The trouble with the Ravens’ injury-depleted defense Sunday night was a familiar one. It was the same kind of trouble the Ravens themselves gave defenses last season: When the ground game is rolling, the passing game tends to take off, too.
With Ravens defensive end Calais Campbell out and defensive tackle Brandon Williams injured early in the first quarter at Gillette Stadium, the New England Patriots rushed for 173 yards in their 23-17 upset win. Running backs Damien Harris and Rex Burkhead combined for 152 yards and 5.4 yards per carry. Every big first-down run, every short-yardage conversion, made life a little easier for quarterback Cam Newton and a mediocre receiving corps.
Now the Ravens must move past their worst loss of the season against a team that, on offense, can do everything the Patriots did, but better. The Tennessee Titans are more balanced than the Kansas City Chiefs, who lit the Ravens up for 34 points and 517 yards. They’re more talented than New England. And they’re facing a Ravens defense that, for now, has just four healthy interior linemen and three healthy cornerbacks.
Despite what they might have shown Sunday, the Ravens’ run defense this season has been one of the NFL’s better units. Last season, according to Football Outsiders, the group ranked 21st in efficiency, a weakness the Titans hammered away at in their playoff shocker. With the addition of Campbell and defensive end Derek Wolfe, along with a slew of new faces at the defense’s second and third levels, the Ravens enter Week 11 with the third-most efficient unit.
But there are new concerns this week, maybe none greater than than how much the Ravens’ poor run defense Sunday seemed to weigh down their pass defense. If the Patriots’ elite rushing attack could make their low-caliber passing game look threatening, what might the Titans’ elite rushing attack do for their high-caliber passing game?
The Ravens’ afternoon could hinge on their success against play-action. New England rushed 39 times Sunday night, leaving Newton to drop back just 18 times. He finished 13-for-17 for 118 yards and a touchdown, and took a sack. But the bulk of Newton’s production came off run fakes. The Patriots’ four longest pass plays resulted from play-action, and Newton finished with a near-perfect 156.9 passer rating (6-for-7 for 85 yards and a touchdown) in those situations, according to a review of the game.
With starting inside linebacker L.J. Fort (finger) unavailable for the second straight week, the Ravens turned to Malik Harrison to start Sunday next to Patrick Queen. The rookies’ inexperience was evident throughout the loss. Queen’s deeper presnap position — sometimes 7 yards off the line of scrimmage — often made run fits more difficult, and coach John Harbaugh said Monday that the Patriots’ “old-school” running game was unlike most of the schemes Queen’s faced.
While the Ravens’ No. 28 overall pick allowed a touchdown to Burkhead on a trick play, it was Harrison who was more of a liability against play-action. A week after a career-best performance in a win against the Indianapolis Colts, the third-round pick had his aggressiveness in run fits used against him.
New England’s first scoring drive started with a 19-yard play-action pass to wide receiver Jakobi Meyers. By the time Newton planted his right foot and started to wind up, Harrison was across the line of scrimmage, having bit so hard on a fake handoff that a throwing lane over the middle was wide open.
Five plays later, more of the same. On a longer-developing run fake, Harrison didn’t bite quite as hard. But with safety Chuck Clark and Queen giving Patriots tight end Ryan Izzo a free release at the line of scrimmage, it didn’t matter. As soon as Newton reached the end of his drop, Izzo was 5 yards behind Harrison. His 20-yard catch-and-run moved New England to the Ravens’ 6, and it scored one play later.
Play-action hurt the Ravens over and over. In the third quarter, Newton found Meyers for a 26-yard completion even after a somewhat aborted fake to Burkhead. The Patriots’ run threat, and their eight-man protection, paralyzed the Ravens’ pass rush, giving Meyers enough time to shake free of cornerback Marcus Peters on an out-breaking route.
Even New England’s changeups worked. On one fourth-quarter play-action play, Queen and Peters were so eager to retreat into coverage that they forgot about fullback Jakob Johnson. He was completely uncovered in the right flat, and after Newton was forced to scramble, he ended up with a career-long 12-yard catch.
There will be no relief Sunday. With quarterback Ryan Tannehill, running back Derrick Henry and wide receiver A.J. Brown, the Titans have the weapons to punish every false step. Especially when they’re used together.
“Analytics tell you the most efficient play is the play-action pass, and [Tannehill] is doing that really well,” Martindale said before the Ravens’ playoff loss last season. “So it’s one of those deals you go into [and say], ‘Hey, let’s stop the run. Let’s stop the pass. Let’s stop the screens. Let’s stop this.’ It’s just — we have to go play football.”
Easier said than done. The Titans rank behind only the Chiefs and Green Bay Packers in efficiency this season, according to Football Outsiders, and they’re the only team with a top-five passing offense (No. 2) and rushing offense (No. 5).
Like the 2019 Ravens, so much of Tennessee’s success depends on its ground game — or how defenses react to them. According to Pro-Football-Reference, Tannehill is third in the NFL in both play-action attempts (109) and play-action passing yards (947). In the Titans’ stunning win in January, Tannehill completed just seven of 14 passes, but five came off play-action, including the back-breaking 45-yard touchdown to wide receiver Kalif Raymond.
The Ravens’ most important defender Sunday might be one of their less established run stoppers. Yannick Ngakoue played a season-low 25 defensive snaps against New England, with Ravens coaches preferring sturdier outside linebackers like Jaylon Ferguson and Pernell McPhee on early downs.
But when New England’s play-action schemes didn’t work, it was because of Ngakoue. On back-to-back fourth-quarter plays, his pass rush kept Newton off schedule.
First, Ngakoue slipped past left tackle Isaiah Wynn and forced Newton to scramble and throw the ball away, denying Meyers a wide-open completion behind the Ravens’ linebackers. Then Ngakoue timed a third-and-long snap, rushed in unblocked and forced Newton to deliver a quick pass to Burkhead, whom inside linebacker Chris Board wrapped up easily.
Stopping Henry won’t be easy. But as Sunday showed, stopping Tannehill might take even more work.
Campbell, Brandon Williams doubtful; Titans’ Clowney ruled out
Ravens defensive linemen Calais Campbell (calf injury) and Brandon Williams (knee injury) are doubtful to play in Sunday’s home game against the Tennessee Titans.
Neither player practiced this week. If either or both are unable to play, the Ravens defense is expected to rely upon increased workloads from Justin Ellis and rookies Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington for a second straight game. The team could also use a practice squad call-up on defensive tackle Aaron Crawford for more depth.
Cornerback Jimmy Smith (ankle) and linebacker L.J. Fort (finger) are questionable. Smith was limited in practice Friday for the second straight day, while Fort was a full participant throughout the week.
The Titans have ruled out six players ahead of Sunday: outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (knee), wide receiver Adam Humphries (concussion), cornerback Adoree Jackson (knee), defensive lineman Larrell Murchison (rib), tight end MyCole Pruitt (knee) and guard Rodger Saffold.
Clowney has yet to record a sack this season but is tied for second on the team with four tackles for loss and tied for third on the team with six quarterback hits. Saffold is a starter on the offensive line.