping the run, Jackson should have a field day throwing to Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle.
Unleash the Triple Option
During training camp ahead of the start of the 2019 season, Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh talked about the team’s plan to utilize an offense that would revolutionize football. With a uniquely talented QB, a well-built offensive line and a focused vision, the Ravens staff set out to put together an offense that was wildly different from anything else in today’s NFL. With Greg Roman calling the shots, the Ravens followed through on the promise made by their head coach and rode their unique offense to the most rushing yards in the history of the NFL.
Over the course of the season, Roman has treated NFL fans all over the country to a wide array of formations, personnel groupings and play calls that kept most defenses off balance. We’ve seen college DL-turned-NFL Pro Bowl FB Pat Ricard in the slot. We’ve seen speedy WRs Hollywood Brown and De’Anthony Thomas used on ends around and as decoys. We’ve even seen a package, appropriately named “Heisman,” that included Heisman trophy winners Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III and Mark Ingram in the backfield at the same time.
Even with all the variety that the Ravens used during the regular season, there is no doubt that Roman and the Ravens offense still have a few tricks up their sleeve.
With a shot to host the AFC Championship game on the line, Roman and the Ravens have no reason to hold anything back. It is likely that the Titans defense will sell out to slow down the Ravens dynamic rushing attack on Saturday. The Titans may stack the box and attack the mesh point of the Ravens highly successful zone read plays. They may even coach their OLBs to squeeze down the line of scrimmage and provide a difficult give/keep read for Jackson.
As a twist to keep the Titans off balance, the Ravens should incorporate the triple option on Saturday. Using the triple option against a team that will sell out to stop the zone read will allow the Ravens an additional escape route if the Titans begin to have success. If the Titans attack the mesh point or the OLB squeezes down, the opportunity to get the ball out to the pitch man could lead to a huge play.
With Ingram or Edwards running the dive and the speedy Justice Hill as the pitch option for Jackson, using the triple option as a wrinkle would give the Titans defense a new headache on Saturday night.
Rotate Personnel to Limit Henry
Derrick Henry is the only player that can beat the Baltimore Ravens. Henry, an Alabama product and Heisman trophy winner, was the NFL’s leading rusher in 2019. He tips the scales at over 240 pounds and looks unlike any other running back in the NFL today. Henry was the sole reason that the Titans offense had any real success against the Patriots in the Wild Card Round and slowing him down must be the Baltimore defense’s first priority on Saturday. While Wink Martindale will certainly commit more players than usual to stopping the run, his choice of specific personnel could make the difference.
Swapping out players who are better suited to defend the pass for run stoppers can go a long way towards slowing Henry and the Titans. The first personnel change that the Ravens should make on defense is getting Jihad Ward more snaps. Since being cut from the Colts on October 1st and signed by the Ravens a week later, Ward has been a quiet difference-maker on the defensive line. At 6 foot 5 and 287 pounds, Ward is built more like a DE or DT than an OLB. Despite that, Ward has made a difference in the run game by being an effective edge setter as the end man on the line.
The second adjustment that the Ravens defense should make is changing the distribution of snaps at the defensive end position. Chris Wormley has quietly had an impressive season as the starting defensive end. Surrounded by All Pros and Pro Bowlers, Wormley has rarely (if ever) stood out as a vulnerability in the defense. Against the Titans though, Wormley could be in for a long day. The Titans’ bread and butter play, the outside zone, forces the DE to withstand constant double teams and hold up at the point of attack. Wormley has earned the trust of the defensive coaches this season, but the Ravens should not hesitate to use a heavy rotation to help him out on Saturday.
Ravens GM Eric DeCosta added heavier run stoppers like Domata Peko and Justin Ellis in the middle of the season to shore up the team’s run defense. Getting those players additional snaps will undoubtedly help the Ravens hold the line of scrimmage and beat double teams to slow Henry and the Titans offense.
Make Tannehill Throw to Win
Ryan Tannehill was, without question, one of the biggest surprises of the NFL’s regular season. Tannehill, a Texas A&M product, was selected by the Miami Dolphins with the eighth pick in the 2012 NFL draft. After seven up and down seasons in Miami, the Dolphins decided to move on from their starting QB and traded him to the Titans in exchange for late round draft selections. Despite the fact that he was expected to back up Marcus Mariota in Tennessee, Tannehill was given a $7 million dollar deal by the Titans. Since becoming the Titans starting QB in Week 7, Tannehill has flourished. He finished the season with the highest QB rating (117.5) of any qualified QB and was named the AFC offensive player of the month in December.
Despite his unexpected success and impressive regular season numbers, the Ravens should absolutely force Tannehill try to beat them through the air. In the Titans’ 20–13 win over the Patriots on Wild Card Weekend, Tannehill had a rough day. Against a New England defense that finished the regular season with the league’s second ranked pass defense, he completed just eight of 15 passes for 72 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The Titans defense did their job by limiting New England to just 13 points, but it was Henry that carried them to victory.
The Ravens, who finished the regular season with the NFL’s 6th ranked pass defense, should stack the box with seven or eight defenders, make it difficult to run the ball, and force the Titans to rely on Tannehill to win the game. Against a Ravens defensive back group that is one of the best in the NFL and comes complete with two recently named All-Pro cornerbacks, there is real doubt that Tannehill can get the job done.
Get Physical with Brown
Rookie WR A.J. Brown was, far and away, the Titans’ most dangerous WR during the 2019 regular season. The 2nd round pick out of Ole Miss had one of the most successful seasons of any WR in the league. Despite two different quarterbacks and an offense focused on the run game, Brown finished the season with 52 receptions for 1051 yards and eight touchdowns. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Brown’s rookie year is the fact that, with 20.2, he finished the regular season with the most yards per catch of any WR with at least 50 receptions.
Brown is a talented route runner who lines up all over the field. If a Titans player makes an impact catching the football against the Ravens, it’s highly likely that it will be Brown. The corners who line up across from Brown on Saturday night should make it a priority to be physical with him at the line of scrimmage. Being physical with Brown at the line will interrupt his release and the timing of his routes. If the Ravens choose not to be physical and give Brown more freedom in his releases, he’ll be able to freely run some of the routes that have made him so successful at this point in his young NFL career.
In an environment that’s sure to be the loudest that the Titans have played in this season, getting physical with Brown to disrupt the timing that Tannehill has with his favorite WR could severely hamper the Titans passing attack.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Titans RG Nate Davis vs. Ravens DT Brandon Williams
Nate Davis, a rookie out of North Carolina Charlotte, was selected by the Titans in the 3rd round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He took over the starting RG position for the Titans in Week 5 and has started every game since. Behind Davis and the rest of the Tennessee offensive line, Henry rushed for the most yards in the NFL and the Titans ran straight through the New England Patriots in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
Against the Ravens though, Davis will be faced with the tough task. On the outside zone play that has brought Henry and the Titans so much success, he will be tasked with blocking fellow small school product Brandon Williams. Williams is an incredibly strong and stout DL who has proven that he can take on a double team and impose his will on offensive lineman. If Williams can hold the line against Davis, the Titans will have a hard time establishing the running game that’s gotten them this far. If Davis has consistent success moving Williams off the ball, Henry could have another big week on the ground.