The Titans are currently a 9.5-point underdog heading into their divisional round trip to Baltimore, and in case you’re wondering, the history for teams that are getting that many points isn’t great. Using the lines listed in Pro Football Reference’s database, teams that are getting 9.5 points or more are 14-63 all time in the playoffs and are on a 9 game losing streak. The last team to win a game outright as a dog of this magnitude was the 2010 Jets who traveled to Foxborough and knocked off the Patriots 28-21 as a 9.5-point underdog.
What’s that mean for Titans-Ravens? Well... nothing really.
There is zero doubt that the Ravens should be considered favorites to win this game. They’re not just the best team in the NFL this season over 16 games, but they’re Football Outsider’s 7th best team since 1985 based on DVOA. They’re also playing at home and coming off a week of rest — two for some key starters — while the Titans are coming off a physical win in New England.
All that being said... counting the Titans out would be a mistake. Since Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback in Week 7, the Titans are 8-3 including wins over the Chiefs and Patriots. They’ve won four straight road games coming into this matchup and generally seem unphased by hostile environments. They have the league’s most explosive offense when Tannehill is behind center and they have a few weapons that will pose a particular problem to this very good Ravens defense.
So let’s dig into a few things that will be key to the Titans having a chance to pull the upset here.
Play assignment sound on defense
This is much easier said than done, but hero ball will get you killed against these Ravens. They’re extremely multiple on offense with a trio of tight ends that can both block and catch, a 311-pound fullback, and the league’s most electric player in soon-to-be MVP Lamar Jackson.
They accentuate those versatile pieces with a scheme that includes all sorts of options for window dressing and drawing the eyes of the defense. No team starts offensive plays with a player in motion more than the Ravens. Frequently, they use jet motion designed to either widen the defensive front or create better blocking angles for their attack.
Here, the motion from blocking tight end Nick Boyle does both. You can see Rams outside linebacker Clay Matthews widen just a step after the snap which makes Boyle’s job to seal him outside that much easier. Bringing Boyle in motion also helps pulling left guard Bradley Bozeman get a better angle to cut off linebacker Cory Littleton (No. 58).
The easiest way to get gashed by the Ravens is to have guys trying to make plays outside of the scheme of the defense. Here’s an example (even though it turns out OK for the 49ers in the end). Star rookie defensive end Nick Bosa gets caught trying to crash a Mark Ingram dive from the backside and leaves nobody home to corral Lamar Jackson when he keeps it on the naked boot.
(While Jackson isn’t a turnover machine in general, he will put the ball on the ground at times. He fumbled 9 times during the regular season, tied for 12th most in the NFL.)
It is tempting to try to be a playmaker and just “make something happen”, especially when you’re playing a team like Baltimore who can nickel and dime you for yardage in the run game seemingly at will at times, but putting on the cape and trying to be a hero is the quickest way to get beat against this team.
The best approach is to be patient, even if that means giving up some long drives. Dean Pees’ bend but don’t break style is the correct approach in a game like this. The Ravens are the second best red zone offense in the NFL — behind just the Titans — but they’re also the most explosive offense in the league over the course of the season. If you can’t come up with a few red zone stops, you’re going to be in trouble, but not as much trouble as you’ll find yourself in with over-aggressiveness that leads to chunk plays.
The Ravens offense is very unique. You’ll see QB sweeps.
You’ll see a variety of plays that look like a variation of a triple option or a read option (though many of these are actually pre-determined calls that are being carried out regardless of read, like the one below).
You’ll see lots of jet motion and play fakes in the passing game that can lead to wide open receivers streaking into open space.
It’s all very impressive and there is no magic bullet to stopping it. The Ravens have scored 20 or more points in every single that this year. Every. Single. Game.
The best approach, in my opinion, is for the Titans to keep Jeffery Simmons, DaQuan Jones, and Jurrell Casey on the field as much as possible and ask them to control the middle and gum up the Mark Ingram/Gus Edwards dives that give a drumbeat to the offense. Then I’d surround them with as many athletic defenders as I can. Use some big dime featuring Kevin Byard, Amani Hooker, and Kenny Vaccaro on the field along with the top three corners and Rashaan Evans. Rotate as much as you need to because maximum effort will be required every snap and defenders rallying to the ball carrier is an absolute must.
Test the edges in the run game and find out how much the Ravens want to tackle
The Titans wore out the Patriots run defense with the outside zone in the wildcard round and we should see a heavy dose of their bread and butter run call again this week.
The Ravens run defense is stout in the middle with the 350-pound Justin Ellis, 340-pound Michael Pierce, 336-pound Brandon Williams, and 325-pound Domata Peko all available to anchor in the middle. Success can be found on the edges, however.
Edge defenders Matthew Judon and rookie Jaylon Ferguson are just OK as run defenders, and while the big boys in the middle are great at gumming things up, they’re less dominant when they’re asked to get lateral and move on outside zone calls. The weakest unit on the Ravens defense is inside linebacker where Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort qualify as little more than replacement level players.
The 49ers were able to find a lot of success with Arthur Smith’s favorite run call in their matchup with Baltimore in Week 13. They piled up 174 yards on the ground, including this 40 yard touchdown by Raheem Mostert off an outside zone run.
Running right, towards Marcus Peters, has been particularly fruitful for opposing teams. While Peters has been great for the Ravens in coverage, he’s never been particularly fond of tackling on the edge and I’d expect the Titans to check and see if he has interest in tackling Derrick Henry frequently in this game.
The Ravens as a whole are not a great tackling defense. They allow at least one broken tackle on 11.5% of snaps according to Football Outsiders charting data, the 9th highest rate in the league. The Titans, on the other hand, are the toughest team in the league to bring down, forcing a missed tackle on 15.1% of their offensive snaps, nearly two whole percentage points higher than the second best Browns at 13.2%.
Derrick Henry has been on fire and this game sets up well for him to continue this amazing run of production.
Always know where 89 is, especially on 3rd down and in the red zone
The Ravens do a good job of staying in 3rd and short situations — or staying out of 3rd down altogether — but when they do find themselves needing to pass to pick up a first down, Jackson is likely going to be looking for tight end Mark Andrews.
Andrews was targeted 36 times on 3rd down this season, the most of any tight end in the league and the 15th most of any player. The trust level with him and his quarterback is extremely high. Jackson is willing to throw the ball up in dangerous areas and let his go-to pass catcher go make a play, like this one:
Andrews is also tied for 3rd in the NFL with 7 red zone receiving touchdowns, per Pro Football Reference. When Jackson needs a play, he’s going to look for his big tight end.
The Titans are likely to use safety Kenny Vaccaro in coverage on Andrews frequently, especially with Jayon Brown out of the lineup. He’s one of the Titans who needs to have a whale of a game if Tennessee hopes to advance.
Don’t be afraid to dial up a deep shot on 3rd downs
On 3rd downs, it’s not a question of if the Ravens will blitz, it’s a question of how many are coming. No team blitzes more in general than Wink Martindale’s group, leading the league by sending extra rushers on a whopping 54.9% of all dropbacks.
This is partially out of necessity. Unlike Ravens teams of years past, this defense doesn’t really have a dominant pass rusher on it. Matthew Judon is easily the most worrisome for the Titans front with 9.5 sacks and 33 quarterback hits, but he’s not in that elite category like Terrell Suggs was for years in Baltimore.
However, the Ravens also blitz, in part, because they can. Earl Thomas, Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith, and Brandon Carr are all quite capable of living on the islands that Martindale frequently leaves them on.
The Ravens are at their most blitz-happy on 3rd downs, when they love to speed up a quarterback’s decision making and try to force him into a mistake. Ryan Tannehill will need to be prepared for pressure at all times and be decisive with the ball.
Baltimore likes to leave quarterbacks and offensive linemen guessing pre-snap by walking several players along the line of scrimmage as shown in the play below. This time the Ravens bring six and leave their corners one on one with the Browns talented receivers. Baker Mayfield overshoots a deep ball down the sideline to Odell Beckham, who is working against Jimmy Smith.
Speaking of the Ravens corners, they almost never shadow opposing receivers. Marcus Peters will stay outside on the offense’s right and Marlon Humphrey will be on the offense’s left in base defense. When they go to their sub-packages, Humphrey bumps inside and Jimmy Smith comes in to take his outside spot. If the Titans want to get A.J. Brown matched up on a specific corner, we will probably find out pretty quickly based on where they are sending him in the formation.
Back to the blitzing... the Ravens aggressiveness can leave them exposed to the opportunities for some big plays. Here’s another 3rd down and Baltimore comes with a blitz and have Earl Thomas drop down to rob in the intermediate area. That leaves John Brown one on one with Humphrey with no help and he probably has a touchdown here if not for a truly horrendous throw from Josh Allen.
The Titans will need their receivers — particularly A.J. Brown and Corey Davis — to win some of their matchups with the Ravens corners in this game. If they do, they could find some chunk plays thanks to Baltimore’s ultra-aggressive style of play.
Test Marcus Peters in coverage
Peters has been excellent since being traded to the Ravens before Week 7, but we know a few things about him at this point in his career...
- He’s a gambler.
- He’s not always an enthusiastic tackler.
Peters has a well earned reputation for guessing and that makes him dangerous... in both directions. He ranks in the top 15 among all NFL corners in both touchdowns given up (5) and interceptions (5) by PFF charting.
Is there a chance the Titans could get burned? Sure, but there is also a chance for them to catch Peters out of position for a big play or two.
One byproduct of being a heavy blitz team is less margin for error on the back end. There are going to be opportunities in this game for the Titans to get the ball in the hands of Brown or Davis with just a corner between them and the end zone. They need to take advantage of those chances as often as possible.
Tennessee isn’t going to be able to take the same approach that they did against New England. They’ll need to open things up on offense and score in bunches if they’re going to knock off the 1 seed and shock the football world.
This is going to be a game decided by the big play. The league’s first and second ranked offenses when it comes to explosive play rate are going head to head on Saturday night so get ready for some excitement, and hopefully, a surprise ending.