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After rough outing vs. Patriots, Ravens defense prepares for sterner test from Derrick Henry and the Titans

The New England Patriots wasted no time Sunday night revealing how they would attack the Ravens.

Damien Harris carried off left tackle for 7 yards on their first play from scrimmage. He carried off right guard for 4 yards on the next. Then he went back off left tackle for another 7 yards. With Harris inflicting steady damage, the Patriots quickly blended in the other component of their no-frills offense — low-risk play-action passes by quarterback Cam Newton. It was precisely what the Ravens expected, coach John Harbaugh said after the game, but they did not stop this frontal assault until the fourth quarter of a 23-17 loss.

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What then to make of their chances against the Tennessee Titans, who will bring a similar approach to Baltimore on Sunday, only with a more terrifying running back in Derrick Henry and a more prolific play-action passer in Ryan Tannehill?

Perhaps the Ravens could take some comfort if they knew defensive end Calais Campbell and nose tackle Brandon Williams would return to anchor their base defense. But Campbell’s status remains up in the air as he recovers from a calf strain suffered in Week 9, while Williams could miss a week or two because of the ankle injury he suffered early in the Patriots game. There’s a good chance the Ravens will take on Henry with the same undermanned front that faltered in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

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Henry hammered the Ravens for 195 yards in Tennessee’s playoff upset 10 months ago, so they’re all too familiar with what’s coming.

“He’s the best running back in the NFL,” safety DeShon Elliott said. “So, you know what they’re going to do. They know everybody knows what they’re going to do. They’re going to give it to him 30-40 times a game. He’s going to run it down your throat whether you like it or not. We just have to figure out a way to slow him down. We’ve got to get to him before he can get going — that’s all you’ve got to do.”

The task will be more difficult without Williams occupying blockers in the middle. The Ravens have allowed nearly twice as many rushing yards per game when they’ve played without him over the past four seasons, according to ESPN data.

With Williams out after just five plays against the Patriots, the Ravens relied heavily on Justin Ellis, who played almost every defensive snap for the rest of the game. They also asked more than usual from rookie defensive tackles Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington. The results, against an excellent offensive line, were underwhelming, but Harbaugh offered measured praise after reviewing the game tape.

“Each of those guys probably have a couple plays they’d want to have back, but for the most part, those guys played well,” he said. “I would say better, probably, on the tape than I thought watching the game itself. They were in there fighting pretty hard and did pretty well.”

Part of the problem was the sheer volume of work required from these backup down linemen. The Ravens used their base defense far more than usual against the Patriots, and injuries kept them from rotating liberally. New England blockers pushed Ravens linemen off the line of scrimmage and delivered punishment down the field. With a few days’ perspective, Madubuike was disappointed with his inconsistency at plugging assigned gaps.

“Those are the things we’re going to work on in practice and staying square and knocking that run out,” he said.

Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale expressed confidence that Ellis, Madubuike, Washington and defensive end Derek Wolfe (who played well with seven tackles against the Patriots) will meet the challenge presented by Tennessee, which is dealing with health issues along the offensive line.

“Without a doubt, they’re ready,” Martindale said. “The sky’s not falling.”

The Ravens’ problems in Foxborough extended beyond the line of scrimmage.

Linebacker L.J. Fort’s absence from the Patriots game with a finger injury drew less attention than those of Campbell and Williams, but the Ravens missed him. Their rookie linebackers, Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison, struggled to fill the appropriate gaps and were caught leaning the wrong way on Newton’s play-action attempts.

Queen took some solace from their improved performance in the fourth quarter but acknowledged that he did not play with the force and discipline he expects from himself.

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“Stuff started to go left, and we’ve just got to stay in, stay tight,” he said. “Like you heard [Pernell McPhee] say on the sideline, just play together. That’s what we did in the last quarter, and we got three stops, back to back to back. As long as we stay together and play the way we did in that quarter, we’ll be fine.”

The Ravens expect to have Fort back against Tennessee, but the Titans — fifth in running efficiency and second in passing efficiency, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistics — will challenge their linebackers with outside zone runs and a passing game built largely on play action.

“Both those offenses are very similar,” Martindale said, drawing a comparison with the Patriots game. “There’s a stat out there that [the Titans] are the best first- and second-down offense in the National Football League, and I believe it when you watch the tape.”

“The pass is set up by the run,” Harbaugh said. “They run numerous play-action-type of protections off of that with good ball fakes to try to draw the linebackers up. You don’t really see from most teams all the different types of play-action combination routes — one-man route, two-man route, three-man route, even more — off of play-action like they do. They do them all.”

One area where the Ravens have improved since their playoff loss to Tennessee is edge setting. Even as they struggled overall against the Patriots, they defended the run better when McPhee and/or Jaylon Ferguson were on the field. Both outside linebackers grade among the top-30 run defenders at their position, according to Pro Football Focus.

We might see them together more against the Titans if not for the coverage demands created by Tannehill’s play-action game.

It’s not as if the Ravens have been a season-long disaster against the run. They still rank third in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA.

Elliott suggested that even without Williams and Campbell, they simply need to get back to what they’ve done for most of the year.

“We’ve got to play our brand of football,” he said. “It honestly just comes down to doing your job and playing physical, because the more physical team is going to win up front. And wherever we can, as a defensive backfield, we’ll try to help out our front seven. So, honestly, it just comes down to knowing your gaps and playing as physical as you possibly can and outworking the other team. That’s all the run comes down to: who wants it more?”

TITANS@RAVENS

Sunday, 1 p.m.

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TV: Ch. 13

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Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

Line: Ravens by 6½

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