Back in 2011, the Baltimore Ravens got late season and postseason production from two of the rookies from their class: first-round cornerback Jimmy Smith and fifth-round defensive lineman Pernell McPhee. Smith was expected to contribute and was part of a defense that contained Tom Brady and the Patriots in the AFC Championship, notching an improbable, diving interception in the game. But McPhee was the surprise jolt to the pass rush, registering six sacks throughout the season as an interior sub-package rusher.
Fast forward nine years later to this past Sunday’s playoff game against the Tennessee Titans: the two lone 2011 holdovers were still major contributors in the postseason. In fact, I’d argue, they were the most critical contributors. The OGs from the Ray Lewis/Ed Reed era infused a dog mentality the defense sorely needed against a team that bullied them in two prior losses.
McPhee was my defensive MVP of the game, which is saying something considering how the defense performed as a whole. In a game in which Baltimore controlled the line of scrimmage and dominated Derrick Henry (who gained only 40 yards on 18 carries), McPhee was the catalyst.
McPhee teaching class on the edge pic.twitter.com/uccNo6wMgL
— michael crawford (@abukari) January 11, 2021
Time and time again, he set the edge with force to redirect Henry inside and into a crowd. McPhee was virtually unblockable and disengaged blocks consistently to either hit the ball carrier or influence the tackle. Moreover, McPhee ate up two blockers on a line stunt to free Derek Wolfe for a sack in a critical third-down play in the second quarter. Following that sack and punt, the offense got the ball back and Lamar Jackson scored on a touchdown run.
Here’s the crazy part — McPhee led the defense with six tackles on only 20 snaps!
Here’s the even crazier part — his 2011 classmate played on only one more snap at 21. Smith had a steadying influence on the secondary after a brutal first quarter in which A.J. Brown had his way with All-Pro Marlon Humphrey.
Smith showed off his full range and versatility in Don “Wink” Martindale’s defense in obvious passing situations. According to friend of RSR Josh (@Yoshi2052), Smith lined up across from all of the Titans pass catchers (receivers and tight ends) during the game, including four times against Brown when he rotated with Humphrey at outside corner.
There were two specific plays and situations where Smith’s influence stood out to me.
The first was a 3rd-and-2 stop in the third quarter where Smith shadowed tight end Anthony Firkser, which forced quarterback Ryan Tannehill to hold the ball and ultimately throw an incomplete pass to Corey Davis. It was a pivotal play because the defense struggled to defend Firkser on third down earlier in the game. The tight end was playing the de facto slot role and Wink countered with Smith, who has the size and athleticism to tangle with pass-catching tight ends.
Later in the game, Smith came through against Firkser on third down again, this time on a goal line stop at the end of the same quarter that forced the Titans to kick a field goal but kept them from tying the score. Smith’s ability to press and smother the TE enabled the corners and safety Chuck Clark to seamlessly hand off their coverage responsibilities against the Tennessee wide spread formation.
Smith and McPhee were part-time players on Sunday but clearly Martindale values their ability to step up on the most critical downs.
Both veterans have battled injuries in their careers and have missed their fair share of games in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. However, the Baltimore Ravens don’t get their first playoff win in the Lamar Jackson era without them being on the field in the wild card round.
Play-Action Passing Game on First Down
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman called arguably his best drive as Ravens’ OC coming out of halftime. The 77-yard drive that ultimately led to a touchdown score and the Ravens taking the lead featured a mix of first-down play-action completions to Patrick Ricard and Mark Andrews in the flats.
By design, the Titans left the flats open so they could clog the inside passing lanes Jackson prefers to target. But Roman made Tennessee pay and the use of Ricard in particular was ingenious. The Titans had no answer. Give Roman even more credit because on a number of these sets, Andrews was off the field. The OC decided to lean on Project Pat and three receivers to keep the Titans spread out. The adjustment paid off.
The play-action, short area passing game was a recurring theme all day and Marquise “Hollywood” Brown also greatly benefited. He ripped the Titans consistently on quick outs to the sideline, as Tennessee decided to play off coverage. He and Jackson formed real chemistry on those throws. With Jackson getting into a rhythm, he was able to get the ball to Brown in stride and enable the speedy receiver to gain yards after the catch.
It was the first time I can recall Brown being used this often as an open-space target, even being featured on backwards passes from Jackson off motion. There were some glimpses of Brown’s ability to be a weapon underneath in the Cincinnati game.
Roman needs to carry this usage of Brown and the first down play-action game into the divisional round.