Thursday, January 8, 2009

Ravens-Titans Preview, Part 2: Titans Offense vs. Ravens Defense

People often compare the Ravens and Steelers, but the Ravens and Titans might be an even better comparison. These are two teams that rely heavily on their defenses and ask their quarterbacks to make just a few plays to win the game. In fact, these quarterbacks, despite their age and experience gap, are asked to do similar things- not mess up. Flacco only has 300 more yards than Collins, both quarterbacks have a completion percentage hovering around 60%, and pride themselves on not turning the ball over. However, the big difference comes in Flacco’s aptitude for the big play- and the big interception. Kerry Collins no longer has the arm he once did, though he can be proficient in moving the ball steadily down the field, whereas Flacco has the propensity to make that huge play downfield (though he didn’t connect much on Sunday).

Many fans will be concerned (understandably so) with Collins’ avoidance of the interception, having turned the ball through the air only 7 times this season. However, as we all learned from Chad Pennington, the Ravens defense doesn’t pay much attention to this. In fact, Chad Pennington and Kerry Collins both suffer from a lack of arm strength and rely instead on a steady, deliberate short passing game. The Titans’ leader in receptions is their tight end Bo Scaife with 58 on the season, the key first down, short yardage target in the passing game. If Collins can get into a rhythm with these short routes, the passing game could look a lot like the Dolphins when they attacked a lot underneath to drive the ball down the field (successfully, I might add). Make no mistake, the Titans are watching a lot of film from those two drives, and will be trying to create mismatches with Baltimore’s linebackers, keeping them from blitzing or assisting in the running game for fear of receivers coming across the middle of the field.

In order to force Collins into mistakes, the Ravens will need to do more than shut down the running game- they will also have to shut down Bo Scaife before he gets going. Those of you who are skeptical should look no further than the 13-10 Titans win over the Ravens in Week 5, in which Scaife had 7 catches for 72 yards, by far the most of any other Titans receiver that day. If the Ravens can harass Scaife, they stand a much better chance of forcing Collins into bad decisions. None of the other Tennessee receivers scare me in the least. Say what you will about Justin Gage, but I just can’t buy into any receiver who couldn’t cut it with the Chicago Bears- pair him with Samari Rolle or even Fabian Washington and he can be neutralized.

Look for a lot of man coverage in general this week. The Ravens can physically match up with any Titans receiver, but it will be a matter of scheme. Kerry Collins is a smart quarterback. If the Ravens blitz and leave a Scaife or Alge Crumpler open, Collins will find him and let him scamper for a first down. The Ravens will have to be sure to be crisp in switching their assignment at the snap to avoid allowing the receiver to remain uncovered for long. While the Ravens corners hold man-to-man (though I don’t trust Corey Ivy on anyone man-to-man), the pressure will be on the linebackers to force Collins into a ill advised throw into the arms of Ed Reed or take a sack.

Collins was not sacked in Tennessee’s last meeting with Baltimore. In fact, Collins has been sacked only 8 times this season and never more than twice in a game, which only occurred once. That is absolutely incredible, and is a testament to an offensive line that anchored one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL (that will be covered elsewhere). It is hard to find a weak spot in this line. If the Ravens blitz doesn’t hit home with any consistency, Collins will sit back and get confidence as his receivers eventually come open. The most distressing element of the Tennessee passing game that Baltimore should be aware of is how protected Collins is in the pocket. Rex Ryan will have to throw something brand new at this Titans line to have any hope of laying hits on the quarterback and making him antsy in the pocket. If they can make a few hits on Collins, the Tennessee offense will feel something it hasn’t felt all season, and that could turn the tide in this football game.

The running game is a whole other matter, but not nearly as complex. The Titans, like the Ravens, run a multi-headed attack designed to batter the opponent and grind them down to the 4th quarter a la the New York Giants. They have their bruiser in LenDale White, who ranks near the top of the league in rushing touchdowns with 15, and their home run hitter in rookie Chris Johnson who sports an impressive 4.9 yards per carry average with 9 touchdowns on the year. The East Carolina back has also been a factor in the passing game with 43 receptions for 260 yards, and has been diligent with the football with only 1 fumble all season. It is hard to find a weak point in the approach, as Tennessee has made their 13-3 record on the legs of a powerful running game, though these young backs may be showing signs of slowing down.

White has rushed for 26, 48, and 25 yards in his last 3 games, with only 2 performances of more than 52 yards in his last 8 games, coming against Detroit and Cleveland. Johnson has been a much better example of consistency, but the decline of White could bode well for the Ravens defense. The Giants won by bullying the Ravens at the line of scrimmage with Brandon Jacobs and keeping the pressure on before gauging Baltimore with big runs in the second half after gassing the defense. In the October matchup between Tennessee and Baltimore, White rushed only 3 times for 4 yards, failing to get traction against a stout Ravens D that was putting 8 in the box to stop them. Without a legitimate power back to draw defenders into the middle, Chris Johnson wasn’t able to get going, with 18 carries for a paltry 44 yards. Additionally, this contributed to Tennessee only being able to hold onto the ball for 25 minutes, astoundingly low for a team that puts so much emphasis on the run.

We will likely see a lot more of Johnson than White due to his versatility in the passing game. The Titans know that when they send out LenDale White, he is supposed to knock the defense on its ear with off-tackle rushes and yards after contact. With Chris Johnson, the defense has to sit back a bit to see whether he will swing out of the backfield, or even be put in motion before the snap. Johnson will likely be more of a dump-off option in the passing game, but with the Ravens propensity to blitz it could set up some opportunities for screen passes or quick check-downs that could go for big gains.

How will the Ravens approach this punishing ground attack? In much the same way as last time around. Physically, they match up as well as anyone against the run. However, stopping the run may have to come at the price of backing off of the pass rush. As detailed earlier, that will be a careful balance that is not often practiced in favor of caution by defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. After their last matchup, look for Ryan to put Haloti Ngata and Justin Bannan to seal off the middle while pinning their ears back and letting Terrell Suggs and Trevor Pryce to pin their ears back and try to rattle Collins. If the Titans respond with some big runs, I believe the Ravens will be content to sit back, stuff the run, and force Collins to try to beat them with his arm.

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