Improved Ravens Run Defense Faces Big Challenge In Titans RB Derrick Henry

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — More than once this year, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has been likened to a video game with the way his spin moves, jukes and other plays seemingly defy the laws of physics. Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale has a similar assessment for Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry.

“He’s like one of those guys the kids create on Madden,” Martindale said at his weekly news conference Jan. 8 as the Ravens prepare to face the Titans in an AFC divisional round playoff game Jan. 11. “You shouldn’t be that big and be able to run like he runs.”

Henry won the NFL rushing title this year with 1,540 yards on 303 carries and topped 100 yards in six of the Titans’ final seven regular-season games.

In a wild-card round playoff game at New England Jan. 4, Henry ran 34 times for 182 yards and a touchdown as the Titans (10-7) advanced with a 20-13 win against the Patriots.

The Ravens (14-2), who have won 12 straight games, come into the playoffs with the No. 5-ranked run defense in the league, allowing 93.4 rushing yards a game.

The Ravens’ run defense tightened up dramatically after the first quarter of the season. It was a subpar run defense that led the Ravens to sign inside linebackers Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort, two of the major additions to a defense that went through a midseason makeover.

The Ravens also traded for Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters and signed defensive linemen Jihad Ward, Domata Peko and Justin Ellis, all of whom contributed during the Ravens’ 12-game winning streak.

After giving up a season-high 193 rushing yards to the Cleveland Browns in a Week 4 loss, the Ravens allowed an average of 92.7 yards for the rest of the season.

“Since Week 5 we’ve had close to, if not the best run defense in the league,” Martindale said, noting that Bynes, Fort and Patrick Onwuasor all have been rotating at inside linebacker. Safety Chuck Clark has also spent a lot of time in a hybrid dime/linebacker role and ended up leading the team in tackles with 68.

Martindale said the signs of improvement from the Ravens’ defense are evident simply by looking at the two games against the Cleveland Browns. In Week 4, Browns back Nick Chubb ran 20 times for 165 yards, including an 88-yard touchdown.

When the teams met again in Week 16, Chubb had 15 carries for 45 yards.

“The second time, we were just in another place mentally and physically,” safety Earl Thomas said. “We know where each other is. We’re a complete defense right now.”

“We played gap-sound football, we worked on our fundamentals and we didn’t let it happen [again],” Thomas added. “If we make an emphasis on something now, we’re going to take it away.”

Henry has hurt teams in many ways — beating defenses to the edge, or planting his foot, cutting back and finding a north-south lane for his 6-foot-3, 247-pound frame.

“The cutback running was really killing us when people had success against us,” Thomas said. “We understand that, so we gotta be patient. We know he’s a cutback runner. When he hits the hole, he’s not trying to juke you, so we’re not waiting on nothing. You just got to go attack.”

The Ravens faced Henry last year, but the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner had little impact, with seven carries for 21 yards in a 21-0 Ravens win. In 2017, Henry had eight carries for 26 yards in a 23-20 Titans win against the Ravens.

Martindale, though, said Henry has also hurt defenses by helping Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill thrive. Tannehill took over as the starter in midseason and changed the narrative of the Titans season.

Tannehill led the Titans to seven wins in 10 regular-season starts with a 70.3 percent completion percentage, 22 touchdown passes and six interceptions. His passer rating of 117.5 led the league, with a steady diet of play-action passing that relies on the threat of Henry running the ball.

“Adding Ryan Tannehill has done wonders for that offense,” Martindale said, “because he’s the guy we all thought he was. They finally got him in a system that he’s operating really well out of. Analytics tell you that the most efficient play is the play-action pass, and he’s doing that really well.”

There’s no question, though, that the Ravens’ success is going to rely on containing Henry.

“Obviously, we’re going to have bring our lunch pail and work hat and just go play football with him,” Martindale said.


INGRAM SIDELINED AGAIN: Running back Mark Ingram missed practice again Jan. 8, leaving his status uncertain for the playoff game against the Titans. Ingram has been dealing with a calf injury sustained in the Ravens’ Week 16 win at Cleveland on Dec. 22.

Harbaugh said last week that he expected Ingram to practice this week, but NFL Network reported that Ingram had experienced some tightness in his calf in practice during the Ravens’ bye week. Harbaugh said he’d have no injury updates this week other than the mandated injury report.

Other than Ingram, the only other absence from Ravens practice Jan. 8 was defensive lineman Brandon Williams, who was probably getting a veteran day off.

MARTINDALE DISAPPOINTED ABOUT GIANTS JOB, CALLS PROCESS ‘GREAT EXPERIENCE’: Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale expressed disappointment that he was passed over for the New York Giants’ head coaching job, but he called the interview process a “great experience” and stressed he remains very happy working with the Ravens.

The Giants interviewed Martindale last weekend for their head coaching job but then reportedly hired New England Patriots special teams coordinator Joe Judge Jan. 7.

Martindale, who has been with the Ravens since 2012, said, “We have the best owner, we have the best head coach, we have the best personnel, and most importantly, we have the best group of players assembled in that locker room that just lift each other up.”

He likened interviewing with the Giants to “playing on house money … because how much we love it here. I also know that you can’t just snap your figures and create that type of culture that we have here now.

“Am I disappointed about it? Sure,” he added. “I think that anytime you interview for something you obviously have interest in that job. … But like I said, I felt like I was playing on house money, and look where I’m still standing.”

RAVENS SIGN TACKLE ANDRE SMITH, PLACE EHINGER ON IR: The Ravens have signed veteran offensive tackle Andre Smith to the 53-man roster, and in a corresponding roster move they have placed offensive lineman Parker Ehinger (shoulder) on injured reserve.

Smith, 32, was the No. 6 overall pick by the Bengals in 2009 and has spent most of his career with the Bengals. He played for the Minnesota Vikings in 2016 and Arizona Cardinals in 2018. After starting eight games for the Cardinals that year, he was released and re-signed by the Bengals. He played six games for the Bengals this year before being released in late November.

Ehinger, promoted from the Ravens practice squad in November, played in two games this season and started the regular-season finale at right guard.

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Bo Smolka

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