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Ravens defense must commit to stopping Titans passing game

Humphrey and Peters need help

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Cutting to the chase, Ryan Tannehill is 89/138 with 4 TD and 3 INT when throwing against two high safety looks (cover-2, cover-4, and man-2). Compare that with 24 TD and 6 INT on 182/285 (per Sports Info Solutions) against single high (cover-1 and cover-3) and you’ll see that the Titans thrive against single safety looks.

Against the Ravens in November, Tannehill was 14/23 for 198 yards, two touchdowns and an interception against single high looks. Two high? 4/8 for 39 yards. 3.4 yards per attempt. Adding a second safety takes the explosiveness out of the Titans passing game, which relies on in-breaking routes and space from their explosive receivers, particularly when operating out of 12 or 21 personnel. This sets up double moves after they’ve established the threat inside and have corners jumping towards the middle of the field.

They have torched the Ravens single high looks, particularly in the second half of Week 11:

This is especially perplexing because the Ravens had a two score lead, yet they opted to stop the run with eight in the box (which didn’t work) and allow Tennessee to throw their way right down the field possession after possession. I understand worrying about Henry early on, but the Ravens should let the Titans run the ball and bleed the clock when they’re trailing.

Additionally, Tannehill has had the highest percentage of play action of any quarterback in the NFL this year at 36% (per PFF). Play action has not gone well for Tannehill against two high looks. He’s 15/30 with no touchdowns and two interceptions. His 50% completion rate is lowest in the NFL among all passers with at least 20 attempts against two high (Sports Info Solutions).

Defenses seemingly feel forced to play single high against Tennessee, which allows them to drop a safety into the box to defend the threat of Derrick Henry. However, Derrick Henry’s success seems to be more correlated with defensive linemen winning one on one blocks against zone flow, as well as linebackers filling the right gaps. After watching the Titans matchups against Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, rarely does a safety make the difference in stopping Henry. On the other hand, a safety can make all the difference in disrupting the Titans lethal receiver duo, A.J. Brown and Corey Davis.

The Ravens should know. They’ve primarily played single high in their two matchups against the Titans, yet Henry has still gashed them. The Ravens did call a fair amount of two high looks against the Titans. Interestingly enough, Henry didn’t gain 10 yards on a single run against a two high run fit.

The Ravens only used one lone two high run fit after in the second quarter. Henry finished the first half with 31 yards on 11 carries. In the second half and overtime, Henry ran 14 times for 97 yards and a touchdown — the game winner. All against single high run fits. While alignment does roll safeties down and can be the determining factor between single and two high, the Ravens would be wise to consider changing that. Let the front adjust and match motion.

Additionally, the $140 million cornerback duo of Peters and Humphrey struggled to remotely contain Davis and Brown from single high. Not many corners were able to throughout the NFL in 2020, as Brown and Davis combined for 135 receptions, 2,075 yards and 16 touchdowns. Davis and Brown torched the Ravens with 9 receptions for 175 yards and a touchdown, not including a 39-yard pass interference against Marlon Humphrey, which came when the Ravens were in — you guessed it — a single high look. In fact, against two high coverages, Brown and Davis were held catchless!

Football in the NFL is complex. There are nuances involved that only a handful of people (myself not included) understand. Let’s not overthink this one, though. The Titans clearly struggle against two high coverages in comparison with single high. Watching games against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati showed more of the same. . . The Titans gashed single high looks, while failing to muster a successful passing play against a two high look until late in the fourth quarter.

As previously mentioned, in order to slow down Henry, defensive linemen must win their one on one’s and linebackers must properly fill. While the Ravens held Henry somewhat in check in their most recent meeting, they were without Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams. Campbell, one of the NFL’s top run defenders over the past decade, seems to have been brought in by Baltimore to prevent what happened last January from transpiring against the Ravens again. His absence was most certainly felt, especially late in the game, when the Ravens backup iDL couldn’t make an impact late. Derek Wolfe wore down after a strong performance and linebackers struggled to consistently beat blockers that advanced to the second level cleanly. It happens, especially when your cornerbacks aren’t able to contain the Titans receivers.

Let’s pose a question for the Ravens defense this way — Derrick Henry has already run 58 times for 325 yards against you over the last two matchups. Wouldn’t you rather use an extra body to ensure that the Titans struggle to gash you with play action passes? Forcing a turnover is obviously a major benefit, such as when Tyus Bowser bluffed blitzing and picked off Tannehill, which contributed to a lead in November.

That same day, Davis and Brown had gains of 12, 50, 16, 22, 25, 14 (Brown’s beast mode touchdown), 14, 11 and 11. Compare that to Henry, who only had three runs longer than 10 yards — 29, 11 and 24. Henry carried the ball 28 times and averaged 4.8 yards per carry, below his season average of 5.4. It didn’t work. The Ravens somewhat contained Henry and still lost the battle defensively. That was without your top two run stuffers as well.

With Campbell and Williams returning, considering the additions of Wolfe, Queen, Harrison, extending Fort and Chris Board stepping into the rotation as of late, it’s time for the Ravens to test their offseason formula. Were the additions enough to corral Henry? If not, then you put your corners on an island, one where they failed to survive previously.

In a combined 241 coverage snaps from two high coverage, Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters have allowed 15/23 passes to be completed for 101 yards, no touchdowns, three passes defended and an interception. That’s 0.41 yards per snap. For reference, the NFL leader in yards per coverage snap (ironically Jimmy Smith) is 0.37, making him the only player in the under 0.41 this year.

These types of coverages also allow Marcus Peters to thrive because he has safety help overtop, where he can jump underneath routes while still having safety help in zone coverage. While he’s made plenty of plays in single high looks, he’s also been burned, allowing 4 TD’s and 4 interceptions on 57 targets. Humphrey’s been on an island a ton in these coverages, holding his own, stripping the ball, but occasionally being beaten (42/76, 470 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT and 8 passes defensed).

Playing two high against the Titans allows the Ravens corners to play outside leverage and funnel the Titans receivers towards two deep safeties.

It also has the potential to allow the Ravens linebackers, who have struggled in coverage more than they’ve succeeded this year, to worry less about play action and more about fitting the run. There’s an extra safety to keep plays in front of them, and if the linebackers are fooled by play action, it doesn’t hurt as badly.

The math is there. Tannehill has thrown 24 touchdowns and 6 interceptions against cover-1 and cover-3 versus 4 touchdowns and 3 interceptions against cover-2 man, cover-2 and cover-4. The tape is there. The Titans explosive, physical, run after the catch weapons don’t have as much room to operate.

The question is: are the Ravens willing to trust their front seven, the one they invested countless assets in because of their playoff loss, to stop Derrick Henry? If not, what’s the point?