The Ravens entered the postseason in a curious position. Over the back half of the season, their offense rediscovered its identity. The Lamar Jackson-led run game revived itself as the offense began leaning again on more counter-read and power concepts, while the passing game went on the uptick with some better wide receiver play. Baltimore's defense suffered the inverse, however, and had started to look like they may not be equipped to handle the NFL's best offenses in January.
At least against the Titans on Sunday, that was not the case. 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry was contained to a measly 40 yards on 18 carries and quarterback Ryan Tannehill largely failed to find any of the explosive plays for which Tennessee's passing game is typically known. Tannehill's play devolved as the game went on and the play-action game fell apart. At the end of four quarters, Wink Martindale's defense had held the fourth-ranked offense per DVOA to just 13 points, 10 of which came in the first quarter alone.
It's very "old school football guy" to say, but the Ravens shutting down the Titans run game went a long way in winning them this game. While it's true that passing is more important than rushing and fewer offenses nowadays live through their run game, the Titans do, in fact, live through their run game and the play-action passing that riffs off of it. Baltimore's front beat the bricks out of Tennessee's offensive line from start to finish and never really let the Titans get into their usual groove.
Rookie defensive tackle Justin Madubuike (92) played the most influential role in keeping the Titans rushing attack to a minimum. Madubuike, the 3-technique in the clip above, kills this zone lead play and forces it to bounce. With his first step, Madubuike does an excellent job of getting his hands into the guard's frame and driving his hands above his eyes, effectively giving himself control of the guard as he tries to regain balance. Madubuike transitions his control into working the guard's inside shoulder then forcing him wide, taking out the lead blocker in the process. Now the linebacker behind Madubuike (Patrick Queen, 48) has a free fit inside, forcing the play to bounce to Pernell McPhee (90), who does a great job of rag-dolling the tight end to get free.
This time, Madubuike (92) is the 3-technique (left) in Baltimore's under front. The front side of this run fit is excellent, thanks in large part to Matt Judon (99) sealing the edge, but it is Madubuike's efforts that completely take away the chance at a cutback. With this zone run away from Madubuike, the Titans right guard wants to climb to the linebacker while the right tackle "reaches" Madubuike. The rookie defensive tackle allows neither thing to happen. At the snap, Madubuike does a wonderful job of jamming the guard to not allow him to climb to the linebacker. He then settles himself a bit, anticipating the cut block, and eats the tackle's cut block attempt to close the cutback in tandem with the linebacker (Malik Harrison, 40) who is now free to press the line of scrimmage. Madubuike is able to make this work in part because his 3-technique alignment is so tight to the guard, which is not always the case, but it's still an outrageous play.
The rest of the Ravens front also defended Tennessee's rushing attack well. Moreover, they did particularly well in shutting down the Titans' rushing attack from shotgun, which could bode well for their game against the Bills next week. Considering the Bills use shotgun formations almost 20% more often than the Titans, we can probably expect a few more shotgun runs from the Bills. The Bills are not a huge rushing team from shotgun by rate, but simply by being in shotgun more often, they do it more by volume.
At the snap, Calais Campbell (93, the 3-technique to the right) catches the back-side guard (Rodger Saffold, 76) pulling and the right tackle (Dennis Kelly, 71) down blocking, which tips him off to a power run. On the whiteboard, the right tackle is supposed to down-block Campbell and the pulling guard will fit up outside of him through the C-gap. Campbell was not having any of that. He tosses the tackle out of the way, freeing himself up to fit the C-gap and "show color" through the puller's inside shoulder. Since the Ravens are also gapped out in the box (have as many defenders as there are rushing gaps), safety Chuck Clark (36) can easily be a free fitter outside the puller, thus completely taking away the run as it was designed.
As important as Baltimore's run defense in this game was, it is fair to say that defending the pass against the Bills next week will be of the utmost importance. The Bills throw often and effectively, and they will not be afraid to test the Ravens secondary. That said, if Martindale's adjustments in the Titans game are any indication, the Ravens will be ready to put up a fight.
Through the first quarter or so, the Titans had some success with switch releases and rub concepts to beat the Ravens' press coverage. The 35-yarder to Anthony Fisker out of a tight bunch formation was a great example of that. Anything the Titans could do to get Baltimore's defenders to bounce into each other within the first couple of yards, they did. As the game went on, the Ravens picked up on it and did well to adjust to stopping it.
To the right side, Tennessee's No. 2 (middle) receiver is running a slot fade and the No. 1 (outside) is cutting underneath immediately. The idea is to create some traffic as the No. 2 expands and the No. 1 cuts across. In a lot of cases, one of the two defensive backs will lose a step in the collision (ideally, from the offense's view, the defender against the fade), freeing up one of the routes. In this clip, however, the Ravens have a built-in adjustment that allows the slot defender to peel off of the No. 2 and take the No. 1 underneath. The outside cornerback then trails back to take the fade instead of driving down through the traffic to take the No. 1 across the field. Doing so allows the Ravens to completely avoid the rub this concept is trying to create. Both defenders have to call this out and act quickly, but with cornerbacks like Baltimore's, it's plenty doable, even against NFL speed.
The Ravens took the opposite approach in their game-sealing interception. Rather than a built-in adjustment, the Ravens threw a bit of a screwball at Tannehill. To the bottom of the screen, Marcus Peters (24) starts in his usual press alignment. That's exactly what the Titans wanted with this switch verticals call. In theory, the switch releases against a press cornerback should create traffic, making it difficult for the slot defender to get over to the slot receiver widening to the sideline. Peters backs off just before the snap, though, giving the slot defender a free path to the outside. Tannehill's throw is a bit ill-advised and Peters does a great job of squeezing the route to be in position to pick the ball off.
It's adjustments like that one, which break tendencies in the most pivotal moments of a game, that can separate good teams from great ones. The Ravens have had their issues on both sides of the ball all year, but that is smart, confident defensive coordination from Martindale.
Baltimore's defensive showing against Tennessee was a clear cut above anything they had shown over the past five weeks of the season, sans their Week 17 game against a hopeless Bengals team. Whether or not they can keep it together versus a more dynamic Bills offense, who knows, but kicking off the postseason with a dominant performance is always encouraging. Hopefully for the Ravens, the defensive stumble at the end of the year was just a lull and the wild-card match against the Titans woke them up.