The Titans entered the AFC divisional game against the Baltimore Ravens as overwhelming underdogs. The Ravens were favored by 10 points (spreads of 10 points or more have only happened 11 times in the playoffs in the past decade), and, for good reason, Baltimore was a juggernaut in 2019. At the root of it all was a dynamic and explosive offense.
Baltimore scored 531 points on offense last year. The next closest team was the 49ers with 479 points. In fact, the 2019 Ravens were 9th-highest scoring offense since 2000. There’s no question that Lamar Jackson was the engine that made the offense go. His play in 2019 was one of the best seasons in recent memory, and he won the NFL MVP as a result. Given his legit dual-threat ability, the goal of the defense became less about shutting down Lamar, and more about taking away some of the things the Ravens liked to do.
A big part of their passing game was Mark Andrews. The second-year tight end led the team in receiving last season.
And, not just a little bit. As you can see, he also led in every meaningful category: targets, catches, touchdowns, yards per reception… When the Ravens elected to pass, Mark Andrews was often the primary read and target for the team.
Andrews’ talent was not specific to just the Ravens, either. He emerged as one of the best tight ends in the entire NFL.
The Titans employed a philosophy often used by Bill Belichick: eliminate one of the primary things the opponent wants to do, and see how they adapt. However, taking away a great receiving TE like Andrews isn’t as simple as just hoping it happens. It either requires either an extra defender in the form of a double team, bracket coverage, or shade, or the team needs a uniquely talented defender capable of shutting down a player of Andrews’ caliber.
Fortunately for the Titans, they have Kevin Byard.
Locking Down Mark Andrews
The Titans showed a variety of coverages this game when Andrews was on the field. Through the 3rd quarter, and when the game was still competitive (the Titans became more zone-oriented in the 4th), the Titans were in man coverage on 52% of the snaps, a largely balanced approach. Of those man snaps, 80% of them involved Byard defending Andrews. While that may not be explicitly shadowing him, it’s pretty close. And, as we’ll see, it proved extremely effective.
On the Ravens first drive of the game, Mark Andrews caught a 12-yard reception with Byard defending. While this wasn’t man coverage, it would be the last time Mark Andrews gained a yard versus Kevin Byard this game.
Later on this same drive, the Ravens run a flood concept. Byard is the post safety. Kenny Vaccaro is in man coverage vs. Andrews. The Titans deploy a Cover 1 concept, which was used frequently in this game.
A few important things to note here.
- The separation Andrews (at the top of the screen) gets from Vaccaro. It’s not a huge gap, but keep a mental note of that as a comparison to Byard later.
- Byard makes this interception look simple. It’s easy to see why. The high throw is tipped right into his hands. Yet, this is what makes him special. He’s so fundamentally sound that he’s always in the right place. He takes disciplined angles, yet still manages to play instinctually. So, while this may look simple, plays like this are a result of hours of reps and film study that result in him being in the right place at the right time.
Early in the second quarter, the Ravens run a 5-wide look with Andrews in the close slot position. Andrews runs an in route and is Jackson’s preferred target once the quarterback breaks the pocket.
Byard remains right in Andrews’ hip pocket this entire play. The result is a small gain on a rush by Jackson leading to a 3rd-and-long for the Ravens. The next play is an incomplete pass, and the drive stalls.
Following a drive by the Titans, the Ravens begin marching. On the cusp of the red zone, Baltimore faces 3rd and 12 with six minutes left in the 2nd quarter. The Ravens again try to run an in-breaking route with Andrews out of a 4×1 formation. He’s the primary target on this play. The Ravens get the look you’d usually want: a versatile tight end isolated against a safety. The play doesn’t go the way it’s designed, however.
Byard is in off coverage. He does a great job of closing the gap on Andrews in his initial stem, while also avoiding the natural pick created by Woodyard. Jackson wants to make this throw, and eyes him the majority of the route, but the throw isn’t there. He’s forced to target the receiver short of the sticks who ends up dropping the ball. The Ravens go on to kick a field goal narrowing the score to 14-3.
The Ravens have one more possession in the first half, and it starts inside their own 10 yard line. After a couple of short passing plays and an incompletion, Baltimore faces 2nd and 10.
Another intermediate crossing pattern by Andrews here (seeing a pattern?). And, again, Byard erases him as the primary target. He effectively uses his hands at the line of scrimmage and allows for no separation once he gets into his stem. The result is a throwaway.
The Ravens go on to convert two big chunk plays (and a few unsuccessful ones) that lead to a 1st and 10 with 0:31 seconds left. Baltimore goes five wide, and, again, Andrews runs a crossing pattern from the slot.
Titans are in a Cover 1 look with Woodyard underneath spying/robbing Lamar Jackson. Of all the snaps against Byard, Andrews gets the most separation on this one, but the robbing linebacker is directly in the throwing lane. Andrews is the primary target and the throw isn’t there. Casey capitalizes on the hesitation with a sack. This forces Baltimore to burn a timeout. Despite an amazing 38-yard throw to Hollywood Brown two plays later, the lack of time on the clock (and timeouts) forces the Ravens to kick a field goal; entering the half down 14-6.
While this might not feel like a critical lead, it was unfamiliar territory for the Ravens. In 2019, Baltimore trailed at the half only two times. They lost both of those games. This is in large part due to how they are organized and built around the run game. The team is not designed to pass often and play from behind, which is what happened in the 2nd half as things really came unraveled.
By the time Byard manned up against Andrews again late in the 3rd quarter, the Titans lead 28-6. It’s worth showing these final couple of plays, though, as they further reinforce Byard’s proficiency as a man defender.
Andrews runs a quick out on this play, and it looks like he’s the primary receiver on a three-level flood concept. Byard is all over him, leaving no room for a pass attempt.
Quick pivot route here out of five wide on 1st and 10. Andrews finally makes a catch, but Byard is all over him, driving on the ball for a gain of zero.
A Game Changing Safety
The gameplan the staff rolled out for this matchup was multifaceted, but this game would definitely have a different feel, and maybe a different outcome, without Kevin Byard. Per PFF, Mark Andrews was the 2nd-highest rated offensive skill position player on the Ravens behind Lamar Jackson last season. He was the highest rated player on the Ravens in the passing attack. Not this game.
|Andrews Splits vs TN||Tgts||Rec||Yds||TDs||INT||QB Rat|
|Against Kevin Byard in Man Coverage||1||1||0||0||0||79.17|
|Against Rest of Titans Team||6||3||39||0||1||31.25|
Kevin Byard and the Tennessee Titans effectively eliminated Mark Andrews and the intermediate middle portion of the field. And, by getting the Ravens out of game script, Tennessee forced the Ravens into an uncomfortable situation they couldn’t recover from.
It was a no-frills gameplan without a ton of window dressing, with disguised pressures that we’d seen from the Titans earlier in the year. But, it was a game plan that’s not possible without the elite play from Kevin Byard. Will the Titans turn to this strategy again Sunday?