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Ravens vs. Titans key matchups: Limiting Derrick Henry, DeAndre Hopkins is top priority

This AFC bout features key battles between specific players, units, and coaches.

Tennessee Titans v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens will continue their road stint across the pond in Week 6, where they’ll face off with the Tennessee Titans at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium over in London on Sunday morning. They are favorites against their bitter AFC rivals, who are coming off a one-possession defeat to their division rival Indianapolis Colts in Week 5. However, games aren’t won on paper or decided by betting odds.

There are some pivotal matchups between individual players, units, and players and coaches that will go a long way in determining the outcome of this Week 6 contest.

Below are a handful of those key battles that could prove to be deciding factors.

LBs Roquan Smith & Patrick Queen vs. RB Derrick Henry

The Ravens’ first priority of defense will be to stop the Titans from establishing the run with their bruising three-time Pro Bowl ball carrier. While it always starts up front in the trenches, leading the charge for the effort will be the best inside linebacker tandem in the league. Smith and Queen headline a defense that is not only Top-10 at stopping the run but is the only unit in the league that has yet to give up a rushing touchdown.

“[They are a] physical team, and that’s something we pride ourselves on as well, knowing they have a really good [running] back,” Smith said Thursday. “[Derrick] Henry’s been doing it for a really long time.”

Smith and Queen are the physical and emotional tone-setters for the Ravens on the defensive side of the ball. If they can make it tough sledding for the Titans on the ground, it will throw a wrench in their offensive plan of attack — especially play action —because it’s all predicated on Henry and their run game. Tennessee also has a nice change of pace option in third-round rookie Tyjae Spears. He is an explosive runner averaging 5.8 yards per carry and was a prospect that the Ravens were reportedly interested in during the pre-draft process.

QB Lamar Jackson vs. Titans’ pass defense

The Ravens will be going up against one of the bottom 10 defenses when it comes to slowing down opposing aerial attacks. The Titans have given up the eighth-most passing yards in the league through five games. This makes for an ideal matchup for the Ravens’ pass catchers to bounce back after letting their franchise quarterback down in a big way against the Pittsburgh Steelers. They had eight drops that would’ve either moved the chains with big gains or would’ve been surefire touchdowns.

Jackson has been surgically precise as a passer to start this season, especially from the pocket. He still ranks Top-5 in the league in completion percentage with an impressive mark of 69.9, despite coming off a game where his most trusted targets let the ball hit the ground far too many times. All three of the Titans’ starting cornerbacks — Sean Murphy-Bunting, Kristian Fulton, and Roger McCreary (nickel) — are allowing a completion percentage of over 73 percent and opposing passer ratings of 91.4 or higher.

Ravens’ interior offensive line vs. Titans’ interior defensive line

In order for Jackson to be able to operate from the pocket, he’ll need his three middle blockers to consistently protect him from the banged-up, yet still very formidable Titans’ defensive tackles. It will be up to center Tyler Linderbaum, left guard John Simpson, and veteran right guard Kevin Zeitler to limit the impact of two-time Pro Bowler Jeffery Simmons, Teair Tart, and Denico Autry. The three of them have 6.5 sacks combined this season, which is nearly half of the team’s total of 14. Autry has a team-high four and Simmons tied for second with 2.5.

Simmons missed Wednesday’s practice and was a limited participant on Thursday and Friday with a shoulder injury, but was removed from the final injury report. Tart didn’t practice until Friday albeit on a limited basis due to a toe injury and is listed as questionable to play. Autry popped up in the injury report on Thursday as a limited participant in practice with a finger injury but was a full participant on Friday and was also removed from the final report.

In addition to limiting the trio’s impact as pass rushers, the Ravens’ entire offensive line will be looking to establish their own team’s ground game. The Titans’ defense is allowing the sixth-fewest yards per attempt in the league at 3.6. However, the Titans have yet to face a rushing attack as potent as the Ravens this season. Baltimore is averaging the fourth-most rushing yards per game (146), has racked up the fourth-most rushing yards (730), and has scored the third-most rushing touchdowns (nine) through five games.

Ravens’ cornerbacks vs. WR DeAndre Hopkins

Against the Steelers last week, second-year wideout George Pickens came on strong late in the game by making several contested catches on back-shoulder throws . He eventually made the game-winning play over the top. This week, the Ravens’ cornerbacks will be tasked with limiting another big-bodied pass catcher in Hopkins, who is still arguably the best contested-catch receiver in the league.

The three-time All-Pro leads the Titans in targets (42), receptions (26), and receiving yards (356) through five games and is already veteran quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s most popular and trusted target. It will primarily be up to third-year pro Brandon Stephens, three-time Pro Bowler Marlon Humphrey, and veteran Ronald Darby to keep him in check. This will be Humphrey’s second game back after missing the first four as he recovered from foot surgery. He’ll certainly be wanting to bounce back this week after getting beat for the game-winning touchdown late in his first game back.

“I’m still working to get to where I want to be,” Humphrey said. “It was weird. It was a lot just not being able to play for awhile. I think they know me pretty well. They knew as soon as I could practice, I was going to try and play.

“I’m getting there, it’s a work in progress, but we’ve been doing a pretty good pitch count, how many plays I get, getting back to the groove of things. I think it’s working pretty well. As the weeks go on, I think it will just get better and better, get used to how I feel. Once you get out there, you’ve just got to put everything to the side and just play.”

DB Kyle Hamilton vs. TE Chigoziem Okonkwo

The two second-year pros are one of the most dynamic weapons on their side of the ball for their respective teams and could see a lot of each other in 1-on-1 coverage on Sunday. Even though Okonkwo ranks fourth on the Titans in receiving yards, he is second on the team in both targets (22) and receptions (15). With second-year wideout Treylon Burks already ruled out for this game, it means Hopkins will see even more attention, so Okonkwo will continue to be looked at early and often in the passing game as well.

As long as fourth-year pro Geno Stone is healthy enough to play alongside veteran Marcus Williams, it will free up Hamilton to be a slot hybrid defender. He can match up better with bigger-bodied pass catchers that operate out of the slot, as the former Maryland product does for Tennessee. Stone is currently dealing with a hamstring injury that caused him to miss practice on Wednesday and be a limited participant on Thursday. However, he practiced fully on Friday so he’s trending in the right direction.