By Trevor Woods
The No. 1 seed Baltimore Ravens host the No. 6 seed Tennessee Titans in the AFC divisional round of the NFL playoffs on Saturday, Jan. 11 in a prime-time game.
Here are the key matchups to watch:
Ryan Tannehill vs. Ravens Blitz-Heavy scheme
The Ravens defense blitzes more than any team in the league, and Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill has fared well against the blitz this season. Tannehill has completed 64.9% of his passes for 791 yards, with seven touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 120.3 passer rating when facing a blitz.
Much of Tannehill's success passing the ball can be attributed to a good running game that has built their play-action passing attack into one of the best in the league.
“They’re a big play-action, boot, a movement team,” Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. “Ryan Tannehill has done just an excellent job with that. It’s been schemed up really well."
Tannehill realizes the Ravens will be blitzing him early and often.
“It’s an extremely aggressive defense,” Tannehill said. “That’s going to be a key for us this week is being clean on all those things and try to take advantage of some opportunities that are there when they do pressure.”
Ravens safety Earl Thomas believes that if the Baltimore defense can stop the run, they'll neutralize Tannehill.
“If Tannehill tries to pass on us, I don’t think that will go in their favor,” Thomas said. “We know they’re going to try to run the ball. But we just have to stop the run and play sound on the back end. I think that will take care of the play-action pass.”
Ravens Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman vs. Titans Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees
This isn't the first time these two coordinators have squared off in a high-profile matchup. At Super Bowl XLVII, Pees was the Ravens defensive coordinator and Roman was the offensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers. The Ravens edged out the Niners 34-31.
While Roman's scheme is highly similar to the one he implemented in San Francisco, it has more wrinkles, and an even more explosive quarterback operating the offense.
Pees plan of attack will be to eliminate designed quarterback runs. On option looks, the goal will be to hit the quarterback and live with whatever production Baltimore's running back has. Containing Jackson is easier said than done, though, and no team has been able to successfully corral him for an entire game.
"It’s a similar system, but it’s not all the same. That isn’t the same defense. That isn’t the same offense," Pees said this week. "There’s elements of both to it, but overall, what happened eight years ago has no relevance to this one.”
And Roman seems to agree with Pees. “Everybody evolves,” Roman said. “Dean’s a very good coach and he’s been around for a long time. They’re not doing exactly what they did when he was here. So you got to trust the tape, trust your eyes"
Derrick Henry vs. Ravens Run Defense
The Ravens have the No. 5 rushing defense in the NFL, but they're about to take on the NFL's leading rusher, Derrick Henry. While Henry can run between the tackles as good as anyone, the 6-foot-3, 247-pound back rushed for an incredible 156 yards on outside-zone runs against the New England Patriots last week in the Wild Card Round.
The Titans have an excellent offensive line that can block outside of the hashes and open gaping holes between the tackles, too.
It's going to be a tall task for the Ravens stopping Henry. The Titans aim to wear the Ravens defense down in a methodical manner and chew a lot of clock in the process.
If Henry is able to extend drives for the Titans, it's bound to open up their passing game as well. Henry practically single handedly beat the Patriots, so limiting the damage he inflicts is important in more ways than one.
“I really think it’s going to take all 11,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “He’s 6-foot-3, and he has really elite speed also. He can run people over here and there all the time, but if he gets to the edge, he can really outrun you.”
Lamar Jackson vs. Titans Defense
The Titans defense is a bit of a mixed back, they do some things well, and they rank at the bottom of the barrel in other areas. The Ravens offense, powered by Jackson of course, has the 2nd best red zone offense. The Titans on the other hand, have the 31st ranked red zone defense.
It's not all bad for the Titans on D, they've been able to bottle up a couple scrambling quarterbacks this season in the Bills Josh Allen and Texans Deshaun Watson. Although the unit succeeded then, Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees makes it clear Jackson is way more dangerous than anyone they've faced this season.
“I think he’s kind of in a class by himself, to be honest with you, running-wise," Pees said. "He’s a phenomenal runner. He’s a different type of runner than Watson and all those guys. He could be a tailback for somebody. I see just a lot more moves and spins. He’s hard enough to tackle even if we know where he is and where he’s going to be. I’ve seen guys have him defended absolutely perfect and he makes them miss. That’s just athlete on athlete and he did a better job than the guy trying to tackle him.”
The Titans have the No. 23 pass defense and No. 12 rush defense. We'll see if Jackson opts to throw more than usual against a vulnerable secondary or if it'll be business as usual via the option attack. The Titans have their work cut out for them and it feels like shutting Jackson down completely is impossible.