Friday, January 9, 2009

Ravens-Titans Preview, Part 3: Ravens Offense vs. Titans Defense

Much is made of the dominant tackles the Ravens sport along their defensive line, but even they must pause and admire what the Titans have been able to accomplish with their own pair of All Pros in Albert Haynesworth and Kyle VanDen Bosch. Those two players have helped anchor a defense that, despite their absence for stretches of the season due to injury, still managed to register 44 sacks on the season (10 more than the Ravens) and limited opponents to 94 yards per game on the ground (only 13 more than the Ravens allow). And in case anyone is wondering, they will be back from injury in time to make a huge impact on this game. The playoffs is a time when injuries seem to magically disappear over the week. Adrenaline kicks in, and caution is largely thrown to the wind when the player or coach has to make a decision that could determine whether the team makes it to the next step towards the Superbowl.

As much as that adrenaline kicks in however, it cannot overcome the wear and tear that comes with playing 16 games straight. Remember, the Ravens had that early non-bye week in Week 2 of the season, and has played every week since. Nicks and bruises are piling up, while the Titans had a later bye and got to enjoy a bye week as the #1 seed in the AFC. Why do I mention this in the Titans Defense preview? This team has also been incredibly physical at the line, forcing 23 fumbles this season, good for 2nd in the NFL. They are one of the few teams capable of matching the Ravens punch for punch, and with an extra week of rest one can expect more than a few of those hits to land. It will be essential that the Ravens establish an early presence at the line, hammering with Le’Ron McClain, who had a great amount of success in limited action in the first matchup with the Titans. McClain was given only 11 carries, but made the most out of them with 51 yards.

For all their success stopping the run, they are rarely tested with powerful inside runners like McClain. In the AFC South, Joseph Addai, Steve Slaton, and Maurice Jones-Drew (and even Fred Taylor at this point in his career) don’t pack the same punch that the 260 fullback out of Alabama does. In fact, his 4.9 yard per carry average against the Titans is his highest all season when he had 10 or more carries that wasn’t inflated by a long touchdown run (see: Cowboys game). The Titans will be keying in on him unlike the last meeting, but McGahee’s ineffectiveness against the Titans the first time around will likely not be duplicated, and we will be seeing a lot more of McClain. Tennessee will start the game with 8 men in the box, daring the Ravens to run the football. And they will. The first quarter will likely be a battle of wills to see who can control the line of scrimmage. Cam Cameron will not be afraid to send his bowling ball into the heart of the defense and see whether he can find a crack in that rested Tennessee line. Watch carefully at the center of that line. While he hasn’t been mentioned much in these previews this season, center Jason Brown could be the most important man in determining the success of this running game. If he can occupy one of those beasts in the middle of the line by himself, McClain will get enough of a hole to create a legitimate threat of a running attack. If he doesn’t, there will be a lot of weight placed on the shoulders of Joe Flacco.

However, as Falco put it to me earlier this week, “The Titans never got a dose of Flacco” in Round 1 of Ravens v. Titans. The passing game consisted of the re-emergence of Todd Heap (the tight ends on both teams had a great day) and a couple of unwise interceptions in Flacco’s worst game up to that point. Frankly, the Flacco that the Titans are seeing on Saturday is not the Flacco they saw back in October. And if that isn’t enough to get me the award for Most Obvious Observation, Tennessee looks to feed on his mistakes. While they were unable to register a sack on Flacco, the secondary forced 2 interceptions out of the rookie QB. This unit has been able to rack up 20 picks on the season, putting them in the top 10 in the NFL.

At face value, the secondary is not overwhelming with talent. Nick Harper was unable to hold onto his starting job with the Colts which landed him in Tennessee as their #1 corner, but he is not their greatest threat. Michael Griffin has had an outstanding second year in the league, registering 7 interceptions from the Free Safety position, but the real emerging star of this unit is Cortland Finnegan. In this 3rd year in the NFL, this 7th round pick has asserted himself as a solid second cornerback capable of keeping pace with any receiver on a weekly basis. His 5 interceptions are more than any other cornerback on the squad. With his speed and Harper’s experience, it is likely that Harper will be paired with Derrick Mason and Finnegan with Mark Clayton to try to eliminate the deep threat. Expect to see Griffin shade toward Clayton on those deep routes. Tennessee is well aware of Joe Flacco’s penchant for the deep ball, and will keep their ball hawks back to take advantage of a throw that is just a few feet off. However, if Flacco can throw the deep routes as he did late in the regular season- where either the receiver or no one catches it- the Titans could be waiting a long time for that turnover.

The key for the Titans, even more so than the Ravens, will be to apply pressure early on Flacco. They will look to rattle him as every team has tried this season, with the same theory that if they can get in his head they can take control of the game. Unfortunately for Ravens’ opponents, Flacco hasn’t shown that weakness just yet. I agree that the rookie makes unwise throws into coverage, but it is rarely because he is worried about the pressure behind him. The Titans are well aware that they failed to sack Flacco the first time around. They won’t just be keeping 8 in the box to stop McClain, they will be looking to break the pocket- and the Raven’s passing game. The Ravens rank around the middle of the NFL with 33 sacks allowed. The Titans’ defense ranks 5th in the NFL in sacks registered. Baltimore will have to do quite a bit to duplicate their performance from Week 5, and Ravens fans should not expect another perfect performance from the offensive line against a defense that will look to blitz a lot more than in their first matchup.

The Titans played it safe on defense in Ravens v. Titans Round 1, but that was because they could afford to. Joe Flacco wasn’t trusted to win any games, and the running game was still trying to find itself with Willis McGahee. This week will be entirely different. Look for some heavy and varied blitz packages from Tennessee, and a great deal more vertical passing from Baltimore to complement. The Ravens have a much more efficient offense than they did early in the season, but the Titans will have a much more aggressive scheme drawn up to match.

No comments: