Ravens and Titans meet in Nashville in hopes of finding their offensive stride
The Tennessee Titans and the Baltimore Ravens are both trying to recover from lousy Week 5 offensive performances in which neither team scored a touchdown and lost to inferior opponents on the road.
Tennessee’s 13-12 loss to Buffalo last week, as embarrassing as it was, still allowed the Titans to sit in a two-way tie for first place in the AFC South at 3-2. The beauty of a bad division, I suppose.
Baltimore’s terrible, no-good, ugly, awful, 12-9 overtime loss to the lowly Browns cost the Ravens (3-2) a chance to tie the Bengals for first place in the AFC North — proof that a division title can’t be won in the first weekend in October, but it can surely be squandered.
So while you’re still debating around the water cooler if Joe Flacco was truly ever “elite” (he wasn’t), or if the Titans deserve more national recognition (they don’t), here’s a breakdown of this week’s matchup in the Music City.
Baltimore at Tennessee
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 14 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Baltimore -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Who are the Titans, exactly?
Two Sundays ago, Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan stood at his locker to address the media. The team’s most vocal leader opined against the lack of national respect that his Titans’ teammates (at that point 3-1) and he felt they had earned.
“It’s ridiculous that people don’t give the Titans enough credit. Obviously we’ve been up and down on wins the last two seasons. We’ve had winning seasons with a big playoff win. You gotta start giving the boys more credit, man. Like, there’s 32 teams, not 31. So, I mean, you gotta start respecting Nashville a little bit.”
(Considering the Titans aren’t the Nashville Titans, I’m guessing that Lewan was talking about the Connie Britton TV show, Nashville.)
Lewan may have had a point since the Titans had just knocked off the reigning Super Bowl champions. But his point only goes so far, because the Titans' wins so far this season have been less than sexy. Sure, a win is a win in the NFL and beating the champs at home in an overtime thriller looks good in the abstract.
But the reloaded Eagles have underperformed so far this season, playing .500 football after beating a terrible Giants team on Thursday night. Those two three-point victories over the division rival Jaguars and Texans certainly help the Titans’ playoff chances, but playing poorly and winning against other bad teams doesn’t mean your team is any good, it means you played bad teams. You’re not going to beat Kansas City or New England in the playoffs only scoring six points.
Lewan is outspoken and brash and certainly wasn’t wrong in any capacity for sticking up for his team. But Lewan may not realize, or maybe he’s just choosing to ignore the fact that his franchise’s recent history isn’t anything worth garnering national attention. Losing to a terrible Buffalo team without scoring a touchdown after a huge home victory certainly doesn’t help either.
Let me lay this out… In the last 16 seasons, since NFL division realignment in 2002, the Titans have produced 12 teams that won nine games or less, one player that moved the needle in the NFL fantasy realm (Chris Johnson in 2009), and zero offenses that were better than 15th in points scored. In short, the Titans have had nothing to sell to the masses for the better part of twenty seasons — and they still don’t.
Most popular and successful teams in the modern NFL have game-changing quarterbacks that light up opposing defenses every week. Marcus Mariota might be the easiest guy in the NFL to root for, but he currently has one more touchdown pass (two) than the Titans’ starting safety, Kevin Byard, and last year he threw more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (13). Excuse me if I’d rather watch Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees complete passes to their own teammates on a regular basis.
Most popular and successful teams have skill players racking up fantasy points week in and week out. The Titans have a running back who peaked at Alabama and Rishard Matthews at wide receiver. Well, they had Rishard Matthews. Now, Corey Davis is their best receiver, I guess. I’m sure he was everyone’s first-round pick in fantasy this year.
Most popular teams have a proud history that unites fan bases across generations. The Titans’ only Hall of Fame player is an offensive lineman, Bruce Matthews. And even though Warren Moon's and Earl Campbell’s numbers are retired by the Titans’ franchise and memorialized in Nissan Stadium, neither of them played a professional down of football in Nashville.
Most popular teams have grand stadiums that offer fans a memorable game day experience. The Titans have one functioning stadium entrance.
Most popular teams have electrifying offenses that score in bulk. The Titans haven’t scored a touchdown in two of the last three games.
My point that I’m taking 600 words to make is that the Titans’ problems they face in 2018 are the same problems they’ve largely had the last decade and a half. They have no identity as an on-field football product and they have no identity as a brand. That not only makes them a marginal football team, but a largely uninteresting story. Whether a better vision under owner Amy Adams Strunk, general manager Jon Robinson, and head coach Mike Vrabel can result in more wins and deep playoffs runs remains to be seen, but beating Baltimore on Sunday, and maybe even scoring a touchdown or two, would be a good place to start.
2. Different coordinator, same defense
When Dean Pees decided to retire from coaching on the very first day of 2018, he left new Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale with pretty big shoes to fill. In Pees' six seasons in Baltimore, the Ravens had a top 10-defense three times and led the way for a Super Bowl win in 2012.
After about a month, Pees was talked out of his retirement by one of his former players, Mike Vrabel. As you’ve likely figured out by now, Pees is facing his former team on Sunday in his new role as the defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans.
With Martindale now running the defense, the Ravens haven’t missed a beat. The 2018 version of the Baltimore defense is almost reminiscent of the days of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. Currently the Ravens rank fifth in the league against the pass, fourth against the run, third in total defense, and first in points allowed and third down stops.
While the front seven isn’t as dominant as it was in the early 2000s, the secondary, led by the ageless Eric Weddle at safety, is stout, giving up the fewest passing yards allowed per play. That doesn’t bode well for Mariota, who only has one game this season with a touchdown pass and three games with less than 130 yards through the air. To complicate matters, the Titans are still banged up on the offensive line and still lack any reliable playmakers with tight end Delanie Walker out for the season.
If Martindale can find a ways to pressure Mariota into bad throws with Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith attacking from different spots in the front seven, the loaded Ravens’ secondary could have a field day on Sunday.
3. Ravens Air Raid
The “is Joe Flacco elite!?” phenomenon of 2011 to approximately '15 was a dark time in American history. Okay, maybe I’m being a touch overdramatic, but it certainly was an overblown talking point that was overplayed on overrated sports talk shows.
In no way would I ever argue that Flacco was ever one of the game’s best quarterbacks – mainly because there is no data to support it, like the fact he’s never thrown more than 27 touchdowns or less than 10 interceptions in a season.
Could I argue that Flacco was an above-average quarterback with flashes of brilliance? Sure I could — because there is data to support it, like his eight seasons of at least 60 percent passing to go along with 25 touchdown passes and a 10-5 record in 15 career postseason games — not to mention one of the best postseason stretches for a quarterback in the last 20 years with his 2012 playoff run.
Not amazing all the time, but pretty good.
This season it’s more of the same for Flacco, not amazing, but good enough. He’s 10th in the league in yards (1,550) and yards per game (310) and his eight touchdown passes put him in a tie for 15th with Blake Bortles, Ryan Tannehill, Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz. But one category in which Flacco is surprisingly near the top of the board is passing attempts per game (45.4) where he sits only behind Andrew Luck, who I’m pretty sure threw 300 times last week against New England. I’ll check with my stats guy, but that sounds about right.
So what gives? This isn’t the John Harbaugh style of run-first offense to which we’ve become accustomed, in fact, far from it as the Ravens have thrown the ball on 64 percent of their plays this season. Chalk it up to third-year offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg wanting to get the ball to a group of playmaking receivers like John Brown, Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead, all of which are averaging more than 10 yards per reception, led by Brown's 20.8.
With a running game that has struggled to get any traction thus far at just 3.4 yards a clip, the Ravens have leaned on Flacco and a pass-oriented style of offense. And outside of last week’s offensive nightmare that included several game-deciding drops from Crabtree, the decision to throw first, run second has worked out well for Baltimore and could pay big dividends against a Titans secondary that is prone to giving up big plays.
This week is a gut-check game for both teams coming off bad losses. How do both offenses both respond after recent struggles? That question looms larger for the Titans facing such a vaunted Baltimore defense. Mariota has to be the Mariota he was against Philadelphia two weeks ago when he was efficient with his arm (30-for-43, 344 yards, 2 TDs) and his legs (10 carries, 46 yards, TD). That’s much easier said than done against a stacked Ravens linebacking corps and secondary.
Prediction: Ravens 21, Titans 18
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.