A rematch of last season's AFC Divisional Round pits two offenses trying to find their way
The last time the Tennessee Titans visited the Baltimore Ravens in Charm City was just this past January in the AFC Divisional Round. The top-seeded Ravens entered as 10-point favorites and were sent home early as 12-point losers as the Titans ran their way to the AFC title game.
Ten months and a global pandemic later, the Titans and Ravens find themselves in similar situations. Both are among the six NFL teams with matching 6-3 records, both are fighting for the final AFC playoff spot, and both are trying to get their offenses back to form after a brutal stretch of games in recent weeks. The Titans have lost three of their last four, while the Ravens have dropped two of their last three games. A win on Sunday would go a long, long way for either team's playoff hopes.
Tennessee at Baltimore
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 22 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Ravens -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Tannehill and Tennessee's scuffling offense
Derrick Henry is still the straw the stirs the Titans' offense, but in today's NFL, you can't win without competent quarterback play. Since Ryan Tannehill took over for Marcus Mariota as Tennessee's starting QB last season, he's been one of the league's most efficient and reliable passers. But in the last four games — three of which were against top-10 defenses and all of them without starting left tackle Taylor Lewan — Tannehill has struggled, and in doing so, dragged the Titans offense down with him.
In the Titans' first five games, they were averaging 32.8 points and 423.2 yards of total offense. Tannehill played fantastically in that opening stretch, completing 69.9 percent of his throws with 13 touchdowns and a 113.6 passer rating. Since Lewan went down with an ACL injury, Tannehill's numbers, and the Titans' offense as a whole, have slid backward. In the last four games, Tennessee is averaging only 19.5 points per contest, has scored just 14 points in their last three fourth quarters — underscored by last Thursday's second half goose egg against the Colts — and produced less than 300 yards of total offense in each of their three losses.
Not coincidentally, Tannehill only topped 200 yards passing once in those three losses (210, 136, and 137 yards). In the last four games, he's only completing 56.5 percent of his passes and has 20 tosses that rank as "bad throws," including seven against Indy last week. In the first five games, Tannehill averaged 15 passing first downs per game; in the last four, an average of only nine.
Even with Lewan out, teams aren't necessarily terrorizing Tannehill. Yes, he's been sacked seven times in the last four games compared to five times in the first five, but teams are only barely pressuring him more (23.7 percent) than they were to start the season (20.0 percent).
The problem is, Tannehill is facing better defenses and has simply been inaccurate when he's normally been on the money — in play-action and on third down. In 2019, Tannehill completed an absurd 78 percent of his throws on play-action passes; this year, just 58 percent. And his third-down completion rate has dropped from 64 percent a year ago, to just 54 percent in 2020.
Tannehill and the Titans are in the midst of the toughest stretch of their schedule. They're up against some of the league's best defenses, defenses they'd likely see again if they make the playoffs, and thus far they're failing the test. The Titans better hope Tannehill can find his mojo against a banged-up Ravens defense, otherwise, they'll stay on the outside of the playoff picture, looking in.
2. ...and the Ravens' offense ain't much better
Lamar Jackson and the Ravens' offense could use a bit of a break, too. After leading the NFL in scoring (30.4) and smashing rushing records last year, the Ravens' offense has stalled in 2020. They rank 12th in points per game (27.1), 22nd in total offensive yards (348.1) per game, and Jackson's regression as a thrower has been palpable.
It all starts with the offensive line where the Ravens have been brutalized by the retirement of Marshal Yanda, injuries to Ronnie Stanley, Andre Smith, and Tyre Phillips, and inconsistent play from D.J. Fluker. Even the usually-steady Orlando Brown Jr. has had bumps after being moved all over the line because of the aforementioned issues. Sunday will be the fifth different starting lineup for Baltimore's O-line this season. To make matters worse, the Ravens will be without arguably their best run blocker in tight end Nick Boyle for the rest of the season.
If there is a blueprint for how Ravens' offensive coordinator Greg Roman should attack this Titans' defense, the Colts provided it last Thursday night. Indy used a quick tempo to keep the Titans' defense on their heels and on the field, at one point for 28 straight plays before and after halftime. Phillip Rivers went no-huddle, used quick snaps, and fired short throws to force the Titans out of rhythm. It worked perfectly. Last week, 29 of Rivers' 39 attempts were aimed for less than 10 yards. He connected on 26 of them at a speedy 2.3 seconds per drop back en route to 430 total yards and a 17-point win.
Jackson should be able to replicate Rivers' performance, if not improve upon it. Jackson's 115 passer rating on throws 10 yards and in is 26 points higher than the league average. Sunday, he's facing a Titans' defense that is one of the worst in the league at defending the pass — 28th in yards per game (277.4) and touchdowns allowed (20) — and is 31st in getting third-down stops. Sounds like a good week for Lamar and Co. to get back on track.
3. Ravens' run D is floundering
For years, the Ravens defense was as stout as any in the league. Now, much like their offense, the Baltimore defense is showing signs of wear and tear. In three of the last four games, the Ravens have surrendered at least 110 yards on the ground, including 194 yards on 18 carries (10.7 ypc) to the lowly Eagles, and 173 yards to New England last Sunday night. Baltimore knew the Patriots couldn't throw, not with Cam Newton and not in that squall, and yet, Damien Harris gashed them for 121 yards.
Much like the Baltimore offensive line, the Ravens' defense is the walking wounded. Defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams are questionable, as are defensive backs Jimmy Smith and Anthony Levine. The potential losses of Smith and Levine would leave the Ravens with just three healthy cornerbacks for Sunday.
The task doesn't get any easier this week with the league's second-leading rusher coming to town. Henry is fresh off another 100-yard outing after his 19 carries and 103 yards against the Colts last Thursday night. And perhaps you'll remember Henry's performance in last season's divisional matchup against these same Ravens in which he ran for 195 yards as the Titans knocked Baltimore out of the playoffs.
Both the Ravens and Titans need a win to keep pace in the AFC playoff picture, as both squads are trying to get their mojo back after a rough last few weeks, which makes that six-point spread so interesting. I guess I have a little more faith in the Titans' offense than Vegas does. That being said, I think Lamar Jackson and the Ravens find their flow against a holy Titans' defense.
Prediction: Ravens 26, Titans 23
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.