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By Cameron Hogwood – @CameronHogwood
Last Updated: 09/01/20 3:32pm
Analysis of the New England Patriots’ future floats on the surface of Wild Card reaction, but delve deeper and there is a steely Tennessee Titans performance worthy of perhaps more praise than it has received.
The Titans consigned the Patriots to their earliest playoff exit in 10 years and yet, while understandable, the focus has instead leaned towards predicting the next steps for Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the six-time Super Bowl champions.
Nonetheless, the underdog tag might be one that is naturally welcomed by Mike Vrabel as his side prepare to take on the Baltimore Ravens.
Stopping John Harbaugh’s AFC North champions takes both brains and brawn, although there is a case for the Titans being well-equipped to match their Divisional Round rivals.
January 12, 2020, 1:00am
Punch with Henry
Derrick Henry supplied a preview of what the Ravens defense should come to expect as he rushed for 182 yards and one touchdown off 34 carries against the Patriots.
To underline just how heavily he was used, quarterback Ryan Tannehill registered eight passes from just 15 attempts for a mere 72 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
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The Titans made no secret of how they were going to hurt the Patriots, but there was little they could do about it.
Henry offers the Titans not only a battering ram with which to wear down the Ravens’ defense, but also a ploy to drain the clock and help implement the complementary football designed to keep Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore offense off the field for as long as possible.
The task of disrupting the Ravens’ rhythm on offense could be aided by the prospect of early rust for several starters on the back of a first-round bye and being rested in the regular-season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If the Titans can find a way to carve openings for Henry on the outside and set him up against defensive backs, his blend of size, speed and brute strength will be difficult to contain.
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Henry really came to life in the final two months of the regular season, rushing for over 100 yards in five out of seven games as well as running in for 11 touchdowns. This included 211 yards for three scores against the Houston Texans in Week 17.
Tannehill needs bigger day
Henry’s task is heightened by the fact he will be up against a Ravens defense that ranked fifth in the league against the run in 2019, allowing just 93.4 yards per game.
A main factor for the Titans will be resisting the urge to abandon the run should the Ravens do what they have done to multiple teams this season by building a significant lead early on.
All the more reason to do so when considering Baltimore’s defense faced fewer rushing attempts per game than any other team this season.
Regardless, the onus will be on Tannehill to maintain the comeback form he has displayed in Tennessee with an efficient day devoid of mistakes and sloppy turnovers.
Tannehill’s last five regular season games
|@ Houston Texans||W 35-14||13||20||198||65.0||2||0|
|vs New Orleans Saints||L 38-28||17||27||272||63.0||3||0|
|vs Houston Texans||L 24-21||22||36||279||61.1||2||1|
|@ Oakland Raiders||W 42-21||21||27||391||77.8||3||1|
|@ Indianapolis Colts||W 31-17||17||22||182||77.3||2||0|
The former Miami Dolphins quarterback doesn’t need to be spectacular with the presence of Henry beside him, just the accurate passer that helped lead the Titans to the playoffs.
Tannehill threw just two interceptions in his final seven games of the regular season, finishing the year 201 of 286 (70.3 percent) for 22 touchdowns and just six picks.
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In 2019, the 31-year-old had a completion percentage of 69.23 inside the 20-yard line and 77.78 inside the 10-yard line. When red zone opportunities present themselves, he must take them.
A.J. Brown is primed for another important role as Tannehill’s favourite target, entering the game as the Titans’ leading receiver with 52 catches for 1,051 yards and eight touchdowns on the year.
The 22-year-old rookie came into his own over the final month of the season as he registered over 100 receiving yards in four of his final six games, including 153 for two scores in the 42-21 win over the Raiders.
He’ll come up against the Ravens’ sixth-ranked pass defense that allowed an average of 207.2 yards per game in the air, with cornerback Marlon Humphrey responsible for 14 pass defenses and three interceptions alongside Marcus Peters’ 10 pass defenses and three picks since his arrival from the Los Angeles Rams.
Expect the unexpected from Ravens offense
The fear for the Titans will be the feeling Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman has only scratched the surface of what he would like to do with this Lamar Jackson-led unit.
From his ingenuity to leave pass rushers unlocked as a way of unleashing Jackson, to his use of tight ends and the introduction of brand new plays, Roman will test the entirety of Tennessee’s defensive resources.
A baffled Los Angeles Rams safety Eric Weddle typified their threat in November, admitting he often couldn’t tell what his former employers were doing on offense after the 45-6 defeat at the Coliseum.
It won’t just be a case of linebackers Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans tracking Jackson’s explosiveness on the outside, but also defensive tackles Jurrell Casey and DaQuan Jones closing gaps for the Ravens quarterback and running back Mark Ingram to attack through the middle.
The interior lineman faces a potentially defining role in controlling the line of scrimmage, particularly if the Titans are brave enough to blitz Jackson in the hope of forcing him back inside.
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Jackson has meanwhile proven there is far more to him than his expertise in the ground game, completing 265 of 401 passing for 3,127 yards, a league-high 36 touchdowns and just six interceptions in the regular season.
While his rushing statistics on paper hint at a prolific scrambler, it’s worth noting he was tied-second for most time spent in the pocket at 2.6 seconds.
He has developed significantly as a passer, with his composure and progressions in the pocket evidenced by his tied-third slowest release time of 2.92 seconds. There is an elite patience and understanding to his approach, glossed by an ability to erupt in the run game if there are no options available.
In stopping the run-pass option the Titans must also keep tabs on tight end Mark Andrews, providing he can recover from injury in time to start.
The 23-year-old leads the Ravens with 64 catches for 852 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, followed by rookie receiver Marquise Brown’s 46 receptions for 584 yards and seven touchdowns.
Every inch of field position will count against the Ravens, once again leaving highly-regarded Titans punter Brett Kern with a potentially key role to play.
It will take everything Vrabel’s men have to offer to overcome this Ravens machine, not that they’ll be expecting any different.
Watch every game of the Divisional Round on Sky Sports Action (407) as playoff coverage begins on Saturday at 9pm with the Minnesota Vikings at San Francisco 49ers; Sunday’s action kicks off with the Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs on air from 7.30pm.
Source : Sky Sports