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Could the Ravens’ run-heavy approach backfire vs. Tennessee? A look at 3 important playoff questions.

There’s no shortage of subplots for the Ravens’ wild-card-round game Sunday against the Tennessee Titans. Will Lamar Jackson finally break through? Can the Ravens get revenge for their divisional-round loss last season? What do John Harbaugh and Mike Vrabel really think of each other?

It won’t be long before the answers reveal themselves in Nashville. With the NFL’s most awaited game of this weekend approaching, here are three questions that could determine the outcome.

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1. Could the Ravens’ run-heavy approach backfire?

When the Ravens lost to the Titans last year, they did not look like the NFL’s most run-heavy team. Of their 92 offensive plays, just 21 were designed runs. Quarterback Lamar Jackson attempted 59 passes, scrambled eight times and took four sacks. A year later, offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s still hearing about it.

“We just didn’t get the points,” Roman said Thursday. “I think we had, like, 530 yards. So the plan was good, except for what? We didn’t score points to back up all the yards. If we had converted some of those long drives into touchdowns, it would have been a whole different story.”

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The Ravens’ ethos hasn’t changed. They’re still the NFL’s most run-heavy team. After a franchise-record 404 rushing yards Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens have 1,337 total since Week 13, the most in a five-game regular-season stretch in modern NFL history.

It’s an offense far different from the one the Titans stifled in Week 11. The Ravens are blocking better, their run schemes are more complementary, and Jackson is more confident. But if Tennessee shows the commitment to stopping the run that it did in Baltimore — nine-man boxes, safeties rarely deeper than 10 or 12 yards off the line of scrimmage — Roman might have to change course. Again.

His first-down play-calling will be revealing. In the Titans’ November upset, the Ravens had 18 designed runs on first down and averaged 2.8 yards per play. Just one went for longer than 7 yards. But on their 10 drop-backs on first down, including a scramble, they averaged 7.1 yards per play. (Notably, Jackson did throw his lone interception on first down.)

That set the tone for a dreadful afternoon. Against a banged-up, porous Tennessee defense, the Ravens finished with just 306 yards and 4.9 yards per play. And that was with an extra possession in overtime, too.

Much has changed since. Over the Ravens’ five-game winning streak, their offense has presented defenses a pick-your-poison dilemma. Analytics suggest that running on first down is rarely a prudent strategy in the new-age NFL, but Roman’s done it anyway, and to great success. On first down, their 94 rushing plays, including scrambles, have averaged 6.3 yards since Week 13; their 47 passing plays, meanwhile, have averaged 7.3 yards.

Could Tennessee force the Ravens to go off-script? This Titans defense is the worst in the playoffs, but not because of its run defense, which Football Outsiders rated No. 16 in efficiency. Of the Ravens’ recent opponents, only the New York Giants finished the season with a higher-ranked unit (No. 15). Which means Jackson’s best opportunities Sunday might come through the air.

“When you really look at it, you’re always, and we always, are going to try to do what gives us the best chance to win,” Roman said. “And if teams are overcommitting to stop the run, like we saw a little bit last week [against Cincinnati], what happened? We hit them on some touchdown passes. So that’s kind of the trick of this whole thing; it’s not all about the running game. It’s about the combination of the run and pass game.”

2. Can the Ravens contain Derrick Henry in heavier formations?

Henry isn’t like a lot of running backs (or any, for that matter), which means this Titans offense isn’t like a lot of offenses, either.

Their primary personnel grouping is “11,” easily the NFL’s most popular package: one running back (or fullback), one tight end and three wide receivers. It works for Tennessee, averaging 5.7 yards per carry and 7.3 yards per pass attempt during the regular season. But the offense operated out of 11 personnel just 40% of the time; only the Minnesota Vikings (29%) had a lower rate in 2020, according to Sharp Football Stats.

When Henry has gashed the Ravens, it’s come out of heavier sets. Surprisingly, he has only six carries of 10-plus yards over their past two meetings. Here’s how the Titans lined up in each:

  • 66 yards (2019 playoffs): 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers)
  • 29 yards (2020 regular season): 12 personnel
  • 27 yards (2019): 12 personnel
  • 24 yards (2020): 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end, two wide receivers)
  • 23 yards (2019): 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver)
  • 11 yards (2020): 21 personnel

Over the Ravens’ past two losses to Tennessee, they allowed 5.7 yards per carry against 21 personnel and 4.8 yards per carry against 12 personnel. With 11 personnel, the Titans had just 4.5 yards per carry, well below Henry’s 5-plus-yard averages the past two years.

If they make bigger groupings a priority Sunday, the Ravens might have mixed feelings. On the one hand, quarterback Ryan Tannehill has a passer rating of 119.8 in the two meetings from 11 personnel, easily his most efficient passing package against the Ravens. And while Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey is expected to play Sunday, the secondary doesn’t have the depth or health that it did in Week 11.

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On the other hand, even with defensive end Calais Campbell and defensive tackle Brandon Williams healthy and available earlier this season, the Ravens struggled mightily to stop rushing attacks in 12 personnel. In the seven games that both linemen played in before Campbell’s Week 9 calf injury, the Ravens allowed 5.2 yards per carry against the two-tight-end set.

Those 43 attempts could have been too small a sample size. They might’ve also more accurately reflected the early-season struggles of the Ravens’ inside linebackers. After all, when Cambell was inactive or playing at less than 100% from Week 10 to Week 16, the team’s run defense against 12 personnel improved, though it fell off elsewhere.

However the Titans line up, Campbell and Williams will be at the center of the Ravens’ Henry-stopping operations. Week 11 ended dismally for the run defense, with Henry’s 29-yard touchdown securing a Titans win, but it had a hopeful start. Even with Campbell and Williams unavailable because of injuries, the Ravens gave up just two runs of longer than 5 yards to Henry through the first three quarters.

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“There are two juggernauts there that are coming back that weren’t there the last time,” Williams said Wednesday, referring to Campbell and himself. “We’re prepared and we’re ready to go out and have a great game on Sunday.”

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3. Who plays on the Ravens defense, and how much?

The Ravens have until Saturday afternoon to finalize roster transactions, and with punter Sam Koch expected to be activated from the reserve/COVID-19 list and Week 17 stand-in Johnny Townsend still counting against the team’s 53-man roster, the team will have to make at least one move.

It’s unclear how the Ravens’ falling dominoes could affect their defense. The biggest pregame question mark is the health of cornerback Jimmy Smith (ribs/shoulder), a versatile chess piece who was limited in practice all week and hasn’t played since Week 14.

Another potential wrinkle: Could practice squad safety Jayron Kearse make his Ravens debut in the playoffs? The former Detroit Lions starter was not called up for their regular-season finale, but he’s had another week to learn the team’s defense, which coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale last week called a “plug-and-play” system. Kearse is also a “very good special teams player,” according to Harbaugh, who values such contributions.

Even with the uncertainty in the Ravens’ secondary, the most interesting position on defense could be edge rusher. Health isn’t a huge concern; defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (thigh) was limited in practice Wednesday and Thursday before fully participating Friday, meaning he’ll likely be active after sitting out Week 17.

But how much time will he see? The former Maryland star got his first sack as a Raven against Tennessee, but he played just 22 defensive snaps in Week 11, a season low. Ngakoue has struggled at times as a run defender in his career, which seemed to limit his repetitions in November. As he’s settled in, however, the Ravens have been more willing to use him in situations in which a pass play isn’t obvious. After a Week 15 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Harbaugh praised Ngakoue’s run defense.

“He’s been playing the edge really well, and I know that’s something that he takes a lot of pride in,” Harbuagh said. “So we’re happy with him all the way around.”

The Ravens need to limit Henry, but they also need to pressure Tannehill, whom they sacked twice on 33 drop-backs in Week 11. It helps that Ngakoue likely won’t play less than a third of the team’s defensive snaps, as he did in November.

And there are intriguing options elsewhere at the position. Matthew Judon had a sack and three quarterback pressures in their earlier meeting. Tyus Bowser had an interception. Pernell McPhee played 61% of the defensive snaps, behind only Judon (67%). Jaylon Ferguson got the second-fewest snaps of any defender. Jihad Ward, who can also line up inside, was inactive.

With how often the Titans use the run to set up their pass, Martindale said it’s especially difficult on early downs to disrupt Tannehill. But the Ravens have to try. Through 14 games this season, his passer rating on play-action was 114.4.

“You need to be disciplined when you’re rushing the passer, and you need to be violent when you’re rushing the passer,” Martindale said. “There are going to be times that if he does get out, that you have to staple people to the ground if they do catch it, and you have to plaster him while he’s scrambling. That’s a tough task, but there are going to be those plays that the effort by us to get him down is going to be paramount in this game.”

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