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How to Topple the Titans

Lamar Jackson throws at practice
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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Reading Time: 6 minutes

Offense

Move the Pocket

Lamar Jackson’s legs are the thing that make him a truly special QB. In this, his second full year as the Ravens’ signal caller, Jackson rushed for over 1000 yards. In doing so, he became the first QB in NFL history to rush for 1000 yards in back-to-back seasons. He’s a danger to defenses on designed runs that have resulted in gashing touchdown scampers through the heart of the defense. He’s dangerous on ‘zone read’ plays because he forces the defense to treat him like an extra running back. He’s an absolute nightmare for defenses who can get burned by a run even if they have every downfield receiver well covered.

Jackson is especially dangerous when he’s rolling out with the option to throw or to run. Greg Roman needs to make it a top priority to move the pocket for Jackson on Sunday. Rolling Jackson out with some blockers in front of him does a few things for the Ravens’ offense. First, it frequently helps with pass protection behind an offensive line that has struggled to keep a clean pocket at times this season. Moving the pocket also allows the Ravens to attack the sidelines in a way that they often do not in their standard drop back passing game. And last but certainly not least, it gets Jackson moving away from the mass of defenders in the middle of the field.

On the move, Jackson is a danger to take off with his legs and do damage to a defense focused on defending the pass.

Use Two-Back Sets

Two running backs in the game at the same time – Greg Roman has been working on it for the entire year. Through fourteen weeks in the 2020 season, the Ravens had two running backs on the field at the same time a grand total of 10 times. In the last three weeks though, the Ravens have used two-back sets on 11 occasions.

Getting two running backs on the field at the same time has a few benefits. It gives the Ravens more options on offense. Instead of worrying about Jackson and one running back in the running game, the defense is forced to think about three players who might run the ball (without even considering wideouts coming in on jet sweeps). In a league where defenses typically account for one running option on each play, having to account for Jackson, J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards is a nightmare.

Two-back sets also give the Ravens the element of surprise. Using two-back sets against the Titans is not all that different than lining up in the “Wild Cat” or running the triple option from a wishbone formation. The formations and the plays exist. It is not as if Roman is inventing a new offense out of thin air. It does mean, though, that the Titans’ coaches and players might have to stop a series of plays that they’ve never seen on film before.

In a league in which film study preparation is so important, breaking out a new wrinkle by frequently utilizing two-back sets with Dobbins and Edwards could give Baltimore a nice leg up.

(Special thanks to @Yoshi2052 Twitter for assistance with data on two-back personnel groups.)

Target Andrews Deep

Much like the Titans, running the ball is the Ravens’ bread and butter. Running the ball with Jackson, Dobbins and Edwards allowed the Ravens to finish out the season with the offense looking like it is peaking at the perfect time. Their ability to run the ball so effectively is why they’re playing a game on Sunday in the first place. The Ravens can never get away from running the ball, but they also have to take advantage of an opponent’s weakness when they see one.

As a team, the Titans’ greatest weakness may be in their pass defense. At the conclusion of the regular season, Tennessee ranked 29th in the NFL in pass yards allowed per game (277.4). Just last week against the Titans, Texans’ QB Deshaun Watson completed 71.7% (28/39) of his passes for 365 yards. He finished the game with three touchdown passes and only one interception.

Most of Lamar Jackson’s best games as a passer in 2020 came in December. He looks confident in his arm and his on-field connections with Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin and Mark Andrews have improved. Coincidentally, Andrews’ best statistical game of the year came against the Titans in Week 11. Despite a few missed connections that would’ve resulted in an even better box score, Andrews caught five passes for 96 yards and a touchdown. Andrews caught a beautiful 30-yard pass from Jackson in the middle of the field and his TD near the sideline traveled 35 yards through the air.

Andrews could be in for another huge game on Sunday if Roman chooses to dial up some vertical shots from Jackson to his star TE.

DeShon Elliott tackles Derrick Henry of the Titans
Phil Hoffmann/Baltimore Ravens

Defense

Rotate the Defensive Line

Derrick Henry is, arguably, the best running back in the NFL. He is 6-foot, 3-inches-tall and tips the scales at around 240 pounds. In 2019, Henry’s NFL high 1540 rushing yards (102.7 yards per game) led the Titans to the AFC Championship game. Henry did not sneak up on NFL defenses in 2020. “Stop Derrick Henry” was the number one key to the game for every single defensive coordinator who had the misfortune of having to game plan for the Titans. Despite drawing the focus of defenses, Henry doubled down on his 2019 performance by rushing for the 5th most single season yards (2027) in the history of the NFL.

Wink Martindale has to put most of his focus into slowing Henry down on Sunday. That’s not a secret. In the Ravens loss to the Titans in Week 11, Brandon Williams and Calais Campbell missed the game due to injuries. As usual, Henry found success running the ball. Henry did his biggest damage, though, late in the game when the Ravens’ defensive line was tired and struggled to bring the Titans’ massive RB down. Fortunately for the Ravens, Martindale will have the services of Williams and Campbell available to him this time around. In some games, keeping the best players on the field for the full game is what gets the job done. But against Henry, freshness is key. Martindale needs to utilize the depth along the defensive line (Justin Madubuike, Broderick Washington, Justin Ellis, etc.) to ensure that as many linemen as possible are fresh in the fourth quarter. If the Ravens don’t keep their front seven fresh and slow Derrick Henry down, their season will end in Nashville.

Get Humphrey on Brown

Against the Titans, Henry is clearly the number one threat. Just as clearly, WR A.J. Brown is threat number two. Despite missing multiple games to injury during the regular season, Brown lead the Titans in targets, receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns. Brown’s 2020 season was stellar enough to earn him a spot on the AFC Pro Bowl roster alongside the likes of Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs and Keenan Allen.

It was a ‘Battle Plans’ key in Week 11 and that is not going to change now: when the Ravens are in man coverage, Wink needs to have Marlon Humphrey matched up on Brown. Humphrey’s level of skill and physicality make him the Ravens’ best option for limiting the Titans’ best WR. In their last matchup, Brown made a few key plays before scoring the demoralizing, multiple-broken-tackle TD that gave Tennessee their 4th quarter lead. The highlights were impressive, but Humphrey did a generally good job and held Brown to four catches for 62 yards.

Regardless of where A.J. Brown might go on the field this Sunday, Humphrey needs to be the Ravens’ defender following him in coverage on the vast majority of Baltimore’s defensive snaps.

Alert Tannehill Runs

When you watch Ryan Tannehill play quarterback, it’s easy to forget that he spent half of his college career at Texas A&M as a wide receiver. Tannehill, recruited out of high school as a dual-threat QB, actually caught an impressive 101 passes for 1440 yards and nine touchdowns during his freshman and sophomore seasons at A&M. Tannehill didn’t make the full transition to QB until his senior year. After a season and a half at QB and a Pro Day that impressed NFL scouts, Tannehill was the 8th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.

Against the Titans on Sunday, the Ravens need to be ready for Ryan Tannehill to run the ball. Though he is nowhere close to being one of the NFL’s best running QBs, Tannehill is absolutely a threat to tuck the ball away and run. He ranks 13th in QB rushing yards and is tied for 5th (with a certain Baltimore Raven) in QB rushing touchdowns (7). In the Ravens’ Week 11 matchup with the Titans, Tannehill ran the ball four times for 35 yards. Tannehill picked up a crucial 1st down in the 4th quarter and scored on a two-point conversion late in the game.

The Titans’ QB benefits greatly from defenses’ focus on Henry. In big pressure situations, particularly in the red zone, the Ravens’ defense needs to be ready for Tannehill to fake a handoff to Henry and keep it himself. One or two big Tannehill runs on Sunday could make all the difference in the outcome.

One-on-One Matchup to Watch

Titans’ WR Corey Davis versus Ravens’ CB Marcus Peters

Against the Titans, Humphrey may find himself regularly lined up across from Brown (see above). That matchup would mean that Ravens CB Marcus Peters would find himself matched up against Titans WR Corey Davis in man coverage. In the Ravens’ Week 11 matchup with the Titans, Davis caught five passes for 113 yards (22.6 yards per catch). On almost all of Davis’ production, Peters was the CB in coverage. It was one of Peters’ poorer performances as a Raven. The Ravens are going to focus their attention of Derrick Henry. Marlon Humphrey will be focused on A.J. Brown.

If Marcus Peters has a good game in coverage against Corey Davis, the Ravens defense should be just fine.

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