The Tennessee Titans are coming to Baltimore following a hard fought battle in New England. The Titans survived a game that saw a scoreless second half, intentional penalties to drain clock, a Tom Brady pick-six on his final pass and more oddities.
Among them, Titans running back Derrick Henry doubled the yardage that quarterback Ryan Tannehill produced, although Tannehill made three key throws, two late, sticking a dagger into the heart of a Patriots team that had appeared in three straight Super Bowls.
The Titans travel to Baltimore to play their third straight road game, a daunting task for any team. The Titans have several basic similarities to the 2018-19 Ravens:
• Benched a tenured starting QB in favor of an offseason addition
• Transitioned to a downhill run game complemented by a play action passing attack
• Rely on a veteran defense to play good situational football
• Made the post season in Week 17 after starting 4-5
What separates the Titans is a win on wild card weekend. That win brings them to Baltimore to face the NFL’s regular season version of a buzz saw.
The Ravens have set franchise and league records left and right while ripping off 12 straight wins en route to being the NFL’s only 14 win team.
However, contrary to popular opinion, the game still has to be played. Football, after all, is a sport where “Any Given Sunday” has been proven true time and time again. Need proof? Look no further than the Titans victory in New England.
With that in mind, let’s jump into the strengths and weaknesses of the Tennessee Titans, discussing how the Ravens can exploit their matchups and advance to the American Football Conference Championship game.
Starting with the Titans offense, as previously stated, offensive coordinator Arthur Smith has dialed up the Titans run game in full force, then likes to throw quick strike play action overtop of linebackers.
To get a feel for the Titans overall personnel and scheme, check out this article before advancing.
Tennessee primarily sticks to inside and mid zone concepts, with a fair amount of sweeps. Against the Patriots, the Titans ran mid zone aimed to hit the B-gap or C-gap.
Zero of these are outside zone. OT isn’t reaching. It’s mid zone. Henry doesn’t run wide C gap really at all this game. Titans want him north and south. pic.twitter.com/P6uvEfsa6z— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) January 6, 2020
No outside zone...— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) January 6, 2020
Firkser’s route was FILTHY to cap this scoring drive pic.twitter.com/2r1GKfIBP2
Titans LOVE to run weak side zone.— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) January 9, 2020
With 2 RB, they will run a good bit of PA and weak side zone.
They will also run lead zone, having TE pull backside and FB replace, creating cutback lanes.
Here, C cuts WLB (41) effectively causing MLB (55) to widen around mess. Easy 23 yards pic.twitter.com/9fVTkqxEnq
Titans love to use zone scheme to attack C-gap. It’s their bread and butter.— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) January 9, 2020
WLB McKinney (55) flows from backside and tackles Henry one on one. Not easy...
Titans love to make a MESS of 3 IDL pic.twitter.com/Y1qHc01vdr
Rarely will you see a pulling blocker play-side, as the Titans are a zone running team through and through. The objective for the Titans is simple. . . double team a 3-tech or cut a linebacker to see if Derrick Henry can find a seam.
Henry has been one of the most dominant running backs in football over the past year and a half. Previously, Henry struggled quite a bit with little consistency from game to game. Henry got in touch with former Titan Eddie George to ask for advice. George essentially told Henry that he was too often looking to hit a home run.
Since that constructive criticism, Henry leads the NFL in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. The Heisman Trophy winner has always been capable of going the distance. His improvement in recognizing when a play is bottled up, cutting loses, then getting every yard possible has tremendously boosted the Titans rushing attack.
That quality, the ability to recognize when a play isn’t going far, then fighting to fall forward, is what makes Frank Gore such a special player. Gaining five yards in a mosh pit can be just as valuable as hitting an open lane and making an explosive play.
This consistency, in turn, has opened up the Titans passing game as well. The opportunity for play action passes has been opened up, and no team is more successful on play action attempts than Tennessee. Since taking over for Marcus Mariota in Week 6, Tannehill has lit opponents up on play action passes.
Tannehill on play action:
- 61 of 79, 77.22 completion %
- 1126 yards
- 8 touchdowns
- 42 first downs
- 3 interceptions
- 136.4 QB rating
- 5-33 sacks, yards lost
- 14.3 Y/A
- 14.57 Intended Y/A
Tannehill’s efficiency and production are the best in the NFL on play action passes for three reasons:
- Effectiveness of the rushing game— #Analyticstwitter will argue this until they’re blue in the face, citing ‘correlation isn’t causation.’ However, linebackers have to fill holes to prevent Derrick Henry from casually falling forward for six yards, if not busting through the B-gap for 30 yards before five defensive backs can wrangle him to the ground like a pack of hyenas attacking a lion. When linebackers fill holes, tight ends and wide receivers gain separation and Ryan Tannehill gets clear windows to throw to downfield.
- Tannehill’s ball placement— Tannehill gets the ball out quickly and in rhythm. His accuracy downfield has been as good as a coach can wish for, particularly on play action passes. Tannehill hits receivers in stride with catchable balls that allow for. . .
- Yards after the catch— rookie receiver A.J. Brown and tight end Jonnu Smith rank first and fourth in the NFL in YAC/R, averaging over 8.1. In other words, these dudes can score from anywhere. When play action draws defenders into the box, there are less defenders to outrun downfield. That’s simple math.
#Titans QB Ryan Tannehill (14-18, 259 yards, 2 TDs in the Week 12 win) — TEN ran a bunch of I formation play-action to influence the JAX LBs. Create windows for Tannehill to throw the dig routes, slants, crossers. @NFLMatchup @TDavenport_NFL pic.twitter.com/9wOWenayjZ— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) November 27, 2019
#Titans film: Tennessee's go-to play-action concept is hitting the intermediate crosser. They run this play several times a game since Tannehill took over. Both Brown and Davis are good on the crosser. pic.twitter.com/rpW3Hb9DgZ— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 1, 2020
#Titans film: Ryan Tannehill is averaging an insane 13.5 pass YPA off of play-action. Simulating power with the backside guard pull, same play Brady talked about on the NFL 100 special. Wait till the end for Brady throwing a TD to Gronk on the same concept. pic.twitter.com/aYvyJerjYx— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) January 1, 2020
When Tannehill is under center on early downs with Henry as the lone back, #Titans love to run bootleg play-action off of it with Brown going across the field. Tannehill is a good intermediate passer. Averaging 13.5 YPA off of play-action as the starter. pic.twitter.com/47yyH295FN— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) December 31, 2019
“I think when Ryan throws it 91 yards to A.J., that's pretty good play-action.”— John Glennon (@glennonsports) December 19, 2019
Ryan Tannehill and the #Titans are torching the league with play-action passing this year.
Our Film Analysis wades into the hows and whys:https://t.co/7NbB9ImFyz@TheAthleticNSH @TheAthleticNFL pic.twitter.com/cS4Ok6B1JU
Good... god... Tannehill is a machine off the PA... pic.twitter.com/Jhf4EZhB7K— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) January 9, 2020
Tannehill may have thrown three interceptions on play action passes, but none of them were notable schematically. One caromed off of A.J. Brown’s hands before finding a defender, Tannehill was hit on another and the third had a cartoonish bounce off of two players.
The lack of weakness there may be why the Patriots elected to play the pass by having linebackers stay home, rather than shoot gaps to stop Derrick Henry.
While the plan worked in terms of keeping the Titans from scoring (14 points, zero in the second half), Henry kept the clock moving with one first down after another, managing to slowly flip field position one mid zone at a time.
The mid zone and the play action are the two pillars of the Titans offense. Arthur Smith also sprinkles in screens and jet sweeps. Screens have been deadly for opposing defenses.
Titans screen game is a problem...— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) January 9, 2020
Love to run PA screens, Pats LBs jump back to find tight ends, leave Henry plenty of daylight. pic.twitter.com/HKm0UFstXs
Tennessee’s offensive line execute screens with great patience, rarely overrunning blocks or getting too far downfield before the pass has found Henry’s hands.
In a nutshell, the Titans offense uses mid zone to get Derrick Henry into seams, which has been unstoppable to an extent. Then, they run play action passes from the same looks as the inside zones, causing the defense to bite, and Ryan Tannehill launches perfectly placed crossers and posts to receivers. Tannehill’s ball placement allows receivers to run through the catch and gain tons of YAC. Play caller Arthur Smith sprinkles in screens, reverses and sweeps for posterity. Got it? Good.
Now that we have their offensive identity and tendencies down, how can the Ravens counter?
- Using late movement pre-snap
- Blitzing defensive backs
- Playing “outside in”
(1) The Titans will likely need to use a silent count against crowd noise, particularly on third downs. This should prevent them from using hard counts and other cadence variations due to crowd noise. This will allow the Ravens to disguise their defensive front, as well as their coverage, until just before the snap.
The Ravens have been able to confuse opposing blockers and passers for years by doing so. This will be crucial in getting quick pressure from blown assignments against the Titans play action passing game.
(2) The Ravens blitz defensive backs more than any other team in the league. Chuck Clark blitzed more than any other DB in the NFL, rushing a whopping 97 times. Considering Clark didn’t start getting significant snaps until Week 6, Clark was far and away the most active pass rusher from any secondary position in the league. Earl Thomas blitzed 54 times, which is more than he had in his entire career combined. Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey both have combined to rush the passer 67 times, with Brandon Carr netting 10 pressures.
(3) Blitzing from the outside on play actions will prevent Tannehill from rolling outside and buying time on play action bootlegs. If the Ravens can sack Tannehill, they can make the Titans one dimensional and remove their play action threat. Tannehill has still shown strong ability without play action, but is nowhere near as spectacular. Blitzing weak side defensive backs against the run could also turn Derrick Henry back inside. As previously stated, causing Henry to hesitate and cut back is imperative, because once Henry gets rolling, he can easily churn out yards after contact and create positive plays just by crossing the line of scrimmage.
The Ravens matchup well against the Titans on an individual basis. Similar to the Ravens offense, the Titans love to use ‘12’, ‘13’ and ‘21’ personnel to run the football.
Tennessee rarely presents shotgun looks, especially on early downs. Because the Titans love to throw from heavy packages, the Ravens might prefer to use “jumbo nickel” looks, utilizing more lineman and DB’s with less linebackers.
Using a more physical defensive front will be crucial to winning at the line of scrimmage. The Ravens should deploy Jihad Ward and Matthew Judon from the outside on early downs, then utilize combinations of Michael Pierce, Brandon Williams, Domata Peko, Justin Ellis and Chris Wormley inside. Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce have commanded two sets of double teams when working in tandem, which allows linebackers to shoot gaps untouched. I wouldn’t expect Tennessee to double team two defenders, as it would disrupt their general offensive philosophy as a true zone-run team.
This means that Williams and Pierce will have opportunities to cross the face of a blocker, steer them into the hole and blow up plays. Both players have done this time and time again, and are two of the league’s most well equipped players to face the Titans mid-zone game. They will need to win reps consistently by crossing their blockers face and forcing Henry to cut back against the grain. This will allow weak side defenders to crash inside and attempt to corral Henry to the ground.
Jaylon Ferguson and Tyus Bowser are both interesting in this matchup. When Ferguson is the weak side EDGE, he can crash inside at a high level. However, he has been vulnerable to reverses and still lacks experience as a true edge setter, which can be a vulnerability. If the Ravens were to give Ferguson additional help to his outside, like stacking Bowser, then Ferguson’s ability to crash from the weak side could end Derrick Henry runs in a hurry.
Bowser has flourished with playing time in 2019, and is certainly the Ravens second most impactful pass rusher. Bowser possesses the ability to run and cover in space, which could allow him to drop into coverage if the Titans run play action away from Bowser. When the Titans run play action bootlegs, they sell out to block the edge playside, allowing Tannehill to move. If that happens away from Bowser, he should drop into coverage and attempt to cut off seam routes to tight ends, which could result in an interception if he’s nimble enough.
In the secondary, Marlon Humphrey will match up well with A.J. Brown. The All-Pro has had some growing pains in the slot, but allowing him to play boundary cornerback in base packages will be an advantage. Humphrey’s long speed allows him to cover (and recover) against over routes, which the Titans love to throw to Brown.
One quandary that the Ravens might be left to consider is how much to play Marcus Peters in base defense. While Peters has returned to an elite cover corner in the Ravens scheme, his ability as a run defender is average at best. With Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey both being plus run defenders from the cornerback position, are the Ravens going to want Peters on the perimeter, where the Titans aim most of their rushing attacks? The 49ers ran outside power and zone concepts that targeted Peters quite a few times, with much success. There were other factors at hand into the Ravens struggles against the run in the first three quarters of that game, but Peters certainly was a weak point.
Many Titans observers believe that Marcus Peters aggressive play style can be used against him to hit on a double move. This is hyperbole. Peters doesn’t jump passes in man coverage, or if he has deep responsibilities in zone. The Ravens allow Peters to play some zone underneath, where he has a great feel for plays. As Marlon Humphrey said, “he’s one of the smartest, if not the smartest defensive back I’ve ever played with.”
With all of these factors at hand, the Ravens defense is well equipped to neutralize much of what the Titans do. The Ravens will sell out to stop the run early in an attempt to get the Titans off their game. Baltimore’s defense has been perhaps the most underrated unit in football over the past three months.
When examining how teams have fared defensively over the second half of the season, the Ravens are one of the elite units. Over the final eight games of the season, the Ravens have allowed the second fewest yards (2,035) and sixth fewest points (106) in the past decade. The Ravens closed the season out brilliantly, and since acquiring Marcus Peters have allowed the fewest points per game of any defense (15.25).
To pair with that defensive dominance, the Ravens offense has outscored opponents by 174 points over their final eight games, the second highest total in NFL history. They tied with the 2010 Patriots and 1984 49ers.
Let’s flip over to the offensive side, and see how the Ravens offense matches up with the Titans defense.
The Ravens are all too familiar with the Titans defensive coordinator, Dean Pees. Most long time Ravens fans can probably guess. . . Pees’ defense allows yards and limit points. However, this Titans defense has severely struggled in the red zone, which was atypical of a Pees time in Baltimore. Tennesee has allowed opponents to find the end zone on 32 of 47 trips (68.1%) which is the second worst rate in the NFL.
The Titans defense will be without their best cover linebacker, Jayon Brown. This is a devastating loss for Tennessee. If you watched Baltimore Ravens football during Dean Pees time in Baltimore, then you would know that they often struggled to defend tight ends.
In 2019, Tennessee allowed tight ends to gash them for 80 receptions on 119 targets, 916 yards and nine touchdowns. Those numbers are comparable to what Ravens Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews produced this season (64 receptions for 852 yards and 10 touchdowns).
The Ravens trio of Andrews, Nick Boyle and Hayden Hurst will present Tennessee with their toughest test of the season, as the Ravens target tight ends more than any other team in the league. They combined 125 receptions for 1,522 yards and 15 touchdowns. Those numbers each ranked first or second in the league.
This played into the Titans favor in New England, who lack receiving threats up the seam.
The Titans excel defending against ‘11’ personnel. They have a capable secondary led by possibly the best free safety in football, Kevin Byard. Byard has quietly become a superstar in Tennessee, netting 17 interceptions over the past three seasons. He’s also outstanding as a run defender, registering 226 stops over his four year career. PFF has Byard graded at 87.7 in run defense.
The Titans defense primarily runs cover-3. They struggle to pressure opposing passers, creating pressure on only 25.1% of opposing drop backs, which ranks 30th in the league. The Titans blitz defensive backs frequently using “creepers.”
Cornerback Logan Ryan has been quite successful when doing so, managing 13 pressures, five sacks and five QB hits on only 47 blitzes. Safety Kenny Vaccaro is the only other defensive back to blitz frequently, rushing the passer 64 times to the tune of 11 pressures, one sack and five QB hits.
The Ravens are familiar with creepers, because they ran them with Dean Pees as their defensive coordinator and have continued the trend with Wink Martindale.
The Chiefs effectively used creepers against Lamar Jackson, which caused him to check down frequently. The Ravens have certainly spent time in the classroom game planning on how to defeat creepers, and Jackson should improve with experience.
Jackson can defeat creepers with patience and mobility. When the Titans blitz a DB, they still usually drop the opposite edge defender into coverage. Behind the creeper, the safety will fill the area that the blitzing defender vacated. The area beyond that safety is a vulnerability.
Creepers are effective because they overload one side of pass protection with pressure, while still dropping six or seven into coverage.
If I had to draw up a game plan to stop Lamar Jackson as a passer, it would look somewhat similar to the Titans general defensive blueprint.
Jackson excels against man coverage and when defenses bring five or more pass rushers. The lethality of Jackson’s scrambling annihilates man coverage and blitzes, he averaged 18.4 yards per scramble and threw a league best 26 touchdown passes to only two interceptions.
This plays into Tennessee’s favor. The Titans are a zone dominant team, who “simulate pressure” with creepers, but drop into zone coverage, where defenders can keep their eyes on Jackson.
The problem, as previously mentioned, is that without Jayon Brown, inside linebackers Rashaan Evans and Wesley Woodyard allow 112 and 117 passer ratings into their coverage, respectively. One of Pees’ greatest criticisms is asking too much of his linebackers in coverage. This could lead to the Titans demise in Baltimore.
In classic “bend but don’t break” fashion, Dean Pees’ defense doesn’t allow many big plays.
The Ravens offense isn’t big play dependent, though, utilizing the greatest rushing attack in NFL history to sustain long scoring drives.
The Titans don’t defend heavy personnel packages particularly well. ‘21’ personnel has gashed the Titans all season long. The Patriots were able to exploit that advantage several times this past Saturday.
Elandon Roberts is more important to the run game than Sony Michel send tweet pic.twitter.com/MWxuljlhfs— Dave Latham (@DLPatsThoughts) January 5, 2020
Nice 25 yard run by Sony Michel! Beautiful blocking all on the left side!! pic.twitter.com/8yBJfoueth— Boo Boo Shoester (@FTBeard11) January 5, 2020
The Ravens run option plays, whether read option, RPO, speed option or any other variance on around 23% of their offensive snaps. Many point to how Dean Pees defended Greg Roman’s option in Super Bowl 37 in search of clues on how Pees will defend the 2019-20 Ravens run game.
However, Dean Pees stated in his weekly press conference that he feels otherwise.
Dean Pees on relevance of Super Bowl coaching against Roman and Kaepnerick:— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) January 8, 2020
“If you remember watching Kaepernick, how many times was that guy under center? This guy is never under center. To me it’s a similar system, but it’s not at all the same offense... overall no relevance.”
In other words, this isn’t your Grand Pappy’s option attack.
The Ravens don’t simply run a read option leaving an EDGE defender unblocked. They will also run the veer, where an interior defender is unblocked, then asked to jump either Lamar Jackson or the running back.
They’ve tried scrape exchange, where the unblocked player hits the back, then a linebacker scrapes to find Jackson (49ers).
They’ve tried sitting the end out wide and waiting for Jackson (Pittsburgh Week 5).
They’ve tried crashing on the QB every play (Pittsburgh Week 17).
They’ve tried holding combo blockers to prevent them from reaching linebackers (Bills).
In the end, Lamar Jackson’s ball fakes, speed, vision and the contrasting downhill style of Gus Edwards and Mark Ingram are too much to handle if blocks are well executed.
The multiplicity that the Ravens present from the huddle with different personnel groupings, which leads to countless different formations, has given Baltimore an advantage all year. If the Ravens can get the Titans downhill linebackers on the field, they would be wise to keep them there with a no huddle, then spread to empty sets and force Rashaan Evans and Wesley Woodyard to cover in space. Evans is among the league leaders in missed tackles allowed, varying from 18-22 depending on which reference is used.
If the Ravens do trail at some point in this game, the Titans will start using their creeper blitzes to pressure and confuse Jackson. The Ravens should counter by going empty and spreading the sidelines. This will allow Jackson to have a better feel for where the pressure is coming from, and therefore where the holes are.
The Titans present a balanced and disciplined defense, but don’t have the enough talent to wreck the Ravens rushing attack. If Tennessee is able to prevent the Ravens running backs from reaching the second and third level Saturday, and force Lamar Jackson to exit along the sideline, they could limit the Ravens enough to give their own offense a chance.
However, if they let Mark Andrews and company get free reign up the seam, the Titans won’t be able to match the Ravens scoring.
Overall, the Titans are a balanced and well coached team. They lack elite talent, but make up for it with discipline.
If Marlon Humphrey is able to eliminate A.J Brown early, the Ravens should be able to sell out to make stops. This would force Tennessee to to become one dimensional late.
The Titans don’t run long developing routes often, wanting to get the ball out quickly. This could lead to turnovers, as the Ravens disguise coverage as well as any team in the league.
An x-factor is the Titans unproven kicking game. Injuries have forced the Titans to acquire Greg Joseph. Tennessee seemed hesitant to trust Joseph to convert field goals from 45+ in New England, punting the ball from inside the 40 several times. This could certainly play a factor late. Justin Tucker has converted over 90% of his field goals at home, while opposing kickers have struggled, converting just above 76% of their tries.
Combining that with the Titans lack of pass rush, Lamar Jackson’s ability to extend plays and the Titans inability to defend ‘21’ and ‘12’ personnel, the Ravens should win a physical and hard fought game.
If the Titans are to succeed, it will be because of passing out of I-formation and heavy packages. That will limit Ravens pass rushers in snaps. Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce, Domata Peko and company will need to recognize pass protection quickly and attempt to shed, rather than just push the pocket. Late movement before snap will lead to unblocked pressure and missed assignments from the Titans OL. Remaining stationary in base defense is a recipe for disaster, as flat feet lead to track meets.
With all of that said, the Titans face an incredibly tall task. It will take a gutsy performance to go on the road for a third straight week and defeat one of the best regular season teams in NFL history.
Prediction— The Titans should wear down late and Lamar Jackson will keep his foot on the gas pedal. The Ravens will hemorrhage clock late after scoring a barrage of points in the second and third quarter.
Ravens 27, Titans 16