Welcome to the 2020 NFL season’s Wild Card 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.
One of the AFC’s wild card games will take place at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee, as the Tennessee Titans will face the Baltimore Ravens. Here’s what you should know:
THERE IS A DECIDEDLY PATRIOT FLAVOR IN “SMASHVILLE”
Titans coach Mike Vrabel has taken bits and pieces from his former coaches as a player (Bill Belichick, Romeo Crennel, Dean Pees and Jim Haslett) and his current and former colleagues (Haslett, Pees and Crennel) to build his own sound defensive scheme. The difference between Vrabel and most of the Belichick coaching tree, however, is that the former likes to blitz a bit more than the latter.
With stalwarts like Jadeveon Clowney, Jayon Brown, Rashaan Evans, Harold Landry, and Jeffery Simmons at his disposal, Vrabel 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 (Clowney and Brown are out for the season with various health issues). Cornerbacks Malcolm Butler, Adoree’ Jackson, Desmond King and Kristian Fulton are savvy and safeties Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro are versatile. Byard is especially multi-faceted, as he can patrol centerfield as a single-high safety, drop down into the box to stop the run, cover tight ends and blitz.
Despite all the talent on this side of the ball, the Titans have given up lots of yardage both on the ground and through the air. They finished the 2020 regular season allowing the fourth-most passing yards in the NFL, accumulating just 19 sacks (the third-worst mark in the league), giving up a shade over 27 points a game and were just 19th against the run, but their saving grace is that they were tied for third in interceptions.
The Titans utilize a lot of dime personnel and zone blitzes with cornerbacks rushing from the boundary, and they especially like to pair those blitzes with Cover Two principles and coverage rotations (with cornerbacks dropping to safety depth and safeties dropping down to replace corners underneath). Tennessee also loves using man coverage in the red zone – where they struggled mightily last season. Will Vrabel change things up or will they remain true to themselves?
THE MCVAY/SHANAHAN OFFENSE STILL RESIDES IN TENNESSEE
Vrabel’s offensive coordinator is Arthur Smith, who previously 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.
Like his former colleagues, Smith has used a playbook that emphasizes a running game built around zone-blocking (especially to the outside on “stretch” plays) and passes that are created off the threat of run-action. It’s a West Coast-style of offense that can create a lot of big plays down the field from craftily designed routes that work off one another, and the skill position players often line up in reduced splits to the line of scrimmage to become both extra blockers on runs and to have more room to run routes on the field.
Last year former longtime Dolphins starter Ryan Tannehill replaced the inconsistent Marcus Mariota as the Titans’ man under center and promptly responded with career-highs in completion percentage (70.3 percent), yards-per-attempt (9.6), touchdown to interception ratio (22 to six) and quarterback rating (117.5). After signing a contract extension in the offseason Tannehill’s results were more of the same in 2020, completing 65.5 percent of his passes with 33 touchdown passes, seven interceptions and a passer rating of 106.5
Tannehill has some good weapons to work with. Even though he lacks great quickness, running back Derrick Henry boasts an abundance of speed, power and strength in his game – allowing him to become just the eight tailback ever to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. Second-year standout A.J. Brown, former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Adam Humphries, talented but enigmatic Corey Davis and Kalif Raymond make up Tennessee’s wide receivers, and 14-year veteran tight end Delanie Walker was released in the spring and 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 Dennis Kelly. Three-time Pro Bowler Taylor Lewan is normally the Titans’ starting left tackle, but he is done for the rest of the season with a torn ACL.
The Titans usually align in 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) to give the opposition the threat of a run on every play, and one of their staple concepts out of that grouping is a play-action pass with a slant on the backside of the play (usually executed by Brown) and an option route being run on the other by Davis. Depending on the type of coverage he might see in front of him Davis will execute either an out or a corner pattern. The read by Tannehill is on an outside linebacker – if he reacts hard to the illusion of a run, Tannehill will throw to Brown, if not he’ll throw to Davis. Will we see this more this weekend given the aggressive nature of Baltimore’s cornerbacks?
RAVENS WILL RUN, RUN AND RUN SOME MORE
The red-hot Baltimore Ravens are entering the playoffs having won five games in a row, the best record in franchise history and they have also scored 468 points this season – the second-best figure in team history behind last year’s mark of 531.
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 speedsters Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Miles Boykin, and veterans Willie Snead IV and Dez Bryant.
Used even more so than their receivers are tight ends Mark Andrews, Eric Tomlinson and Nick Boyle. Any combination of those three will be on the field at any given time, as the Ravens are one of the league leaders 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 J.K. Dobbins, Mark Ingram II, Gus Edwards and Patrick Ricard. Boyle, however, was lost for the remainder of 2020-21 with multiple leg injuries.
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, quarterback counters and RPOs. Jackson used those same ideas and took them to another level in 2019, as he shattered Michael Vick’s league record for rushing yards in a season by a quarterback and also became the first passer in NFL history to run for more than 1,000 yards and throw for 35 or more touchdowns. The Ravens were also the first team ever to average 200 rushing and passing yards per game in one campaign and set a new standard for rushing yardage in a season with 3,296. 2020 saw many of the same results, as Jackson became the first signal caller to rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive years.
Baltimore’s offensive line is characterized by man-blocking, pulling guards and power runs, and its best players are stalwarts Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown Jr. Unfortunately for the Ravens Stanley won’t participate in the postseason as he deals with various ankle ailments, prompting the team to sign veteran D.J. Fluker.
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 finished the regular season second in the league points allowed, fifth against the pass and eighth against the run. They also blitz a lot, and mostly on overload and fire zone rushes.
Coordinated by Don “Wink” Martindale, the Ravens have never been lacking in talent among their front seven and this year has been no exception. Defensive linemen Brandon Williams, Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe are solid run-stuffers and former Pro Bowler Yannick Ngakoue, Pernell McPhee, Matthew Judon and Jaylon Ferguson are the team’s best pass rushers. Rookie Patrick Queen and L.J. Fort are their inside linebackers and can cover and stop the run with ease.
Baltimore’s secondary is as talented as ever, especially at cornerback. Gambling ballhawk Marcus Peters’ presence has given Martindale options on how to deploy Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith and Tramon Williams (lately Humphrey has been used in the slot while Peters and Smith line up outside). All can execute man and zone coverages well. Safeties Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott are moved around often in pre-snap disguises.