Titans-Ravens Preview: Look For ‘Battle Of Wills’ In The Run Game, Says Rich Gannon

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(CBS Baltimore) — Both the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans are coming off of disappointing losses at key junctures in the season. The Ravens slipped to 6-3 on a rainy night in Foxborough, against a New England Patriots team that’s seemed out of sorts for weeks. The loss, their second in three games, puts them even further behind the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North. The Titans, now 6-3, let a winnable game against the Indianapolis Colts get away from them in the second half, yielding the division lead in the AFC South. It was their third loss in four games.

The Ravens and Titans will both look to get on track Sunday in a rematch of last season’s playoff upset. Baltimore came into that game riding a 12-game winning streak and an MVP-caliber season from quarterback Lamar Jackson. They seemed headed for the AFC title game and possible Super Bowl glory until Tennessee running back Derrick Henry bulldozed them for almost 200 yards.

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The circumstances have changed this season, with both teams struggling a little to find their way (and fans not allowed to attend due to COVID-19). But the cast of characters is still largely the same. On the Ravens side, Jackson remains dynamic out of the backfield. He leads a rushing attack that averages 164 yards per game, second best in the NFL. Though the Patriots were able to limit him, as well as Gus Edwards, under sloppy conditions that generally favor a strong ground game.

The Ravens passing game has lacked the big-play ability that made them so exciting last season. They’ve managed just 23 pass plays of at least 20 yards and one of at least 40 yards so far this season. Their passing attack averages a mere 184.1 yards per game, which is second worst in the league. Oddly enough, they were better against the Patriots, with Jackson going 24-34 for 249 yards and two touchdowns. Though mishandled snaps set them back on multiple occasions.

“Their passing game is at its best when they’re running the ball and have a lead and they can throw it when they want to throw it and they don’t have to throw it,” according to  NFL On CBS analyst Rich Gannon. “You look at some of these games where they have had to come from behind, that’s not Lamar Jackson’s strength. He’s still developing as a pocket passer. The key versus the Ravens is to keep him in the pocket and force him to function as a pocket passer on third down and down in the red zone. When they’re able to run the ball, spread you out, then they can call the shot plays and gadget plays and get him out on the edge, give him a two-way go.”

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“They’re really at their best when they’re dictating,” Gannon continues. “When they’re dictating the pace and flow of games with their ability to run and play great defense and create some short fields, negative plays on defense to give the offense some extra opportunities.”

The Ravens didn’t control the game against the Patriots. Their usually solid run defense didn’t have an answer for Damien Harris, who put up a career-high 121 yards on the ground. And their usually fierce pass rush only sacked Cam Newton once, even as they limited him to just 13-17 for 118 yards passing. The passing game obviously wasn’t the Patriots’ focus, nor will it be this week for the Titans.

The Titans offense runs behind Henry, who’s one of only two running backs in the NFL averaging over 100 yards per game this season. Some of the league’s better run defenses have been able to slow him down; the Steelers held him to 75 yards and under four yards per carry. But Henry will generally get his yards, like he did against against the Colts last week, picking up 103 yard on 19 carries. And sometimes he’ll explode for an absurd stat-line, like when he lit up the Houston Texans for 212 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries back in October.

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“You look at the Tennessee Titans and Arthur Smith does a great job as a play caller there,” says Gannon. “They have an unusual back, that’s how I describe Derrick Henry. There’s not many backs in our game that are 6’3″ 255 pounds and can run like he does. That’s a huge weapon for them. You get him in space, he can knock people backwards. He’s got terrific straight-line speed.”

Ryan Tannehill is having another consistent season, with a quarterback rating of 106.9. Part of the reason is that he just doesn’t make that many mistakes. So far he’s tossed just three interceptions to go along with his 20 touchdowns. However, the Colts were able to shut him down for the most part, with Tannehill going just 15-27 for 147 yards.

“Ryan Tannehill has been just a different player since coming over from Miami,” according to Gannon. “He sees the field well, he’s got good anticipation, he’s tough. He is the perfect quarterback for what they do offensively. And they have some players in A.J. Brown and Corey Davis, Jonnu Smith.”

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The Titans defense won’t scare anybody, giving up close to 400 yards per game. They’ve allowed opposing offenses to score at least 30 points on five different occasions this season. They’ll need to contain Jackson and Edwards this week, force Jackson to win the game with his arm from the pocket.

“It’s going to be a battle of wills,” says Gannon. “Who can run the ball better, who can run the ball more consistently? Turnovers are certainly going to be a story in this game. But, to me, you look at rushing differential this week. If Derrick Henry has a big day rushing, or if the Ravens do, the rushing differential in this one may tell the story on Sunday.”

The Titans play the Ravens Sunday, November 22 @ 1:00 ET on CBS.

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