Part cannon ball, part boulder, Derrick Henry is nightmare fuel for defensive coordinators. The Tennessee Titans running back is big and fast, strong and agile. He did not win the NFL rushing title this season by accident.
That much is obvious. Less obvious is the real challenge of the Ravens’ playoff opener: Even if they bottle up Henry in Saturday’s AFC divisional-round game, the mere threat of the run will test their defense. It’s one thing to have Henry in your backfield. It’s another to pair him with the NFL’s best play-action passer.
After taking over for starter Marcus Mariota in Week 7, Ryan Tannehill set a franchise record for passer rating; only Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Nick Foles have ever posted better marks than Tannehill’s 117.5. He’s one of three qualifying passers in NFL history to complete at least 70% of his passes and average at least 9 yards per attempt in a single season. And he’s been helped in large part by the game’s most underutilized play type.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Tannehill ranked third in completion rate (75.6%) and first in passer rating (143.6) on play-action passes this season. More than one of every four drop-backs by Tannehill included a play fake, the league’s ninth-highest rate.
“I think Ryan Tannehill’s done an excellent job with that,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Tuesday. "It’s been schemed up really well. It starts with the run game, of course. The run game’s what makes all that go. The run game’s been really, really, really good. ...
“Obviously, No. 22 [Henry] is about as good as you’ll see coming downhill running the ball. Their offensive line is moving people off the ball, so I think that’s where the play-action stuff starts, and Ryan’s been really good at it.”
When Tennessee’s passing attack and ground game are both locked in, its offense can be a handful. In Tannehill’s best game of the season, a Week 12 blowout win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in which he went 14-for-18 with two touchdowns (plus two rushing touchdowns), 218 of his 259 passing yards resulted from play-action passes, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Henry also dominated, rushing 19 times for 159 yards and two touchdowns.
But even when the Titans’ rushing offense is merely good, Tannehill can still thrive. In another easy win in Week 14, Henry ran for 103 yards on 18 carries against the Oakland Raiders, while backup Dion Lewis had nine rushes for 26 yards, a combined 4.8 yards per carry. That didn’t hurt Tannehill’s play-action success: He threw for 276 yards, the second most off the play fake in any game over the past four seasons, according to Next Gen Stats.
Counterintuitive as it might seem, there is no proven link between rushing success and play-action success. Teams with strong running games can struggle on play-action, and teams with weak running games can succeed on play-action. The call is one of the safest and most efficient in football: The average yardage and completion percentage on play-action passes rise, while the interception and sack rates fall. No team has run it so often that linebackers stop biting on run fakes altogether, either.
On Saturday, the Ravens defense could see more play-action passes in the first quarter than it has in entire games this season. Only two of the team’s games since Week 9 have been decided by fewer than 16 points. The top-seeded Ravens have so regularly and thoroughly dominated in their 12-game winning streak that opposing play-callers often seem to give up on the conceit of play-action. Why bother faking a run when you’re down 21 points, anyway?
If this game isn’t close, it’s probably because Tannehill hasn’t faced many defenses like the Ravens’. (Of course, having Lamar Jackson on your team doesn’t hurt, either.) In the former first-round pick’s 10 starts this season before the Titans’ upset win Saturday in New England, he faced just one pass defense that finished in the top 10 in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders.
The third-seeded Patriots, who had the NFL’s most efficient pass defense, held Tannehill to 8-for-15 passing for 72 yards, a touchdown and an interception in their 20-13 loss. The Ravens, who have allowed just 148.6 passing yards per game since Week 10, are No. 4 in efficiency. And they’ve had a week off to rest, recover and study.
Tennessee’s reliance on play-action could lead to a boom-or-bust kind of night at M&T Bank Stadium. Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has blitzed opponents on over half of the Ravens’ plays this season, by far the NFL’s highest rate. Even when pressure hasn’t produced a sack, it’s often been disruptive.
New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold was one of the NFL’s more accurate passers on play-action this season. In the second quarter of the Jets’ Week 15 loss in Baltimore, they called for a play-action bootleg that had Darnold roll to his right, a play design the Titans use often with Tannehill. Wide receiver Robby Anderson had a pocket of space on an intermediate crossing route, as Tennessee rookie A.J. Brown often does.
But almost as soon as Darnold turned around after his handoff fake, Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey was in his face, tracking him down on a perfectly called blitz from the slot. Darnold instinctively threw the ball away.
In the fourth quarter, the Jets called for more play-action, this time on a standard drop-back. As running back Le’Veon Bell leaked out of the pocket, shadowed by safety Chuck Clark, while tight end Trevon Wesco engaged outside linebacker Tyus Bowser, safety Brandon Carr made his move. He’d started the play in the box, but with no one to cover or run to defend, he took off after Darnold on a so-called green-dog blitz.
With three Pro Bowl players in the Ravens defensive backfield, their coverage held up downfield No one picked Carr up, and Darnold had to throw off his back foot to avoid the sack. That pass missed, too.
Even if the Titans’ mix of play-action crossing routes and screen passes isn’t enough to trouble the Ravens, Tannehill’s scrambling ability might. He has four rushing scores this season, none on designed runs. Against the Jaguars, he twice reached the end zone on play-action bootlegs he kept for himself, one from 21 yards out and another from 3.
For as much attention as Henry will attract Saturday, it’s the plays in which he pretends to get the ball that could most trouble the Ravens.
“If it’s not there, there’s been times where Ryan’s tucked the ball away and gotten us some yards when things are covered downfield, or maybe the rush breaks down,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel said in a conference call with Baltimore reporters Tuesday. “He’s a very good athlete. He’s continued to try to help us each and every week. Sometimes, some weeks are better than others, but he is mobile. He’s not Lamar Jackson, but he’s able to gain a couple of yards if they’re there.”
AFC divisional round
Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM