A week after watching his current team run over his former team, Titans head coach Mike Vrabel is now tasked with trying to slow down likely league MVP Lamar Jackson and the rest of the No. 1 seeded Ravens in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs.
Vrabel, who has led the Titans to their second divisional round appearance in the past three seasons, knows how big of a challenge Tennessee will face when they take the field in Baltimore on Saturday night. Not only do the Ravens possess the league's most electric player in Jackson, the Ravens also boast the NFL's top scoring offense that this year set the NFL record for rushing yards in a single season. Baltimore also boasts the league's third-best scoring defense that held 11 of their regular season opponents to 20 points or less.
On Tuesday, Vrabel, during a meeting with the media, broke down how the Titans can pull off a second playoff upset in as many weeks while advancing to the conference championship game for the first time since 2002.
Force the Ravens' offense into third-and-long situations
Throughout their 12-game winning streak, the Ravens' success on third down has been one of their main reasons for success. Heading into Saturday night's game, Baltimore has converted on 47.1% of their third down situations, the second best mark in the NFL. The Ravens' success running the football is obviously a big reason for that success, as Baltimore averaged a record 206 rushing yards per game during the regular season.
Vrabel pointed out that, in order to minimize Baltimore's success on third down, his defense needs to limit Baltimore's success on first and second down and thus forcing the Ravens into more third-and-long situations. By containing the Ravens' production on first and second down, the Titans' defense, instead of stacking the box to stop the run, can instead play more of their normal base third down defenses while forcing Jackson to make plays with his arm. And while Jackson has become a formidable passer, Vrabel would surely rather see him try to make plays with his arm than with his legs.
A game Vrabel and his assistants are surely watching this week is Baltimore's Week 5 overtime victory in Pittsburgh, the win that propelled the Ravens on their 12-game winning streak. While they were able to escape Pittsburgh with a win, it was one of Baltimore's uglier victories of the regular season. With the Steelers' defense forcing the Ravens into several second and third and long situations, Pittsburgh's defense forced three interceptions of Jackson (who threw just six picks the entire regular season) while holding him to 168 total yards.
While the Steelers' defense included three All-Pro players, the Titans' defense has proven that, while they not have the same caliber of defensive play-makers, they certainly have the players -- most notably defensive backs Logan Ryan and Kevin Byard along with linebackers Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown -- and the scheme that is capable of making similar plays against Jackson.
Contain the edge, but don't obsess over it
While he acknowledged that containing the edge will be key to having success against Baltimore's offense, Vrabel said that his defense can't obsess over it. Vrabel said that, based on watching Baltimore's offense on film, he believes that defenses have oftentimes focused too much on containing the edge and are subsequently burned by Baltimore's quick trap plays and other runs between the tackles and guards. While Baltimore's ability to get to the edge did result in a good portion of their regular season rushing total, Jackson, Pro Bowl running back Mark Ingram and fellow running back Gus Edwards gained a considerable amount of yards on North-South runs, particularly on first and second down.
"They do a nice job mixing up the scheme so it's not just the same thing over and over," Vrabel said of Baltimore's offense. "It will be a huge challenge for us."
Stick to the run
The Ravens faced the fewest amount of rushing attempts (340) during the regular season, a stat Vrabel alluded to on Tuesday. Conversely, Baltimore faced 544 passing attempts while allowing just 15 touchdown passes, the second fewest in the NFL. And while their run defense did finish fifth in the league in fewest rushing yards allowed (a misleading stat considering the amount of times they were run against during the regular season), the Ravens were just 21st in the NFL with an average of 4.4 yards per carry allowed.
This is a extremely good sign for the Titans, who have made it this far on the strength of their rushing attack that finished third in the league in rushing yards and rushing average while also finishing second in rushing touchdowns scored during the regular season. Tennessee's running game has been spearheaded by Derrick Henry, who has rushed for 393 yards and four touchdowns over the Titans' last two games. He was a one-man wrecking crew last Saturday night in Foxborough, rushing for 182 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries in Tennessee's 20-13 victory.
Obviously, Baltimore's ability to get big leads forced teams to abandon their rushing attacks earlier than they would have liked. If they are going to have any shot at upsetting the Ravens, the Titans have to stick to the rushing attack, even if they do find themselves facing an early deficit.
"Hopefully, that if you can keep the game manageable," Vrabel said, "you can be balanced so that you don't have to drop back and throw it every single snap."
Play sound, fundamental football
While it sounds elementary, Vrabel knows that a huge key to defeating the Ravens will come down to which team plays the most sound, fundamental football while not beating themselves. And while their talent certainly played a role in their 14 regular season wins, the Ravens' ability to play more fundamentally sound football their their opponents was among the main reasons why they have secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
On both sides of the ball, the Ravens present challenges with regard to playing strong, fundamentally sound football. With it comes to stopping Jackson, Vrabel said it will come down to technique, discipline, and trusting the team's defensive schemes.
"Anytime that you have a quarterback and especially a scheme that forces you to defend the entire field, both laterally and horizontally, it takes a lot of discipline," Vrabel said of Jackson, who rushed for 1,207 yards and seven touchdowns this season. "It takes guys making good tackles, sound tackles, swarming to the football. It's a huge challenge. We'll have to play our best and prepare these next couple days to give us a chance."
Defensively, the Ravens have also thrived on opponent's mistakes while coming up with game-changing plays on their own. Going back to Baltimore's overtime win in Pittsburgh, it was Ravens defensive back Marlon Humphrey's forced fumble of JuJu Smith-Schuster that set up Justin Tucker's game-winning field goal. Two weeks later, cornerback Marcus Peters' 67-yard pick-six turned the tide in Seattle while giving the Ravens a momentum-boosting win over one of the NFC's best teams. While some mistakes are inevitable, Vrabel knows that his team needs to avoid committing the big mistakes while being able to to come up with some big plays on their own.
While he admitted that preparing for the Ravens isn't fun, Vrabel said that is hoping to create a game plan that is not only good enough to help produce a win, it's one that the players can execute and also believe in, as they look to pull off another upset on the road at night for a second consecutive week.
"I would imagine we're the underdogs every week," Vrabel said of his team, who are in fact nine-point underdogs heading into Saturday's game. "You go to our games, there's 20,000 of the other team's fans. I just coach the team, try to get them ready. Some days it's good enough, some days, it's not good enough.
"All I can tell you is that we're excited to prepare and ultimately play a game at the end of this week."