The nightcap of the first day of the divisional round pits the probable NFL MVP against its leading rusher. The Lamar Jackson-led Ravens offense attacks defenses in a variety of ways, testing their ability to cover every inch of the field. The Derrick Henry-led Titans offense tries to impose its will, overpowering opponents and battering them into submission, just before Ryan Tannehill hits them over the top with a play-action pass.
It’s a fascinating contrast, one that is more about style than kind. Both teams base their offense around a dynamic rushing threat, but they attack in extremely different ways and largely want to accomplish different things. Both teams have solid defenses, but their strengths on that side of the ball are in different areas as well.
All of this should make for a wildly entertaining game. Let’s break things down.
How to watch
Time: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
Location: M&T Bank Stadium (Baltimore, Maryland)
TV: CBS | Stream: CBS All Access
Line: Ravens -9.5
When the Titans have the ball
Last week, the Titans were able to escape Gillette Stadium with a win despite their quarterback completing only 8 of 15 passes for 72 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. If they plan on winning that way again this week, I have some bad news for them: not gonna happen.
Although it might be tempting to just ram Derrick Henry down the Ravens’ throats all game long, Baltimore’s quick-strike explosive offense will almost surely put up more than the Patriots‘ 13 points, which means Tennessee is going to have to score a heck of a lot more than 14 offensively this week. That means leveraging Henry’s success last week to get the efficient and explosive passing game that led this team on its playoff run, back on track.
Tannehill had played extremely well down the stretch of the season, leading the league in both passer rating and yards per attempt. Despite that fact, the Titans appeared to enter last week’s game with the intention of avoiding having to put the game in Tannehill’s hands against arguably the NFL‘s best pass defense. The Patriots’ secondary played as well as any in the NFL this year, and Bill Belichick has made plenty of quarterbacks look silly by confusing them with his schemes and fronts. So, the Titans punted on even testing the back end of the defense, content to let Henry pound away all night long, and kick the ball back to a non-threatening Pats offense if they didn’t get into scoring range.
Baltimore is also better against the pass (fourth in DVOA) than the run (19th), but the difference here is that the Titans can’t just be comfortable giving the ball back to Lamar Jackson and company. More aggression is called for.
When Tannehill looks downfield in this game, though, he’ll be looking into another very strong pass defense stacked with shutdown corners and arguably the NFL’s best safety. Since Marcus Peters arrived in Baltimore prior to the team’s Week 7 game, the trio of him, Jimmy Smith, and Marlon Humphrey has absolutely smothered opposing receivers. Among the 116 cornerbacks who have played 200-plus snaps during that time, Smith ranks 11th in passer rating allowed (65.4), while Peters ranks 16th (69.8) and Humphrey ranks 37th (87.0).
Baltimore will likely feel comfortable with any one of those three matching up with dynamic rookie A.J. Brown, so they won’t necessarily have to shadow him with one guy (Humphrey). Even if they do, though, it’s not like Corey Davis and Tajae Sharpe will get to work against weaker corners. There are no real weaknesses here. That’s true at the safety spot as well, where Earl Thomas, Chuck Clark, and Brandon Carr form one of the best and most versatile groups in the NFL. Jonnu Smith is typically far more athletic the a lot of the linebackers and safeties he matches up against (87th percentile in SPARQ), but that’s probably not an advantage he’ll have against the likes of Thomas.
That’s where the Titans’ extensive use of play action has to come in. Baltimore was one of the NFL’s better play-action pass defenses this season (7.5 yards per play, per Football Outsiders), but they were far better against straight drop-back passes (5.8 per play). That 1.8 yards per play difference in play-action concepts was 10th-largest in the NFL, highlighting the benefits of faking the run before throwing the ball against this Baltimore defense. Luckily, that’s right in Tannehill’s, as we wrote in our Titans vs. Patriots preview last week.
Tennessee utilized a ton of play action for Tannehill, allowing him to find windows that were far wider than those afforded him on straight drop-backs. Throws after run fakes accounted for 30 percent of his pass attempts during the regular season, and he registered a league-best 143.3 passer rating on those plays, per Pro Football Focus. The use of play action will be of particular importance against New England, whose defense saw the fourth-largest drop-off in yards per play allowed against play-action passes (7.3) vs. straight drop-backs (5.1), according to Football Outsiders.
It’s been shown numerous times that play-action passing can be successful independent of whether your run game is successful or even existent, but the Titans’ ability to marry Tannehill’s play-action success with their Derrick Henry-led ground game is a large part of what made them so dangerous during their run to the playoffs. Henry averaged just 3.7 yards per carry during the six games started by Mariota, and after six weeks he had just 416 yards on the ground. Henry only played in nine of Tannehill’s 10 starts, and yet he still managed to rush for 1,124 yards during that time, averaging a completely absurd 5.9 yards a pop and storming his way to the NFL rushing title by season’s end. The Titans’ success rate on run plays spiked from 45 percent with Mariota under center to 51 percent with Tannehill, per Sharp Football Stats.
Whether or not the Titans can find a pass game complement to Henry’s exploits could very well be the determinative factor in their ability to stay competitive with a Ravens team that just has so many different ways to beat you. Tannehill found a ton of success toward the end of the regular season, but he also faced defenses that were not quite at the same level as this Baltimore unit.
When the Ravens have the ball
The Titans did an excellent job of holding down the Patriots’ offense in the wild-card round, but they’re about to face a whole different kind of test this week. The Ravens finished the season second in total yards, first in points, third in yards per play, second in yards per drive, first in points per drive, first in the percentage of drives that ended in a score, fifth in the percentage of drives that ended in a turnover, and first in rushing, passing, and overall offensive DVOA. In other words, they’re really freaking good.
Obviously, everything starts with Lamar Jackson, and his ability to do things that nobody else on an NFL field can do. He might be the most unique player in NFL history. Jackson finished sixth in the NFL in rushing yards this season, and first — by a mile — among 47 qualified players in yards per carry (6.9). He also led the NFL in passing touchdowns (36) despite ranking just 26th in pass attempts. There have obviously been other dual-threat quarterbacks in the past, and there are plenty of them in the NFL today, but none of them present the same kind of two-way danger Jackson does.
His skill set makes game-planning for the Ravens a far different proposition than game-planning for any other team — even a run-heavy team like the Ravens. Baltimore was the only NFL team to run more often than it passed this season, and while that is generally a losing proposition, that was not the case for the Ravens. Their 55 percent success rate on rushing plays, per Sharp Football Stats, was better than any team in the NFL’s success rate on passing plays. There are a ton of teams out there that, when they run the ball, defenses should thank their lucky stars. The Ravens are not one of those teams.
Baltimore complements Jackson’s ability to threaten the edges with the downhill power game of Mark Ingram (and Gus Edwards, to a lesser extent), as well as the coaching staff’s confidence in Jackson’s decision-making when it comes to read-option plays. They will have Jackson read anybody from a defensive end to a tackle or a linebacker or a safety, giving the run game a versatility most NFL rushing attacks just do not have. To wit: the Ravens ranked first in the NFL on yards per carry (6.3) and first-down rate (31.3 percent) on runs outside the tackles, as well as sixth in yards per carry (4.1) and first in first-down rate (31.5 percent) on runs between the tackles, per Sports Info Solutions.
While play-action passing is often successful independent of whether a team runs the ball effectively (or even at all), the Ravens’ run and pass games are more interrelated than most because so many of their plays have Jackson faking a hand-off. The difference comes in whether he’s doing so with a plan to run it himself, or to throw it. Baltimore used play action more often than any team in the NFL this season, with 35 percent of Jackson’s pass attempts coming after he faked a run, per Pro Football Focus. On those plays, he was 90 of 139 for 1,032 yards, 14 touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a 120.5 passer rating. Pretty damn good.
The Titans, though, had one of the NFL’s better play-action pass defenses this season. According to Football Outsiders, Tennessee’s 6.3 yards per play allowed against play action ranked third-best in the NFL. Their secondary also received a boost with the return of Adoree’ Jackson, who is one of the few cornerbacks in the league that has a chance to keep up with Hollywood Brown in a foot race. Jackson played very well against the Patriots last week, and the Titans will need another big game from him against the Ravens if they want to move on. (Jackson has yet to practice this week, for what it’s worth.)
Perhaps even more important than the Jackson vs. Brown matchup on the outside, though, will be the way the Titans deal with Mark Andrews over the middle of the field. Tennessee ranked just 20th in DVOA against passes to tight ends this season, per Football Outsiders, which is not great when you consider that Andrews is the top passing-game target on this team. Baltimore actually lines Andrews up in the slot more often than not (as opposed to in-line), so it’ll be interesting to see whether the Titans choose to cover him with a linebacker (Rashaan Evans?), a safety (Kevin Byard or Kenny Vaccaro?), or a slot corner (Logan Ryan?). Andrews is extremely dangerous on crossing routes and seams in particular, where his size gives him an advantage over defensive backs and his speed and athleticism give him the edge over linebackers.
The most challenging thing about dealing with the Baltimore offense is that they’ll do any one of these things out of just about any formation. They cycle through more formations in one game than any team in the league, always keeping the defense on their toes. Most teams are gearing up to run the ball when they bring multiple backs or tight ends onto the field. The Ravens threw far more often out of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) than they ran. They threw 33 passes out of 13 personnel (one back, three tight ends), more than than any other team in the league. Meanwhile, only four teams ran the ball more often out of 11 personnel (one back, one tight end), which is the league’s pass-heaviest formation. This is a team that never lets the defense get comfortable, and that’s a large part of why they had so much success this year.
Prediction: Ravens 30, Titans 20