Welcome to the 2019 NFL season’s Divisional Round Weekend. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
The second divisional round game of the 2019 NFL playoffs will take place at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore as the Ravens will host the Tennessee Titans. Here’s what you should know:
RAVENS WILL RUN, RUN AND RUN SOME MORE
The red-hot Baltimore Ravens are entering the playoffs having won 14 games, the best record in franchise history and they have also set a franchise record for points scored in a season – something that fans of the team aren’t used to given the team’s long track record of merely good but never great attacks.
Before the 2019 season began, longtime head coach John Harbaugh promoted former Bills and 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman to replace the outgoing Marty Mornhinweg in order to maximize the talent at his disposal. He has more than done so, as he has turned second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson into the favorite to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
Jackson had a lot of questions going into last year’s draft but most of those concerns have been answered, and in a hurry. According to Bucky Brooks of nfl.com, “As a passer, Jackson has shown tremendous progress in his second season. He has significantly improved his completion rate and passer rating while displaying a better overall feel for the game from the pocket. He’s at his best throwing the ball down the seams or on in-breaking routes between the numbers on traditional dropbacks and play-action passes. Although he remains a work in progress on throws to the outside, the Ravens have built their offense around the strengths of his game and by allowing him to be himself.”
Although Baltimore’s offense is West Coast-based, Jackson isn’t quite at the level needed in order to execute some of the scheme’s more complicated pass designs just yet. Thus, the Ravens have created defined reads for him through clever usage of offensive sets and simple route concepts in order to give him confidence right off the bat. Those passes are typically thrown to wide receivers like rookie speedsters Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Miles Boykin, and veterans Willie Snead IV and Seth Roberts.
Used even more so than their receivers are tight ends Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle. Any combination of those three will be on the field at any given time, as the Ravens led the league in usage of 12 (one back, two tight ends), 22 (two backs, two tight ends) and 13 (one back, three tight ends) personnel. But they aren’t just weapons in the passing game – they’re also utilized heavily on the ground as blockers for Jackson and running backs Mark Ingram II, Gus Edwards and Patrick Ricard.
Roman had experience working with mobile quarterbacks like Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo and Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco and had previously installed successful concepts for both of his former signal-callers like jet sweeps, zone-read options, triple options and RPOs. Jackson has used those same ideas and taken them to another level, as he shattered Michael Vick’s league record for rushing yards in a season by a quarterback and has also become the first passer in NFL history to run for more than 1,000 yards and throw for 35 or more touchdowns. The Ravens also became the first team ever to average 200 rushing and passing yards per game in one season and set a new standard for rushing yardage in a season with 3,296.
Baltimore’s offensive line is characterized by man-blocking, pulling guards and power runs, and its best players are stalwarts Marshal Yanda, Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr.
BALTIMORE’S DEFENSE STILL A TOP-TEN UNIT
Traditionally the more-discussed unit on their team thanks to legendary coaches and players on that side of the ball, Baltimore’s defense is being overshadowed for once. Not to be outdone by their counterparts on offense, they continue to be one of the better defenses in football, as the Ravens have finished the regular season fourth in points allowed and third in yards surrendered. They also blitz on nearly half of their snaps (mostly on overload and fire zone rushes), the highest figure in the NFL.
Coordinated by Don “Wink” Martindale, Baltimore came into this season having lost a few familiar faces like Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Za’Darius Smith and Brent Urban to free agency, resulting in a little less depth in their front seven. First year general manager Eric DeCosta, who has succeeded the retiring Ozzie Newsome, decided to replace them from within and has gotten good results.
Defensive linemen Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce are solid run-stuffers and Matthew Judon has stepped up in the pass-rush department, as evidenced by his career-high 9.5 sacks. The underrated Patrick Onwuasor and Josh Bynes are their inside linebackers and can cover and stop the run with ease, and Jaylon Ferguson is the other starter at outside linebacker.
Baltimore’s secondary is as talented as ever. Future Hall of Fame safety Earl Thomas, imported from Seattle during the spring, is the team’s best option at that position since Ed Reed left (and that’s including last year’s starter Eric Weddle). Unlike with the Seahawks, where he typically lined up at centerfield in their fabled Cover Three scheme, his range is taken advantage of more here by being moved around in pre-snap disguises. Chuck Clark replaces the injured Tony Jefferson at the other safety position.
At cornerback, the Ravens are loaded. The trade for gambling ballhawk Marcus Peters has created an embarrassment of riches, where his presence has given Martindale options on how to deploy Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr (lately Humphrey and Carr have been used in the slot while Peters and Smith line up outside). All can execute man and zone coverages well.
THERE IS A DECIDEDLY PATRIOT FLAVOR IN “SMASHVILLE”
Second-year Titans coach Mike Vrabel and defensive coordinator Dean Pees go back to their time in New England, where Vrabel played for Bill Belichick’s former defensive shot-caller as a starting linebacker. The difference between Pees and Belichick, however, is that the former likes to blitz a bit more than the latter.
With stalwarts like Jurrell Casey, Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown, Harold Landry, Wesley Woodyard and rookie Jeffery Simmons at his disposal, Pees can afford to turn his pass rushers loose while knowing he has the defensive backs to hold up in man and zone coverage long enough for his front-seven to get to quarterbacks. Former Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson are good and safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro are versatile, especially Byard. Byard can patrol centerfield as a single-high safety, drop down into the box to stop the run, cover tight ends and blitz.
Tennessee is missing veterans Malcolm Butler and Cameron Wake, who are both on injured reserve due to various ailments.
This will be the Titans’ biggest test of the year so far on defense. Against a multiple, versatile offense like Baltimore’s, their gap integrity will be tested, as will their aptitude in coverage. Jackson has executed extremely well against Cover Zero and Cover One so far (and no defense should want to play man coverage much against the Ravens, given Jackson’s running abilities). Jackson’s also been stellar against Cover Two, but has been so-so against Cover Three, Tampa-Two and Cover Four – all forms of zone coverage (and the Titans can execute Cover Four quite well). Pittsburgh had some success against him earlier in the year by using a three-safety dime package and Buffalo also stayed extremely disciplined in stopping their run game in week 14. Perhaps Tennessee will swipe some pages out of their playbooks.
THE MCVAY/SHANAHAN OFFENSE STILL RESIDES IN TENNESSEE
Vrabel’s offensive coordinator is Arthur Smith, who last season served as tight ends coach while Matt LaFleur- now the head coach in Green Bay – was the Titans’ play-caller. Prior to his time in the Music City, LaFleur ran Sean McVay’s offense for the Los Angeles Rams. McVay and LaFleur go back even further than that too, with both spending time working for Mike Shanahan in Washington and for his pupils – Gary Kubiak in Houston and Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta.
Tennessee’s offensive system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone stretch plays while leaving cutback lanes for running backs. Countless tailbacks have had success in it, and most of the runs are executed out of “11” personnel (one tight end, one back). The idea behind this is to spread defenses out and create more room to run against nickel and dime defenses.
Passing-wise, the Titans are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams from sideline to sideline rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket, especially on bootlegs, rollouts and play-action. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and also aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line in order to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays. Their passing game makes excellent use of intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels.
Marcus Mariota, their beleaguered fifth-year quarterback, had a rough start to the season. Having taken a lot of sacks early on, Mariota had been inconsistent and operated with sloppy mechanics (which had been the case for most of his career). Eventually he was benched for backup and former Dolphins starter Ryan Tannehill, who promptly responded with career-highs in completion percentage (70.3 percent), yards-per-attempt (9.6), touchdown to interception ratio (22 to 6) and quarterback rating (117.5).
Tannehill has some good weapons to work with. Even though he lacks great speed and quickness, running back Derrick Henry has been productive on the ground because of an abundance of power and strength in his game. Scatback Dion Lewis is a threat in the passing game, and rookie standout A.J. Brown, former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Adam Humphries and talented but enigmatic Corey Davis are the top three receivers in Tennessee. 14-year veteran tight end Delanie Walker is out for the season due to an ankle injury and has been replaced in the lineup by Jonnu Smith.
Tennessee’s offensive line is made up of three-time Pro Bowler Taylor Lewan, former Ram Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis and former first-round pick Jack Conklin.