BALTIMORE (WJZ) — For the first time in franchise history, the Baltimore Ravens are the top seed in the AFC playoffs. As a result, they come out of their bye week getting ready to host the sixth seed in the conference, the Tennessee Titans.
The teams do have some similarities, in that both offenses are built off of run-first philosophies, while each defense has been stronger against the pass than they have against the run this year. But that is largely where the similarities end.
The Ravens offense, orchestrated by Lamar Jackson, is the league’s highest-scoring unit (33.2 PPG) and the most efficient by Football Outsiders’ metrics. The Titans offense is strong (25.4 PPG) and sixth in efficiency, but there is a one thing that makes the Ravens unique compared with the rest of the league. As WJZ anchor and host of Purple Pregame, Rick Ritter, points out, it has to do with the personnel they can force a defense to defend.
“What makes them [the Ravens] so unique though, that some people don’t talk about, is their ability to run the 12 and the 13 personnel, double tight end, triple tight end. Hayden Hurst, Nick Boyle, Mark Andrews, such a special group of athletic tight ends. No other team has that depth in this league,” Ritter said.
The tight ends lead to matchup problems for opposing defenses, and the Titans, with the injury to linebacker Jayon Brown, could be short on the players necessary to defend those tight ends. If they go small by adding more defensive backs, the Ravens ground game can take advantage because of those same tight ends’ skills as run blockers.
“And when they run that 12/13 personnel, they condense the formation, and they’re able to disguise so much out of it. Are they going to run the ball? Are they going to pass the ball? Bring in another corner, we’re going to run the ball down your throat,” said Ritter. “Bring in a linebacker, and we’re going to pass the ball. It’s a mismatch with our tight ends.”
The defense for the Titans has been solid against the run this year, allowing just 4.0 yards per carry. But, last week against New England, the group was caught a couple of times on counter actions, allowing Sony Michel to average 4.4 yards per carry. The Ravens run game has plenty of misdirection and sleight of hand to it, which makes for a potential problem for the Titans in this matchup.
Furthermore, Ritter sees the Ravens having an advantage on the defensive side of the ball when the Titans offense is on the field. While he notes that Derrick Henry poses a significant challenge in the run game, Ritter believes that the combination of the run stoppers inside (Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce) with the play of defensive backs Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters will be enough.
“Now Baltimore, they’ve got the run defense to stop him, that’s for sure, with Pierce and Williams on the inside. And they’ve got the secondary to cover. The key for Baltimore here is going to be get up early, get some explosive plays early, force Ryan Tannehill to throw the ball,” said Ritter. “It will be interesting to see what Baltimore does in terms of their defensive scheme here. Will they stack the box, allow Marlon Humphrey to go man up on A.J. Brown, which is what we’ve seen a lot this year, Humphrey covering the best receivers? And he’s done a fine job at that.”
Getting up early has been a staple of the Ravens’ play this season, outscoring opponents 8-2 on average in the first quarter. A big part of that is the success the offense has had, and, of course, that comes back to quarterback Lamar Jackson.
“The one thing that Lamar is so good at too, the RPO, reading the shoulder of that defensive end. If that defensive end drops his shoulder, Lamar’s taking off if he’s crashing,” said Ritter. “If he’s [in] contain mode, they’re going to hand the ball off to (Mark) Ingram, they’re going to hand the ball off to (Gus) Edwards. They’re going to create nightmares for Tennessee.”
And, as Dan Fouts pointed out to us earlier, even when a team makes the right reads and stays with their assignments, there is no guarantee of getting Lamar to the ground.
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) January 9, 2020
The athleticism and intelligence Jackson possesses makes it extremely difficult for a defense to win on any given play. And, even if they do have guys in the right place, he can simply make them miss, as in the play above. All of this leads Ritter to the conclusion that the Ravens will be moving on to championship weekend.
“How can you pick against the Ravens right now? You can’t, especially at home. Again, the road to the Super Bowl in the AFC goes through M&T Bank Stadium. I expect the Ravens to pull this one out,” said Ritter. “Then we’ll get the game of the year the following week, Chiefs vs. Ravens in the AFC Championship.”
Oddsmakers agree. The Ravens are between 9-10 point favorites heading into tomorrow’s action matching their fellow AFC top seed, Kansas City, for the biggest favorites of the divisional round. Whether they can prove the oddsmakers and Ritter correct will come down to kickoff Saturday night at 8:15 p.m. EST on CBS.