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The Dossier, Week 11: Definitely not a revenge game

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Tennessee Titans at Baltimore Ravens Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to “The Dossier” a weekly look across the aisle at the Ravens’ opponents, and how they stack up on paper. This Week 11 edition takes a look at a familiar foe coming into town, one who just 10 months or so ago handed the Ravens one of their biggest losses in recent memory

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The Matchup: Tennessee Titans @ Baltimore Ravens

The Setting: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, Maryland

The Forecast: Cloudy skies. High around 55F. Winds E at 5 to 10 mph.

The Stakes: The Ravens have looked shaky the last three weeks, having gone 1-2 in that stretch, needing a bounce back. The Titans, also at 6-3, are looking to get things back on track following a tough loss at home to Indianapolis - it’s probably fair to say this could serve as a turning point game for either side.

The Spread: The Ravens are currently a –5 point home favorite.

The best way to tell if your friend is mad is if they say that they are, in fact, “definitely not mad.” The icing on the cake of that white lie is that they say “they’re actually laughing,” or, “they actually think it’s funny.” This same principle can often be attributed to the platitudes offered up by athletes and coaches in pro sports.

They either don’t mean what they say, or they provide some well worn cliché that doesn’t offer much substance or context as to how they’re truly feeling about something. We saw a great example of that phenomenon happening this week with Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. The Tennessee Titans ended Baltimore’s playoff hopes in stunning fashion last season in a wild divisional round upset, and with them coming into town this week, this is what Lamar had to say regarding his and the team’s thoughts on the unique situation:

“It’s not a revenge game,” Jackson said. “The game is over with, it was last year. We just fell short, can’t do anything about it. We’re just going into this game trying to be 7-3. That’s all.”

There’s a bit to unpack here, but the key takeaways are A) Lamar is correct on the surface, and B) that while A is true, it’s somewhat disingenuous to act as though last year’s playoff matchup has absolutely no import when it comes to this game. This is especially true considering the dominance of the Titans win, and their willingness to talk some trash on their way out the door.

As much as Lamar and co. would like to act as though they’re definitely not mad about everything that transpired between these two teams back in January, there’s no avoiding it unfortunately. Having said that, it’s something Baltimore’s locker room will keep between themselves and themselves alone. For all the fun they had last season under the lights, they were served a warm helping of humble pie by Tennessee, and now with each team facing a bit of a crossroads in 2020, you know they’d love to serve some of it right back to them.

How could they potentially make that happen? Let’s take a look:

The Offense

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans
Even though the Titans aren’t as dominant, Henry is still every bit the driving force of their physical ground-and-pound offense as he was last January.
Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

At 6-3, the Titans look to be a very similar team to the one they were in 2019. They wear you down on the ground with Henry, Ryan Tannehill makes just enough plays to keep them honest, and they rely on their defense to keep things in between the mustard and mayo. While the defense has had their fair share of struggles the last few weeks, it’s the other side of the ball we’ll be starting with first.

And why not start with the crown jewel of the stable, Mr. Derrick Henry? The former Heisman winner out of Alabama has been nothing but a steady force of positive YPC ever since entering the league in 2018, and still looks very strong this season. He leads the league in carries with 201, is second in rush yards with 946, and leads the league in breakaway runs (carries of 15 or more yards) with nine.

It’s easy to wonder why it’s so difficult to stop Henry if you know the Titans are going to feed him, and looking at his measurables is a good spot to start. At 6’3, 238, he’s not going to be an easy tackle in any situation. But that size will only do so much for you when defenses know to key in, so it’s the work of Arthur Smith and the rest of this offense that’s totally bought in that helps make up for those types of situations:

This is of course aided by an offensive line that when fully healthy is exceptionally strong in the run game. That’s the issue for Tennessee though. They’re only fully healthy at just a few spots on the roster, and offensive line may be the most decimated group among them:

Jones and Saffold would be particularly tough losses as they’ve played well at center and guard respectively. PFF has them both graded out at as a 69.4 and 69.2, very solid grades considering left tackle Taylor Lewan hasn’t been there to take the heat off of them in recent weeks. It’s not a good thing that Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams may miss Sunday’s game, but according to the way things look, Tennessee may be just as banged up in the spots they’d be defending.

That obviously doesn’t bode well for Henry, and it may not bode well for the guy that the Titans may need to see a little more out of if they want to win at Baltimore on Sunday. That’d be quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who’s been very solid this season but faces a somewhat tough test up against a banged up but strong Ravens defense missing some of his key supplemental pieces. I already mentioned the issues along the line, but it also looks like slot receiver Adam Humphries who was eyeing a potential return for this week will be ruled out as well.

This seems like an injury that could be somewhat significant as Humphries was seeing 20+ passing snaps per game prior to his injury in Week 8 and was a nice weapon in the slot for Tannehill to utilize. In looking at the QB’s passing chart from this season, he does seem to prefer throwing short to intermediate as you’ll see below:

Tannehill appears to be exponentially better on passes beneath 20 yards, so clogging up the middle lanes of the defense should prove to be a priority this week. After a rough couple of weeks, Patrick Queen in particular has a chance to redeem himself in this one by sticking with the Titans tight ends, and recognizing where he has to be in hook and flat zones. Oh, and stop Derrick Henry when he’s running at you - but that’s of course easier said than done.

The Defense

NFL: Chicago Bears at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee may be snakebitten with injuries on the offensive side of the ball, but that doesn’t mean things are fine and dandy on the defensive side of the ball in that regard either. Coming out late Friday was the news that star pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney will be missing this game, a loss up front for a team that will be hoping to take advantage of the injuries along Baltimore’s offensive line. The other notable absence will be Adoree’ Jackson who’s still hoping to make his 2020 debut after a knee injury sidelined him; according to the Titans, that won’t be happening against the Ravens.

While Clowney is the biggest name amongst this group, he’s been pretty average thus far this season, at least not worth the hype that his drawn out free agency period was at one point garnering. In fact, there are a few other young stars to keep an eye on here that all signs point to taking the field.

The first to highlight would be defensive lineman, Jeffery Simmons. Once considered a consensus top five pick in the 2019 draft, a knee injury caused him to fall to pick 19 where the Titans grabbed him as a long term investment. It’s been paying dividends for them in 2020, as Simmons is graded out at a stellar 87.7 by PFF, and has shown himself to be a force in both facets of the game:

This doesn’t bode well for a Ravens offensive line that’s already been shuffled due to injuries, and may be facing a change at center on Sunday following Matt Skura’s debacle of a game in New England last week. Whoever is playing along the interior better be prepared to have their hands full, and Greg Roman better be ready to either double team Simmons, or play away from him as much as possible.

Another guy to keep an eye on is DB Desmond King, who came over in a deadline trade from the Chargers a few weeks ago. Despite the bizarre circumstances, King hasn’t missed a beat since coming to Nashville. He has a reputation as a ballhawk, and him and Simmons combining to make a play here wound up putting points on the board for the Titans:

With Roman dialing up some successful screens last week against the Patriots, he ought to be careful not to play right into the hands of these guys as they clearly do their homework on tendencies. One thing that the Titans did struggle to do against Indy was contain running back Nyheim Hines, as you’ll see here:

...and here:

As I stated in the first tweet, this could bode well for J.K. Dobbins. Most of his runs have come out of the gun for a good yards per carry average, and he’s excelled at pushing the ball to the outside and keeping the play moving, as we’ve seen from Hines. Hopefully, that’ll be something to keep an eye on in this one.

I’ll also be keeping an eye on Mark Andrews in this game. The loss of Nick Boyle will hurt in many aspects, but it puts even more pressure on the Ravens number one tight end (and de facto number one receiving option) to start showing up big time in the passing game. With Clowney out, and the best coverage player by PFF grade in their linebacking corps and secondary combined being Jayon Brown with a 75.8, it’s time for Andrews to prove that he’s worth Ertz or Kelce money down the stretch of the season starting with this game.

The Verdict:

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Tennessee Titans at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Whether they’ll admit it or not, this game means a hell of a lot to the Ravens players and coaches. The last several weeks, they’ve been criticized for their play on the field, win or loss (and it’s been more loss than win since the bye week, unfortunately). This is also the team that came into their house last January and killed their Super Bowl hopes, and talked a whole lot of smack on their way out the door.

In that sense they’d love to win this game, and in the further context of playoff positioning, they almost need to win it. 7-3 and 6-4 are two very different conversations, and a win for either team could help break a tie against the other one in the wild card conversation should it come to that. Very important indeed, whether Baltimore would like to acknowledge that or not.

As much as I have plenty of respect for Mike Vrabel and the Titans and all they’ve achieved the last few years, I have a hard time betting against John Harbaugh when things get desperate. This is especially the case when things are desperate and the teams look fairly evenly matched, and the Ravens are at home. I don’t expect this game to be pretty or easy for Baltimore, but through sheer force of will (and the need for a win in a tough spot), I’m taking them in what is definitely not a revenge game. Definitely not.

Jake’s Official Prediction: Ravens 23, Titans 19