Tennessee at BALTIMORE
Imagine being Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees this week, whose attention after taking down Tom Brady and the greatest dynasty in NFL history turns to impending league MVP Lamar Jackson and Pees’ former team, the Ravens, with the most dangerous offense in football.
Pees’ defense, ranked 16th overall in Football Outsiders’ DVOA during the regular season but No. 10 against the run, limited a now-feeble Patriots offense to 307 yards and only 13 points, thanks largely to Tennessee’s success defensively on third down (5 of 13) and in the red zone (1 of 3).
Jackson’s Ravens, unlike the Patriots, are elite in each of the aforementioned categories, trailing during the regular season only the Chiefs on third downs and the same Titans team in the red zone that they’ll host Sunday.
Aside from the unique challenges compared with Brady that Jackson presents, Baltimore has an outstanding receiving tight end in Mark Andrews, a tough assignment likely to fall on Titans Pro Bowl free safety Kevin Byard; a lethal vertical weapon at receiver in rookie Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, whom cornerbacks Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler and Adoree’ Jackson can’t allow to get on top of the defense; and a mauling offensive line and lead back in Mark Ingram (calf) all helping to maximize the most voluminous and dynamic run game in the league.
Especially with linebacker Jayon Brown’s status up in the air because of a shoulder injury, the Titans will need another monster game from Rashaan Evans and Kenny Vacarro – who combined for five tackles for loss in Foxboro – and disciplined rush plans and gap integrity from top pass rushers Harold Landry on the edge and Jurrell Casey in the middle.
Although they don’t boast the balance and depth of the top-seeded Ravens across all three phases, the upstart Titans have their own unique weapon in NFL rushing champion Derrick Henry. The former Heisman winner ran roughshod over the Patriots’ top-ranked defense a week ago and helped Tennessee overcome a 21-3 halftime deficit in its previous playoff triumph, two years ago in Kansas City.
As the ball-hawking Byard said this week, his Titans indeed are road warriors, and it’s in large part because of their pack-and-play formula made possible by the heavyweight Henry. A key difference between Saturday’s playoff road giant slaying and the one two years ago of the Chiefs, of course, is the Titans’ new QB1-WR1 connection, Ryan Tannehill and rookie A.J. Brown.
Although Tannehill attempted only 15 passes in the Patriots’ win – averaging only 4.8 yards compared with 5.4 yards a Henry rush – he’s provided the accuracy and consistency that too often escaped Marcus Mariota. And against a stout Baltimore front led by Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams, he may be called on for more of it as a play-action passer this week against a thieving Ravens secondary with two All-Pro corners, Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey, and postseason battle-tested Earl Thomas on the back end.
The margin of error is minuscule against the Ravens’ lethal blend of explosiveness and ball control on offense and dependability on special teams, where the Titans lag. Mike Vrabel knows this, and we can’t wait to see how bold he’ll be matching wits with John Harbaugh – perhaps the NFL’s most aggressive, adaptive coach this season.