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Mike Preston: Ravens defensive line has to come up big against the Titans | COMMENTARY

The bond began to form in training camp, especially with veteran defensive end Calais Campbell and rookie Justin Madubuike, a third-round pick who played the same position at Texas A&M. Everywhere Campbell went Madubuike was his shadow, even if Campbell just washed out his mouth with water.

On Sunday, the Ravens will find out how much Madubuike, fellow end and rookie Broderick Washington and tackle Justin Ellis learned from Campbell. The Ravens (6-3) host Tennessee (6-3) at M&T Bank Stadium and the Titans bring the No. 6 rushing offense to town led by halfback Derrick Henry, the near clone of former Cleveland Browns and Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown.

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The last time Henry and the Titans stopped in Baltimore they pounded the Ravens for 217 yards rushing, 195 by Henry, as Tennessee upset the Ravens, 28-12, in a 2019 Divisional playoff game. The Ravens upgraded on the defensive line during the offseason, signing perennial Pro Bowl performer Campbell and end Derek Wolfe.

But the Ravens on Sunday likely will be without Campbell (calf injury) and nose guard Brandon Williams (ankle), one of the top run stoppers in the NFL. Madubuike, Washington and Ellis have to step up or the Ravens will step back.

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“Yes, Brandon and Calais, they’re great vets, great parts of our defense, and [there’s] a standard here [with] the Ravens, and it’s a brotherhood — it’s next man up,” Madubuike said. “But we’re all equipped to handle any situation on defense when a guy goes down. It’s a standard here with the Ravens, like I said. So, we just have to get back on the field and get to work and knock this run out against the Titans.”

It will be a major challenge and the most decisive matchup in the game. The Titans are averaging 148.7 rushing yards and the 6-foot-3 and 247-pound Henry has rushed for 946 yards on 201 carries. Henry doesn’t just elude or shake tacklers; he overpowers them much like former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis did at the turn of the century.

Against New England last week, in a 23-17 loss, the Ravens allowed 173 yards rushing, most of those in the first half without Campbell and Williams. Everybody knows what’s coming Sunday. It’s the Derrick Henry train.

“The running game is about the same as last year,” Ellis said. “The offensive line works well together, it’s a hard-working group. They got a nice, big back in the backfield and a good quarterback running the entire system.”

Madubuike was more specific.

“It’s going to come down to a very physical football game,” he said. “We have respect for what [No.] ’22′ can do, but at the end of the day, it’s about us.”

Both Campbell and Williams have been listed as doubtful for the game, but even if they play it is unlikely they will be able to handle a full load. Against New England, the Ravens trio of Washington, Madubuike and Ellis struggled in the first half but settled down in the second.

It was a twofold problem centered around nervousness and controlling the gaps.

“Honestly, we lacked gap discipline early on,” said Ellis, nicknamed “Jelly.” “They found a way to exploit the gaps and they kept finding it. We had to buckle down, not try to do too much. Guys kept trying to make a play instead of everybody just doing their job. We were trying to do too much but we ended up being fine.”

This week, according to coach John Harbaugh, the Ravens have worked on defensive front alignments, especially with new faces in the starting lineup. The Ravens also spent a lot of time on improving technique. With young players like Washington and Madubuike, they tend to play too high at first, which allows offensive linemen to block or get into their bodies.

If that happens against Tennessee, Henry will dominate.

“Every game is always about hands and leverage,” Ellis said, “but more so this week because they are going to run downhill just like the Patriots did, for sure.”

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The Ravens also have to occupy blockers. Both Campbell and Williams required double teams, which allowed rookie linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison to move freely near the line of scrimmage. Without them, teams can single block the Ravens and neither Queen nor Harrison are strong or physical enough at this point of their careers to consistently shed blockers.

Harrison, though, will be replaced by L.J. Forte, who missed the last game because of a finger injury. That’s a plus for Baltimore.

“It was a different style game for him. It was his first time [playing] really old-school football in the National Football League than he’s seen so far this year,” said Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale of Queen’s performance against the Patriots. “He’ll make the adjustments. He’ll get his eyes right. He’ll do all those little things that are going to help him. I told him, ‘Hey, you either win or you learn in this league.’ Obviously, Sunday, he did a lot of learning.

“L. J. [Fort] played really well last year against Tennessee. I’m expecting him to do the same this week, and it helps because you’ve got your full bullpen there, if you will,” said Martindale of backups Harrison and Chris Board.

What’s interesting is that a lot of the Ravens aren’t talking about last season’s loss to Tennessee. The Ravens had won 12 straight at the end of the 2019 regular season and had home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. But Tennessee wrecked their plans.

The Ravens don’t need to dwell on it because they remember.

“It’s like the elephant in the room, you don’t have to harp on it,” Ellis said. “We just got to go knock this game out.”

“I have no doubt that they’re ready to do what they need to do to help us win this game,” Martindale said. “There are different things that we looked at, and there are other things. The sky is not falling. We’ll be fine, and we’ll be ready to go come Sunday.”

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