If the Ravens are to turn the tables in their playoff rematch with the Tennessee Titans, quarterback Lamar Jackson must do more to exploit one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses. Here’s who has the edge in each phase of the game:
RAVENS PASSING GAME: Quarterback Lamar Jackson threw three touchdown passes in the Ravens’ Week 17 blowout of the Cincinnati Bengals, pushing his season total to 26. Jackson continued his stellar performance in the red zone, where he’s completed 67.8% of his passes with 19 touchdowns and no interceptions this season. He finished the season seventh in ESPN’s QBR, ahead of Russell Wilson and Tom Brady. Jackson has struggled with Tennessee’s approach of crowding the box with small, quick defenders. He threw two interceptions in the Ravens’ playoff loss to the Titans last season and another in a Week 11 loss to Tennessee. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown caught two touchdown passes against the Bengals and has caught six in his past six games. Brown led the Ravens with 100 targets and tied tight end Mark Andrews for the reception lead at 58. Jackson’s third favorite target, Willie Snead IV, missed Week 17 with an ankle injury, but returned to practice Wednesday. The Ravens rank last in the league in total passing and 21st in yards per attempt.
TITANS PASSING GAME: Quarterback Ryan Tannehill produced the best season of his career, averaging 7.9 yards per attempt with 33 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions. He completed 22 of 31 attempts for 259 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in the Titans’ Week 11 win in Baltimore. As one of the league’s best play-action passers, he fits Tennessee’s offense perfectly. No team has a more dangerous pair of downfield targets than A.J. Brown (15.4 yards per catch, 11 touchdowns) and Corey Davis (15.1 yards per reception). They combined for 175 yards on nine catches in Week 11. Brown, however, was limited in practice Wednesday with knee and hand injuries. Tight end Jonnu Smith (41 catches, 448 yards, eight touchdowns) is a red-zone threat.
RAVENS RUNNING GAME: The Ravens set a single-game franchise record with 404 rushing yards against the Bengals. Rookie running back J.K. Dobbins rushed for 160 yards, capping an impressive season in which he averaged six yards per carry and led the team with nine rushing touchdowns, a franchise rookie record. Jackson added 97 yards against the Bengals to become the first quarterback in league history to post consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Gus Edwards (723 yards, five yards per carry) graded higher than either of them as a pure runner, according to Pro Football Focus. The Titans held the Ravens to 129 yards on 33 attempts in Week 11, with Edwards carrying just three times and Jackson averaging a subpar 3.9 yards per carry. The Ravens easily led the league in rushing, averaging 24 yards per game more than second-place Tennessee.
TITANS RUNNING GAME: Where the Ravens do it with three dangerous ball carriers, the Titans rely on the league’s single greatest running force, Derrick Henry. He finished off his best season (2,027 yards, 17 touchdowns) with a 250-yard outing in Sunday’s 41-38 win over the Houston Texans. Henry rushed for 195 yards in Tennessee’s playoff win in Baltimore last season. The Ravens actually contained him for three quarters in Week 11, but the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry wore them down and ended the game with a 29-yard touchdown run in overtime. He challenges both the middle and edges of a defense and takes advantage of the respect opponents must pay to Tannehill’s downfield shots. Tannehill (6.2 yards per carry, seven touchdowns) is also a running threat if left unattended.
RAVENS RUSH DEFENSE: The Ravens did not have nose tackle Brandon Williams or defensive end Calais Campbell when they played the Titans in Week 11. They built their defensive front with an eye on stopping elite runners such as Henry, so this will be a great test for a group that’s rounded out by defensive end Derek Wolfe (fourth best run grade among all defensive linemen, per Pro Football Focus). The Ravens ranked eighth in run defense, in part because many teams did not challenge them. But we know that won’t be the case with the Titans, who ran 34 times for 173 yards in Week 11.
TITANS RUSH DEFENSE: The Titans did a good job clogging the Ravens’ running lanes in the teams’ last matchup, but they were mediocre against the run overall, ranking 19th and surrendering 4.5 yards per carry. The Green Bay Packers pulverized them with 234 yards in Week 16. Tennessee’s best individual run defenders are safety Kevin Byard, who led the team in tackles, and 6-foot-4, 301-pound defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons.
RAVENS PASS DEFENSE: Cornerback Marcus Peters returned from a calf injury against the Bengals and helped hold quarterback Brandon Allen to a miserable 48-yard passing performance. With Marlon Humphrey headed for another Pro Bowl and Anthony Averett playing the best football of his career, the Ravens have a relatively healthy secondary going into the playoffs. They’ll also hope to get cornerback Jimmy Smith (ribs/shoulder) and edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue (thigh) back against the Titans. Tannehill picked on rookie linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison in Week 11, so it will be interesting to see if defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale relies more on Chris Board and Tyus Bowser, who’ve played well in coverage. Queen has raised his game in that area, but this will be a major test for him. The Ravens finished sixth in pass defense, holding opposing quarterbacks to 5.6 yards per attempt.
TITANS PASS DEFENSE: This is the Titans’ greatest weakness and one Jackson will have to exploit more than he did in the teams’ previous two meetings. Deshaun Watson roasted the Tennessee secondary for 365 yards and three touchdowns in Week 17, leaving the Titans 29th in pass defense. This group didn’t defend wide receivers well but ranked last in DVOA against tight ends, per Football Outsiders. So the Ravens will need Andrews to feast. The Titans also ranked dead last in third-down defense and 30th in red-zone defense. Malcolm Butler (four interceptions, 14 passes defended) is the team’s best cornerback. The Titans don’t have an elite pass rusher and rank last in pressure percentage, per Pro-Football-Reference.
RAVENS SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Justin Tucker has made 26 of 29 field-goal attempts, with only one miss inside 50 yards. He was selected for his fifth Pro Bowl. Punter Sam Koch missed Week 17 on the reserve/COVID-19 list, but coach John Harbaugh indicated he will be back against the Titans. Koch finished eighth in the league with a 42.5-yard net average. Few teams cover kickoffs and punts better, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA.
TITANS SPECIAL TEAMS: Where the Ravens are above average in every area of special teams, the Titans are shaky across the board. They turned to kicker Sam Sloman in Week 17, and he was fortunate to bounce a 37-yard game-winning field goal off the inside of the right post. Kalif Raymond has been a bright spot, averaging 9.0 yards on 23 punt returns.
RAVENS INTANGIBLES: The Ravens won five straight to move from ninth in the AFC playoff chase to the top wild-card spot. They rushed for an astonishing 1,337 yards in that span as their offensive confidence built behind a resurgent Jackson. Now, they must face the specter that has haunted them for 12 months: Jackson’s 0-2 record in the playoffs, which includes that stunning 28-12 loss to the Titans last season. Harbaugh won at least one game in each of his first six postseasons, so he’s not bothered by going on the road with doubters suggesting the Titans are his team’s kryptonite.
TITANS INTANGIBLES: Despite an erratic season that included ugly losses to the Packers, Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts, coach Mike Vrabel’s Titans will come in believing they have the Ravens’ number. With Henry and Tannehill leading a scary offense, it’s hard to blame them. The Titans respect Jackson but don’t fear him, and if they go up early, the Ravens might be in trouble.
PREDICTION: Jackson will have to do more damage against the Titans’ lousy pass defense if the Ravens are to stay ahead of Henry and Tannehill. The Ravens are hotter on offense and healthier on defense than they were going into Week 11. They’re perfectly positioned to turn the tables on an opponent with significant weaknesses. But the Titans’ stars will make them sweat all the way. Ravens 31, Titans 28.