Despite having a down year in 2020, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens still have one of the best offenses in the league. They ranked seventh in scoring and first in rushing yards this season. They may not be the same high-powered unit the Titans faced and defeated in the 2020 Divisional Playoff matchup, but neither is the Titans’ defense.
This should also be an exciting playoff rematch between the two teams — re-sparking some old rivalries. Similar to the game in the regular season, I would expect it to be another high scoring game that comes down to which defense can make enough crucial stops.
The Titans route to victory will heavily be dependent on how they can contain and stop Lamar Jackson.
As a result, here are four defensive keys to stopping, or at least slowing down, Jackson and the Ravens’ offense. However, keep in mind that these keys are often easier said than done. I can easily point out what the defense needs to do, but the execution is the hardest part, especially for this struggling Titans’ defense.
1. Play disciplined, assignment-sound football
This first key is the most simple, yet also the most difficult to execute. Jackson presents a unique challenge because of his dynamic running ability — making it a true eleven-on-eleven matchup for the defense. As a result, the Titans need to focus on maintaining their run fits and various coverage assignments, especially this week. The Ravens use a lot of pre-snap motions, or as they call it, “eye candy,” to confuse opposing defenses, but the Titans just need to focus on their individual assignments.
Out in the open field one-on-one, there are very few defenders that can tackle Jackson, but the Titans really need to wrap up and flood to the ball as a group to bring him down. The latter part is really just about effort. Neutralizing Jackson’s slippery rushing ability will take a collective team effort.
2. Force Jackson to throw the ball
Forcing Jackson to throw the ball forces the Ravens to work outside of their original game plan, similar to forcing the Titans to abandon Henry and the run game. The Ravens’ whole offense runs through the threat of Jackson’s running ability and the read option game. Jackson not only gashes teams on the ground, but the threat of him keeping it on read-option plays also creates massive lanes for his running backs to run through.
On the flip side, the Ravens are 1-4 on the season when Jackson attempts 28 or more passes in a game. As the same with any sort of statistic, correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, but there are some indications that this may be the case in this situation. The Ravens currently rank last in total passing offense and according to Football Outsiders, Jackson ranks 21st among eligible quarterbacks in passing DVOA. This means that the Ravens are neither productive or efficient at throwing the ball.
Also, I just want to make it clear that this does not mean Jackson is a bad passer by any means. He and the Ravens are just more efficient on the ground and, simply put, you want to make opposing offenses do what they are less efficient at doing.
3. Force turnovers
This is another key that is much easier said than done. Like duh, of course turnovers will help you stop an opposing offense, but this is especially important for a rush-centric team like the Ravens. The Ravens rank 21st in total offensive drives and seventh in time of possession, but also ninth in points per drive. This means that the Ravens are carrying out long methodical drives and finishing them with touchdowns at a higher rate than average, while also milking the clock and shortening the game. This also means that each drive means more to the Ravens than the average team. Turnovers can capitalize on that dependence.
In fact, Jackson had at least one turnover in each of his four losses during the regular season and five total turnovers in their loss to the Steelers. Take the ball away from the Ravens, reduce their amount of possessions and prosper. As a result, I wouldn’t mind the Titan’s defense taking a couple more chances and being a little more aggressive in this game to try to force those crucial turnovers.
4. Stack the box
This goes along with forcing Jackson to throw because stacking the box will obviously make it more difficult for the the Ravens to run the ball. The Ravens love to pull blockers towards the play side of their runs to create a numbers advantage. To counter this, the Titans need to consistently stack the box with seven or eight defenders. There is no simple way to defend the Ravens’ read-option game, but having more bodies to fill the gaps and flood to tackle Jackson should help.
This may make the defense more susceptible to deep shots, but I would rather force the Ravens to beat the Titans with their receivers on the outside, which is not a strong suit of this roster. Make the Ravens beat you with Marquise Brown or Willie Snead — and by making Jackson hit those deep shots — don’t let J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards run all over you.
Also, taking away the running game, or trying to at least, takes away the Ravens main source of explosive plays. Between Jackson, Dobbins, and Edwards, they combined for a total of 33 runs of 15 yards or greater on the season. However on the flip side, Jackson only had 18 completed deep passing plays (20+ yard throws) and ranked third in dropped deep balls in the NFL.
Even if the Titans achieve all or most of these defensive keys, the Ravens will still likely score a lot of points because frankly, this is not a very good Titans’ defense. The postseason goal for this defense needs to be: “Just do enough.” As in, just make enough stops for Derrick Henry and the elite Titans’ offense to win you these playoff games.