Last week’s game in Buffalo was a missed opportunity on so many levels.
Foremost, the Titans had a chance (by going 4-1) to co-establish the pace the rest of the AFC “playoffs maybes” would’ve had to keep up with. As premature as it sounds, 5 weeks into the season we are starting to see some teams separate themselves from the pack. Unfortunately for the Titans, there are more AFC squads that look to figure into the postseason picture than many predicted prior to week one. The Bengals/Ravens, Titans/Jaguars, Chargers, and Dolphins all are in prime contention for wildcard spots. That doesn’t count the Steelers and Broncos who’ve also shown promise despite currently sitting behind the pack.
Yes, as long as the Titans can stay ahead of Jacksonville and Houston, a wildcard spot will be irrelevant. The reality is, however, that in order to remain in the driver’s seat for either the division or a wildcard, Tennessee is faced with two critical games upcoming. With a loss to the Dolphins already on their resume, the Titans cannot also afford losses to the Ravens and Chargers, losses that would likely allow Jacksonville to wrestle back control of the AFC South as well.
The time is now for the Titans coaching staff to use any “special” schematic ammunition they have tucked away. This is the most critical stretch remaining on Tennessee’s schedule, and they must at least split it.
Onto the Ravens Breakdown. From here on out, one can assume that the games I will watch for each opponent are simply their last five 2018 contests.
When the Titans Run
Coming off a week in which Derrick Henry seemingly went underutilized given his success on limited reps, I suspect Matt LaFleur will feel some “political” pressure to feed Henry in an attempt to reward him. I hope LaFleur can be honest himself and with Henry in assessing that there will be better weeks for that to happen in the future. Baltimore’s run defense plays with an approach that tends to stifle Henry’s strengths and expose his weaknesses.
If either Tennessee back is going to have success against the Ravens front, it will be Dion Lewis, who possesses the quickness and elusiveness to at times flip the script on overaggressive pursuit. Baltimore’s front seven flows as a unit in run defense, rarely leaving one defender in a make or break situation. They do a good job avoiding traffic and cutting off the ball carrier on runs that attack the edges, where Henry is at his best.
I don’t love straight-up outside zone for either back against this front, because I believe the Ravens will regularly limit all the possible lanes that it hopes to create. Rather, in my opinion, the Titans will be better served getting creative with blocker movement on the interior, designed to open up the A and B gaps. The only problem with this approach, of course, is the unreliable and occasionally dreadful blocking technique displayed by the Titans interior OL and TEs.
It begs the question: Is it better to attack a weakness with a weakness or a strength with a strength? Ultimately, the Titans are at a disadvantage in both cases—they haven’t been consistently productive on any run concepts so far, so it’s hard to label anything as a strength. I wouldn’t bank on steady results, but if Tennessee can execute a handful of these more complex blocking concepts and spring Lewis into the second level, it may open things up on the edges over time. This week, the Titans should try to work inside-out.
When the Titans Pass
While all the blame for the Titans loss to the Bills went to Nick Williams, I thought Matt LaFleur and Marcus Mariota called/played way too conservatively. That style of offense leaves you vulnerable to a couple plays deciding the outcome of a game and, lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened. It teetered dangerously close to (and perhaps fell into) Mularkey-ball territory, something I thought I was done having to watch.
The “Mariota Conundrum” is this: Titans fans, myself included, look at the throws he does make and rationally conclude that someone else is the problem. We see a fairly high rate of quality passes by Mariota and just enough poor routes and drops by the receivers to vindicate the QB. I’m beginning to wonder whether the bigger problem is the throws Mariota chooses not to make. I’m concerned that we’re hearing “such and such was open but wasn’t thrown to” too often. You can’t win in this league long-term playing it safe or hesitating as a QB.
As for LaFleur, I’m still waiting to see him put pressure on a good secondary. I’m somewhat shocked at the lack of short crossers, quick hitches, and usage of Dion Lewis on swings. Right now, the biggest similarity between his play calling and Terry Robiskie’s is that too many of his concepts attack the intermediate levels of the field. Those types of route concepts require more nuanced route-running and timing than the short, quick game and deep shots. Game after game, Titans fans wonder why receivers can’t get open. It seems the Titans’ play callers insist on exclusively playing chess, despite the opportunity to play checkers too once in a while.
Against a Ravens’ secondary that is stacked across the board, I sure as hell hope to see LaFleur learn from last week’s mistakes. Cincinnati did a wonderful job attacking Baltimore’s coverage, by getting un-pressed releases out of the slot and creating easy completions underneath. From there, they picked their spots to attack one-one-one coverage with A.J. Green. They also mixed in back-shoulder throws on the boundaries, something all secondaries have a difficult time taking away. Granted, Ravens’ CB Jimmy Smith wasn’t active for that game, but the point stands: making things more complex against a good coverage unit isn’t a way to gain leverage, it’s way to concede it. Start with concepts that force them to acknowledge the easy stuff, then sprinkle in wrinkles once you’ve engaged them in that manner.
The Bengals, Broncos, Steelers, and Browns had their most success throwing to quick, difficult-to-defend routes. When those offenses asked their QBs to hold the ball or make complex reads, they played right into Baltimore’s hands. The Ravens’ secondary is technically sound and their pass rush can tee off on long-developing plays. Staying ahead of the chains is paramount—the Titans will not extend drives often on 3rd and 6, 7, 8, etc. This week’s passing mantra ought to be: Work smarter not harder.
When the Ravens Run
The Titans will be facing a condensed-set, gap-blocking ground attack similar to the one they went against last week. Like the Bills, the stats don’t suggest that the Ravens are very good on the ground, but the eye test tells a bit different story. Alex Collins impressed me with his ability to break tackles to gain yardage that seemingly wasn’t available. Buck Allen stood out as having a knack for absorbing contact and falling forward just enough to convert on 3rd downs and in goal line situations. Perhaps the best way to describe the Ravens run game is “situational”—it has been kept in check, but both backs have been able to extend drives at opportune times.
Last week against Cleveland—a good run defense, mind you—both ball carriers had likely their best performances of the season. It may be the case that they are on an upswing, after taking some time to settle into their roles after the loss to injury of Kenneth Dixon, who appeared to be the preferred RB1 based on his usage in week one.
4-5 times a game, rookie QB Lamar Jackson gets on the field either as the primary QB or as a skill player. The Ravens haven’t gotten any spectacular plays out of these sets, and I wonder if they’ll continue to feature them as often as they do. When Jackson has received the ball, he’s almost exclusively been a runner, and has kept the ball in the cases when he’s had an option to hand off/pitch. When he enters the game, the Titans must be on their toes, as I’m sure the Ravens eventually intend to run a trick play with him against an unsuspecting defense.
When the Ravens Pass
Joe Flacco is a rich man’s Blake Bortles. At times, he can be reckless, make poor decisions, and throw wild passes. Contrary to the public perception of his strong arm, at his best, he’s throwing to easy, underneath targets or attacking one-on-one coverage on the boundaries. He has a good feel for timing and accuracy on those kinds of throws. His return to glory in 2018 has been a bit overstated, but I do like what OC Marty Mornhinweg is doing to play to his strengths.
The Ravens are running a ton of quick, underneath passes to TEs and slot receivers (primarily Willie Snead). They’re feeding Michael Crabtree on the edges for 7-15 yard gains. Once they’ve got defenses playing up, they’re looking downfield at speed-threat John Brown. When Flacco is given too much to consider, things can get a little hairy, but for the most part he’s surveying the defense pre-snap and has enough experience to know where he wants to go with the ball.
I actually really like the Titans CB match-ups in this one if they play out primarily this way: Malcolm Butler vs. Crabtree, Logan Ryan vs. Snead, and Adoree Jackson vs. Brown. Each CB’s skill set lines up near perfectly with each WR’s strengths. If the Ravens move their WRs around to purposefully avoid these match-ups, things will flip in their favor. I’m not as down on Butler as some, but he does need to put more good downfield reps on tape to get the target off his back—the Titans can’t afford to predictably dedicate assistance to him because offenses will manipulate that tendency.
To me, the bigger concern is the Ravens TE group. Names like Nick Boyle, Maxx Williams, Mark Andrews, and Hayden Hurst don’t strike fear into opposing fan bases, but the way they’re being used in Baltimore’s offense is putting a lot of pressure on opposing LBs in coverage. Jayon Brown, Wesley Woodyard and Rashaan Evans are going to have to be able to play tight coverage underneath without opening themselves up to an oke-doke over top. I wonder how much Dean Pees will look to get Kevin Byard up close to the line of scrimmage, as he’s outstanding at performing in that capacity.
I’ve liked what I’ve seen from the Ravens OL in terms of susceptibility to pass rush, but as mentioned above, Baltimore’s offense is doing a lot with quick passing concepts in order to render it moot. The Titans’ rushers will have chances to change the game only if the defense as a whole can force long downs.
Four to Watch
Offense: Dion Lewis
Defense: Adoree Jackson
Offense: The Ravens entire TE Group
Defense: Eric Weddle