The stage is set for Baltimore to avenge last season’s postseason loss to Tennessee. That’s where the similarities in these two teams from this season to last end.
For the Ravens, the drastic differences from this season to last are clear. While the 2019 squad bulldozed through anyone that dared to stand in their way with the league’s MVP and Coach of the Year leading the way, the 2020 group can’t say the same. Furthermore, the Ravens went into those playoffs relatively healthy. This time, they’ll be without Ronnie Stanley and Nick Boyle, and the status of some key contributors on both sides of the ball are unknown.
For Tennessee, the major difference and storyline this season compared to last is the downfall of their defense. The unit went from near the middle of the pack in 2019 to near the bottom of the league in several categories this year.
Enough about last season; let’s look at what has changed in just the last six weeks since the most recent time these teams squared off.
The most notable positive change for Baltimore will be that Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams, who were both injured and missed Week 11, will be ready to go. The rookie Justin Madubuike has also stepped up in recent weeks and became a real contributor in both run and pass defense. This upgrade is tenfold over what the team had at their disposal last go around. Justin Ellis and Broderick Washington both played their season high in snaps at 83% and 41% respectively, and Derek Wolfe also hit the 80% threshold. Think back to that Week 11 game, and you’ll remember the defense holding Derrick Henry in check for the majority of the game. The 2,000 yard rusher had just 37 yards at halftime. It wasn’t until late in the third quarter and the fourth that that defensive line that had been so worn down all day long had finally been broken through, allowing Henry to finish with 133 yards and the walk off touchdown in overtime.
The defensive front won’t be just healthy, they’ll be well rested. The defense played just 40 snaps last week against the Bengals, and no front-7 player had more than 27 snaps played.
Trading for Campbell, signing Wolfe, and drafting two defensive linemen and two linebackers was in direct response to not being big enough up front to stop running backs like Henry and teams like the Titans. The front office will finally see if their work this offseason pays off.
I’m also excited to see what, if any, impact the newly-acquired Jayron Kearse has. The former Detroit Lions safety was waived by the team just after their Week 16 game, cleared waivers, and signed with the Ravens practice squad shortly after. Kearse is listed at 6’4” and 205 pounds, incredible size for a safety. The image of the defensive backs unable to bring down A.J. Brown on his go-ahead touchdown has been stained in our memories for weeks, and Corey Davis, tight end Jonnu Smith and of course Henry are all bigger players in their own right. If Kearse were to be active on Sunday, it will be interesting to see his usage considering the Titans weapons’ size compared to his own.
On the offensive side, the wide receiver group’s transformation from the first half to the second half of the season has been something to marvel at. The disappointment with Marquise Brown’s inconsistencies and drops were real, and it only heightened when he infamously tweeted a line from a song, indicating frustration with a lack of targets. The same went for Miles Boykin, who fans were tired of only hearing about how good of a blocker he was and wanted to see him blossom into a real threat in the passing game. Both have happened, as Brown has six TDs in his last six games and Boykin has two scores in his last three games while still being an awesome blocker.
The offensive line is another group that has played better since the last matchup. The Week 11 game versus Tennessee was Ben Powers’ first game starting at right guard, a change that began the upward trajectory from the line.
Most importantly of all, Lamar Jackson is playing like himself again. We’ve seen first-hand his resurgence to MVP form after coming back from Covid. Since Week 14, Lamar Jackson is second in the league among QBs in EPA per play behind only Tom Brady. As a whole, the Ravens offense is averaging 37.2 points per game since Week 13. Let’s talk red zone. Over their last five games, the Ravens score touchdowns on 72% of their trips to the red-zone, and Jackson (67.2%) is second in the league in completion percentage inside the 20-yard line among QBs with at least 50 attempts behind only Aaron Rodgers (71.9%). He is simply taking over and dominating football games.
Earlier this week, I sat down and rewatched the Week 11 loss to the Titans. Here were some of my notes and observations, some stuff I did and didn’t like and some things that could come in handy this week.
— It was a little weird to go back and see Mark Ingram still receiving the bulk of the touches at running back early on. They did finally let J.K. Dobbins eat, but the offense was still in that weird phase where we thought Ingram still had it, and we now know he doesn’t.
— Speaking of Dobbins eating, he did a lot of it. He finished with 13 rushes for 70 yards to go along with a touchdown and a two-point conversion. I thought he ran really well, made sharp and quick cuts and showed good burst. He hit holes hard and made something out of nothing more than once. This was one of Dobbins’ best games of his rookie season.
— The Titans did a really good job of containing Lamar Jackson in the run game. His designed runs were read well and went for little gains; so too did his scrambles.
— Something else the Titans did well on multiple occasions was shut down first down runs. This in turn forced the Ravens to throw on second and third and long, and Tennessee’s defense was able to get off the field thanks to some drops and errant throws.
— Outside of a pass interference by Marlon Humphrey on A.J. Brown on the Titans’ first play from scrimmage, the Ravens defense had a tremendous first half, especially in the red zone where they held Tennessee to field goals twice. Conversely, the Titans defense also found success in the red zone, also forcing two field goals.
— Jaylon Ferguson looked awful against the Titans’ heavy use of play action, getting fooled badly more than once. You could spot him chasing down someone who didn’t have the ball while Ryan Tannehill was either 10 yards downfield or on the opposite hash mark winding up to throw.
— No more bad vibes. Someone who had a really good game was Yannick Ngakoue. He tallied a sack, a forced fumble and two pressures and had his way with Titans backup left tackle Ty Sambrailo. They’re now on their third left tackle of the season, as it’s now David Quessenberry protecting Tannehill’s blind side with Sambrailo on injured reserve.
— Someone else who had a great day was Mark Andrews. He finished with five catches for 96 yards and a touchdown and made some spectacular plays.
— Just like how the Titans shut down early down runs and forced the offense to pass, the Ravens defense did it well too, forcing Tannehill to become more of a drop back passer and rely less on play action which didn’t go well.
— Marcus Peters struggled in coverage when matched up with Corey Davis. Davis got open easily, often for big gains.
— Something I sort of glanced over when I thought back to this game and that didn’t come to me at the time when I watched it live was just how good Jackson’s two-minute drive was that set up a field goal to send the game to overtime. He completed passes with precision and got some help from a big run and a great after the catch run by Dez Bryant to move the ball inside the Titans 15-yard line. It felt similar to the drive he would have to close out the Browns game a few weeks later.
The topic of discussion surrounding this team heading into this postseason, that was not there last season, was the adversity the team had to overcome. This group overcame injuries to significant contributors on both sides of the ball. They overcame a Covid outbreak that postponed two games and forced them to play one with nearly a dozen practice squad call-ups. They won just once in the month of November, going 1-3 and nearly waving their playoff hopes goodbye. This year, they’ll go on the road to begin the playoffs as a wild card team, rather than a 14-2 1st seed with a bye week and home field advantage.
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
The 2019 Ravens never got punched in the mouth. They went through the regular season in cruise control and on top of the world. They did the punching. This year, they were the ones receiving the heavy blows.
This is the matchup and the team the Ravens wanted. They built their team specifically to take down the Titans.
I don’t think I can handle another year of “Lamar can’t win big games” talk.
Let the revenge tour begin.