The Tennessee Titans have played just four playoff games in the building now known as Nissan Stadium since they moved into their current home in 1999, an unfortunate side effect of sharing a division with Peyton Manning for over a decade (as well as some self-sabotage after their red hot run in the early-2000s). Only one team has beaten Tennessee in their house during the postseason and that crew is heading to Nashville for a third time this weekend.
All playoff games are memorable to some degree, but the Titans have had a special penchant for drama in the previous four they’ve hosted. All four have featured a go-ahead score in the fourth quarter, including the Music City Miracle — one of the most famous plays in NFL history.
The Ravens gave premature endings to the two best Titans teams that we’ve seen in the Music City and they’ll make their third playoff trip to Tennessee on Sunday looking to do it again exactly 12 years to the day after beating the 2008 Titans 13-10. This Titans squad isn’t the 2000 or 2008 teams. Those squads featured elite defenses with average offenses.
The road team has famously won each of the four playoff games between these two teams since 1999 with Tennessee leveling the score with their upset win in Baltimore just 12 months ago. While the history between these two franchises is fun to revisit, that most recent playoff contest and this season’s regular season matchup are far more instructive when it comes to projecting what Sunday might have in store. Here are five lessons that we learned from those games and how they can be applied to this weekend’s wildcard matchup.
1. The Titans defense has a sound approach for slowing Lamar Jackson and the Ravens rushing attack.
SuperHorn covered this beautifully already this week, highlighting some of the unique fronts that the Titans have used in both of the last two matchups against the Ravens, but I’ll expand on that with some of my thoughts here.
It is no secret that the Titans have struggled — to put it very nicely — on defense this season, but you could make the argument that their most impressive game of the season came against Baltimore, when they held the Ravens to just 306 yards of total offense. That figure was the lowest total allowed by Tennessee in 2020 and was the fourth lowest output from the Baltimore offense on the year.
The Ravens also struggled against Tennessee in the playoff game last January, though the struggles were of a very different type. Baltimore put up plenty of yards in that game — 530 to be exact — but they turned the ball over three times and saw another four drives end due to fourth down stops by the Titans defense.
So why are the Titans, a defense that isn’t particularly good (even last year), such a thorn in the side of the Ravens prolific offense?
Well, for one, the biggest weakness of the Titans unit is their pass defense — Tennessee ranks a woeful 30th in pass defense DVOA — and the Ravens are not particularly suited to take advantage of that weakness. Baltimore’s passing offense is ranked just 17th in DVOA and has surpassed the 200-yard mark just four times all season. For some context, the Titans — another run-heavy offense — has thrown for at least 200 yards in 12 of 16 games in 2020.
This is not a team that wants to drop back 40 times and sling it all over the yard and that plays into the Titans favor. Also playing into the Titans favor, is the personnel and approach that they deploy against Baltimore.
Going all the way back to their playoff loss to the Chargers at the end of the 2018 season, the key to stopping Lamar Jackson and the Ravens attack has been getting as many athletes on the field as possible while still being able to hold up at the line of scrimmage. The Chargers approach was to run quarters personnel featuring seven defensive backs on the field for much of the game and relying on their front four to hold up physically at the line of scrimmage.
The Titans largely have borrowed from that idea in their last two matchups against Baltimore. They haven’t gone to the extreme of a true quarters package, but they have used lots of big dime (three corners, three safeties) against the Ravens offense. During the regular season matchup, the Titans were without one of their key pieces in that package, Kenny Vaccaro, who sat out with a concussion. That left rarely-used special teamer Josh Kalu as the next man up when Tennessee when to that package.
With Vaccaro healthy and available to play alongside Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker, I expect that we will see a ton of three safety looks from Tennessee in this game with Vaccaro lurking around the box and doing a little bit of everything from blitzing to setting the edge to dropping in coverage. He is going to be one of the most important pieces on the field for the Titans on Sunday.
Further, I do think we could see some quarters looks from Tennessee for the first time all season. With all three safeties healthy and Adoree’ Jackson and Kristian Fulton joining Butler and King in the secondary, the Titans have a lot of options to put on the field. King, like Vaccaro, feels like a key piece in this matchup. He’s a physical run defender who can fill a pseudo-linebacker role if needed.
Ultimately, the Titans defense has a good approach and good personnel for stopping — or at least slowing — the Ravens. Whether they can pull it off for a third straight game will remain to be seen, but there is reason to believe that this matchup isn’t the worst one Tennessee could have drawn in round one.
2. The matchup between the Titans interior offensive line and the Ravens defensive line will look much different this time around.
You probably remember the Titans racking up 173 rushing yards despite being without arguably their two best offensive linemen (Taylor Lewan and Rodger Saffold) the last time these two teams met. However, the massive caveat to that excellent rushing performance was that Baltimore was missing run stuffing nose tackle Brandon Williams and disruptive 3-technique defensive tackle Calais Campbell for that game.
It sounds like Titans left guard Rodger Saffold is going to be able to fight through his ankle injury to at least get the start on Sunday. Whether or not he can finish remains to be seen, but a less than 100% Saffold is still a pretty significant upgrade over Aaron Brewer (who may or may not be available for this game himself due to landing on the COVID list) or Jamil Douglas.
Moving Williams and Campbell will be a much bigger task — both literally and figuratively — than moving Justin Ellis and Justin Madubuike for the Titans front.
3. The biggest mismatch in favor of the Titans will be Derrick Henry versus Patrick Queen.
The Titans task with the Ravens front will be much tougher, but if they are able to win at the line of scrimmage, Derrick Henry should have a field day against rookie linebacker Patrick Queen. The 28th overall pick has struggled through his first year as a pro, tying Zach Cunningham for the league-lead in missed tackles, per PFF charting.
You may also remember Queen as one of the players that A.J. Brown dragged into the end zone during the regular season matchup. At 6′-0″ and 229 pounds, Queen is giving up a lot of size to the 6′-3″, 247-pound Henry and Tennessee’s latest 2,000-yard back leads the NFL in broken tackles on rushes at a whopping 75 forced misses according to PFF.
The Titans have adapted and evolved their rushing attack this season under Arthur Smith. The outside zone and inside zone staples are certainly still prevalent, but Tennessee has added duo to it’s run package and has become one of the best in the NFL at executing this concept.
Duo is a physical, downhill gap concept that is built around getting two double teams at the line of scrimmage and allowing your running back to play games with the mike linebacker. While Henry’s size, speed, and stiff arm generally dominate the conversation surrounding his brilliance, it’s his vision and footwork that have truly taken him to the top of his profession.
I would fully expect the Titans to give Baltimore a heavy dose of duo and put the pressure on Queen to match wits with the King.
4. The Ravens will likely try to “pack the paint” and blitz like crazy to slow down Derrick Henry.
Since Wink Martindale took over as defensive coordinator, the Ravens have been the most blitz-happy team in the NFL. That remained true in 2020 as Baltimore led the league again with a 44.1% blitz rate, clearing second-place Miami by almost four percent. They don’t save all those blitzes for third downs either, they’re more than willing to send extra players on early downs.
In the previous matchups with the Titans, the Ravens have been happy to play single high safety looks and load the box to stop Henry. The problem, of course, is that it hasn’t really worked. Henry has rushed for 328 yards at a clip of 5.66 yards per carry in those two games despite the extra manpower supplied by the Ravens safeties walking up into the box.
In addition to putting extra bodies in the box, Baltimore has frequently brought corner blitzes on early downs, especially against compressed formations from the Titans offense in an effort to blow up zone runs before they get started. Tennessee has struggled mightily to generate anything out of the screen game this year, but this would be a great opportunity to get that part of the offense going.
Further, the Ravens single-high looks are very inviting to the Titans play action passing attack.
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.Spencer Schultz, Baltimore Beatdown
The presence of Williams and Campbell could give the Ravens the confidence to try and defend the box with just seven and play more split safety coverages, but their approach in the last two games has shown them to be more likely to stack the box and leave their corners to fend for themselves against A.J. Brown and Corey Davis.
5. Turnovers at a premium.
The Titans won the playoff matchup last year on the back of the defense’s three forced turnovers and four fourth down stops. I don’t think we can expect that kind of game to happen again, but it should be noted that Lamar Jackson has thrown three interceptions and fumbled four times in two career playoff games.
In the regular season, he turned the ball over 13 times (nine interceptions, four lost fumbles) and had six other fumbles that were recovered by the Ravens. One of the few categories that the Titans defense excels in… is forcing turnovers. Tennessee ranked 7th in the league with 23 takeaways this season.
The Titans protect the football extremely well, turning it over on offense just 12 times in 16 games, the 2nd lowest total of the regular season. That combination gave them the best turnover differential in the entire NFL this season at +11.
Teams that win the turnover battle win the game 81% of the time in the playoffs, up a few points from the 78% win rate in the regular season. Forcing Jackson into some mistakes, especially early in the game, could rattle the young quarterback as well. He’s made it no secret that the talk of his playoff failures bothers him. Could he start pressing if he starts this game with another early mistake? I’m sure the Titans would like to find out.