Who: No. 6 seed Tennessee Titans (10-7) at No. 1 seed Baltimore Ravens (14-2)
Where: M&T Bank Stadium
When: Saturday, Jan. 11, 8:15 p.m. EST
The Ravens host their playoff opener Jan. 11 when the AFC’s top-seeded team welcomes the sixth-seeded Tennessee Titans to M&T Bank Stadium. The Titans, winners of eight of their last 11 games after a 2-4 start, reached the playoffs as the AFC’s second wild-card team and then advanced via a 20-13 win at New England Jan. 4.
Each day this week we have been offering one key matchup and relevant statistics.
Ravens linebackers (yes, all of them) vs. Titans RB Derrick Henry
The Ravens know what they are up against in Henry, the 6-foot-3, 247-pounder who won the NFL’s rushing title this year with 1,540 yards. Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale described Henry as “one of those guys the kids create on Madden. You shouldn’t be that big and be able to run like he runs.”
Limiting Henry will be central to the Ravens’ game plan, not only because he can be a game-changer with the ball in his hands, but because Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s highly successful play-action passing game relies on the threat of Henry as a runner.
The Ravens want to prevent Henry from getting outside and turning upfield against smaller Ravens defensive backs, so that means outside linebackers such as Matthew Judon and Jaylon Ferguson need to set the edge well and direct Henry back toward the teeth of the Ravens’ run defense, led by linemen Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce and Domata Peko.
Henry, though, can cut back and quickly get to the second level, and that’s where inside linebackers Josh Bynes, L.J. Fort and Patrick Onwuasor must be ready to hit and be hit by Henry.
Safety Earl Thomas said that in the Titans’ wild-card round win at New England, the Patriots “didn’t seem like they were too interested in tackling him. So our mind-set is a little different. I think we’re going to try to tackle him and try to swarm.”
Henry finished with 34 carries for 182 yards and a touchdown in the Titans’ 20-13 win at New England.
Given Henry’s size, the Ravens might go with their base defensive alignment more often with two bigger inside linebackers, and use Chuck Clark more in his traditional strong safety role rather than as a dime linebacker. Regardless, safeties and corners surely will also be involved in trying to contain Henry.
The Ravens have held Henry in check in their two previous meetings. He had seven carries for 21 yards last year in a 21-0 Ravens win and carried eight times for 26 yards against the Ravens in a 23-20 Titans win in 2017.
Martindale this week acknowledged those past successes in slowing down Henry, but hardly sounded convinced they would have any bearing on Saturday.
“Obviously, we’re going to have to bring our lunch pail, work hat and just go play football with him,” Martindale said.
A sixth-seeded team playing confidently and loose can be trouble enough, and this Titans team is a tough matchup for the Ravens. The Titans boast the type of elite run game that has given the Ravens fits this year, and a quarterback in Ryan Tannehill who has been effective against the blitz, which is a Ravens staple.
The Titans, though, are missing top coverage linebacker Jayon Brown (shoulder), and that bodes well for a Ravens offense that has gotten more than 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns from the tight ends this season.
The Ravens are banged up too, with two of their top offensive playmakers — running back Mark Ingram (calf) and tight end Mark Andrews (ankle) — not at 100 percent. They do, though, have the league’s presumptive Most Valuable Player in Lamar Jackson, and the Titans have yet to see this offense on the field this year. Jackson’s speed has been disruptive and alarming to teams the first time they see it, which might explain the Ravens’ 128-31 edge in the first quarter this season.
A fast start is critical for the Ravens, who are eager to erase memories of a dismal, scoreless first half in their only playoff game a year ago.
This won’t be easy, but the Ravens, led by the league’s presumptive MVP and a defense that will be up to the task, advances to the AFC title game for the first time since the 2012 Super Bowl season.
Ravens 30, Titans 24.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox