No one blocked Pernell McPhee. I think that no one thought that they needed to.
There was 8:26 left in a scoreless first quarter between the Baltimore Ravens and the Tennessee Titans. It was the first Sunday game of Super WildCard Weekend. The Titans, with a first-and-ten on the Raven 22, handed the ball off to battering ram running back Derrick Henry (who, as I’m sure you’re aware, rolled up 2027 rushing yards this year).
There’s a thing that almost always happens when the ball is placed into Henry’s hands. The entire defense converges on the Titans’ titan-sized back (who is still charitably listed as the 247 pounds he weighed when he came out of college). “Rally to the ball,” is the common theme that you hear when defenses talk about stopping Derrick Henry. Apparently it takes a village. (This actually turns out to be true, but not quite in the way that most teams practice it.)
So now, here was quarterback Ryan Tannehill handing the ball to Henry, and here was McPhee standing just off right tackle, not rallying to the ball. Not doing anything, really. He was just waiting.
In this instance, it was Nate Davis – one of the really good guards in the NFL – trying to wedge Wolfe off his spot. Not only did he not succeed, but Wolfe even started pushing him backward into the on-rushing Henry. Seeing that nothing was developing in front of him, Derrick bounced the play outside to his right – right into the waiting arms of McPhee – who had done an uncommon thing (at least as far as Tennessee opponents are concerned). He held his contain.
Several weeks ago, I made a point of highlighting Henry’s ability to rapidly cut into the void of a defense. Those voids exist because most teams don’t have the discipline to stay in their contain when Derrick has the ball. At that point, they are all about rallying to the ball. But not the Ravens last Sunday afternoon.
In a display that must surely have caught the attention of the other defensive coordinators in the league, the Baltimore front seven played gap control defense. As a team, they just never over-reacted to the ball in Henry’s hands.
Tennessee holding a 10-3 lead with 9:59 left in the first half. The Titans are first-and-ten on their own 25. Tennessee lines two tight ends to the end of the line on the left, executing a “stretch run” to that side, with Henry the ball carrier. Linebacker Tyus Bowser gave some ground to the double-team block of those tight ends (Geoff Swaim and Jonnu Smith) but didn’t yield the edge. On the interior, left tackle David Quessenberry and left guard Rodger Saffold were equally incapable of pushing through Wolfe and Williams, respectively. Rookie linebacker Patrick Queen met the attempted block of center Ben Jones without budging, and another impressive rookie – Justin Madubuike, who we will talk a little more about later – had full control of Davis.
As Henry looked up, there wasn’t the slightest sliver of daylight for him to exploit at the point of attack – and there was McPhee holding contain on the cutback.
One quarter later, Baltimore now ahead 17-10 with 8:55 left in the third. Henry again looking for any crack in the Raven line. Tight end MyCole Pruitt had the task of pushing McPhee off the edge. Didn’t happen. Saffold was equally unable to remove Madubuike. Williams occupied both Jones and Davis, leaving Queen a completely clean gap – with Campbell holding his contain waiting for the cutback attempt. Again, frustration for Henry.
This is a snapshot of what the whole game was like for Derrick, who finished with a season-low 40 rushing yards on 18 carries (for a season-low 2.2 yards per rush). He had scored 8 touchdowns over his previous 6 games, but there was no end zone for him tonight.
Watching all of this play out, I was left with a couple of impressions – the first about gap defense in general and the second an understanding of how this specifically relates to Henry and the Titans – something, in short, that Baltimore has learned from the last two games against Derrick and Tennessee.
Two Gap Principles
First, gap control only works when your front seven trusts each other. The reason, after all, that a player abandons his gap is because he believes that some other defender in some other gap isn’t capable of making a play by themselves. One of the reasons that Baltimore’s defense is so good – and this is an elite defense – is because they all trust each other to make their plays. Gap control is the ultimate “do your job” defensive approach.
It’s understandable that gap control could waver a bit when Derrick Henry is on the other side. Who, after all, is capable of tackling King Henry one-on-one. And yet, the Ravens did all night. Here’s the thing that they understand.
Derrick Henry is a momentum runner. In that sense, he’s different than, say, Baltimore’s J.K. Dobbins, who is at top speed the instant the ball is put into his hands. At more than 250 pounds, Derrick needs a few steps to build up some momentum. Once that happens, your defense is in deep trouble, but this almost always obliges the offensive line to at least get him past the line of scrimmage. Up until that point, frankly, Henry is no harder to bring down than most other backs.
Usually this isn’t a problem, as Derrick runs behind one of football’s better run-blocking lines. But on Sunday afternoon all of those good run blockers had their lunches handed to them. Derrick averaged only 1.3 yards from scrimmage before being contacted (his season average of 2.5 yards before contact was about average). Consequently, Derrick gained only 0.9 yards per run after contact (during the season his 2.8 yards after contact were among the league’s best).
Among the most culpable for this difficulty is tight end Swaim. Usually trusted to give Derrick the edge, Geoff was pushed around the entire afternoon – never more so than on the three-yard loss that Henry sustained on a first-and-goal play from the Baltimore seven-yard line with 6:25 left in the first. On that play, linebacker/end Matt Judon shot through Swaim as though he was made of toilet paper and dropped Henry as soon as the ball hit his hands.
Before I move too far away from this, just a bit of recognition for Justin Madubuike. Justin is a rookie third-round draft choice out of Texas A&M who I hadn’t noticed before. But every time I looked up on Sunday, there he was making another play. In particular, for a big guy (and he’s listed at 293) he seems to have the technique down for slipping between double-teams. He did this twice to make big plays on Sunday. With 2:30 left in the first, he slipped between Saffold and Quessenberry, forcing Derrick to bounce the run back into traffic. On that play, Justin was even quick enough to catch him from behind and pull him down.
Later, with 6:07 left in the third quarter (and with Henry on the sideline putting his shoe back on), a back named Darrynton Evans was sent off left tackle. But Judon was there to deny him the corner – he was pushing Swaim into the backfield. There was no opening next to him, either, as Quessenberry was having no luck moving Wolfe. As Evans was starting to turn the run back to the right, Madubuike split the guard and tackle on the other side (Nate Davis and Dennis Kelly) and made the tackle.
Justin, apparently, got his opportunity during the COVID outbreak that the Ravens suffered through earlier this season – and given that chance, he seems to be making the most of it. In a lot of ways Madubuike fits the mold of many of the great defensive linemen that have played in Baltimore. He’s big enough to hold the line, but athletic, good with his hands, and difficult to lay a block on. The Ravens may have a find in Justin.
Can Other Teams Do This Against Derrick?
In theory, other teams might employ this same approach when playing against Henry, but there are a couple of caveats that apply. First and foremost, your team would need a defensive line capable of repelling that very good offensive line. Baltimore was good enough to do this (at least for one game). I’m not sure there are many other teams in the league that could.
There’s another piece to Derrick’s struggles in this game, though, that can’t simply be attributed to outstanding defense. For some reason, although presented with several opportunities, Derrick Henry never took off down the sideline. This is a stunning development for those of us who have watched him all year. Almost all of his signature runs have found him outside of the defense, rolling full-steam down the sideline – usually the right sideline behind blocks from Kelly and Davis. Some of that was the Ravens closing off cutback lanes. Even with that, though, Derrick had several chances for the big run, and either didn’t see them, or passed them up for some other reason.
Third quarter, Baltimore ahead 17-10, Titans with 2:50 left in the quarter with a first-and-ten at the Raven 25. The Titans line up with two tight ends to the left, causing the Baltimore defense to shift in that direction. Now, the only Raven defender to the right of tackle is cornerback Marcus Peters, who disappeared from the play when the receiver he was covering – Nick Westbrook-Ikhine – ran a vertical up the right side. Now the entire sideline is vacant.
Linebacker Jihad Ward tries to set the edge, as Henry starts rolling toward that vacant sideline, but Kelly has him under control. Jihad’s chances of keeping Henry from the sideline are exceedingly poor. But just before turning the corner, Derrick changes his mind and darts back toward the middle – where he is held to a three-yard gain.
Now there’s 12:11 left in the Tennessee season, first-and-ten on their own 42, trailing 17-13. Westbrook-Ikhine again runs Peters downfield, opening the sideline. This time, Judon – on the right edge – is pushing Swain into the backfield, but Henry has the angle and a still mostly clear path to the corner. For some reason, he decides that he can’t get around Judon, and tries to turn back inside. This time he actually trips over Swain’s feet and can only make it back to the line of scrimmage.
It’s futile to speculate why Derrick didn’t try – at least once – to get around the edge. But he didn’t. Sufffice it to say there were about four or five of these opportunities – enough to change the outcome of the event.
Not Much Without Henry
For the game’s first fifteen minutes, Tennessee looked like they could make short work of the Raven defense, even without much contribution from Henry. Tennessee controlled the clock for 10:23 of that quarter, running 20 plays and rolling up 126 yards and 10 points.
For the entire rest of the game, Tennessee added just 3 more points, gaining just 83 yards on 31 plays. Over the last three quarters Baltimore owned the time of possession battle, 29:01 to 15:59. With their early lead not enough to force Baltimore out of its running attack, the Titan defense was faced with the necessity of defending football’s most dangerous ground attack for the full sixty minutes. Needless to say, it did not end well for them. The sometimes unstoppable Ravens sliced and diced their way through Tennessee to the tune of 236 rushing yards, on their way to a 20-13 victory (gamebook) (summary).
Leading the assault was quarterback Lamar Jackson, who piled up 136 of those ground yards. Lamar piled up another 1005 rushing yards during the season, and his 6.3 yards per attempt led all of football. Lamar was the centerpiece of a rushing game that averaged 191.9 yards per contest and 5.5 per attempt – both numbers easily the best in the NFL.
It’s hard to imagine that the NFL has ever seen a more dangerous ball-carrier than Jackson. His ability to change direction almost at the speed of thought, makes tackling Lamar about as easy as tackling a feral cat.
But as natural and instinctive as Jackson is a s a runner, he is still that unnatural and forced as a passer. Some have made claims that Lamar’s passing has continued to improve substantially. In all honesty, I don’t see it. Even in victory, Lamar isn’t truly throwing the ball any better or more consistently than he did in last year’s playoff loss.
Lamar’s Continuing Struggles
Several things continue to leap off the tape when you watch Jackson play. First and most obvious is his minus arm strength. The farther downfield you ask him to throw, the more erratic his performance becomes. The Ravens, of course, understand this about Lamar. At the same time, they understood that Tennessee was distinctly vulnerable to the downfield passing game. With no pass rush to speak of, the Titans couldn’t play zone, and neither of their cornerbacks was a match for top receivers Marquise Brown or Miles Boykin.
On this particular afternoon, Baltimore had no difficulty getting receivers behind the Tennessee defense. Getting the ball to them, though, was a different matter. Look no farther than Jackson’s first quarter interception.
Boykin lined up in a tight split to the right with cornerback Malcolm Butler playing over him. Malcolm played over Boykin’s outside shoulder, with the intent to keep him away from the sideline and direct him back toward his help in the middle of the field. Butler’s outside leverage notwithstanding, Boykin extended his vertical stem until he was on top of Butler – at which point he broke sharply outside and started streaking up the sideline, gaining separation from Malcolm with every step.
Some 38 yards downfield, though, was too far. Lamar’s throw was not only short but well to the inside. It actually looked like Butler was the intended receiver.
I’m not really sure that there is anything you can do about arm strength. If there were some exercises or drills that could add length to your throws, then everyone would be throwing 60-yard lasers like Josh Allen. At some point, I think you have to accept that his arm is what it is and plan accordingly.
There are other issues, though – mental things – that Baltimore should well expect Lamar to have improved on by now. These are also issues.
For one thing, Lamar still hasn’t developed that feel for when he can continue to wait on the deep routes to come open, and when he needs to check the ball down. The Titans finished last in football in quarterback sack percentage. They recorded only 19 for the season (Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt recorded 15 all by himself), and only managed to drag the opposing passer to the ground on 2.9% of his drop-backs.
Sunday they took Lamar down 5 times. In looking at that number, no one need assume that Tennessee suddenly became the Steelers. On every one of those sacks, Jackson had ample time and opportunity to either check the ball down, throw it away, or pull it down and run with it. In almost all of those cases, Lamar kept waiting for deep routes to come open until he’d run out of time.
With 4:18 left in the first half, the Ravens, still down 10-3, faced first-and-ten on the Tennessee 49-yard line. The Titans blitzed rarely throughout the afternoon, but they brought one here, playing a very soft and very deep zone defense behind it. As Jackson stood in the pocket, both Boykin and Willie Snead broke wide open underneath the coverage – Snead deep enough downfield to get a first down. But Jackson didn’t throw it. He was waiting on Hollywood’s deep route. Down the right sideline, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown was running a deep route that did, eventually split the zone. But by the time Hollywood broke through, Jackson was on the turf.
Lamar did better (statistically) in the second half – completing 10 of his 13 throws. But at that point the Ravens had given up on the deep throws and had Jackson dumping the ball off short to the first open receiver he saw. As often as not, that turned out to be TE/Fullback Patrick Ricard, who the Titans struggling pass defense frequently forgot to cover. It was a comforting second half, but it doesn’t negate the aspects of throwing the football that are still foreign to Jackson.
One play in particular encapsulates where Lamar is as a passer in season three of the Jackson Experiment.
Still trailing 10-0, the Ravens have the ball on Tennessee’s ten-yard line. There’s 10:41 left in the first half and Baltimore is faced with a third-and-six. Running back Dobbins was flanked wide to the left, and Tennessee trotted linebacker David Long out to the perimeter to cover him. Conscious of Dobbins speed, Long allowed him a substantial cushion. Next to Dobbins, Dez Bryant was in the slot, with Malcolm Butler directly over him in bump-and-run coverage. At the snap, Dez headed for the corner of the end zone, bringing Butler with him. Their path cut off Long’s path to Dobbins, who was running a shallow cross back across the middle. J.K., at this point, was as wide open as any receiver was all day. He was a short toss away from Jackson, would have easily picked up the first down, and well might have scored.
Jackson never threw him the ball. Dobbins, you see, was not his first read. You can see Lamar’s head turn and follow his first read – Dez Bryant headed for the corner of the end zone – for several seconds.
Dobbins was wide open just below Bryant. It’s almost inconceivable that Lamar didn’t see him. But his second read was Andrews over the middle. So, after watching Dez for a while (too long, really), he turned his attention to Mark. He even raised his arm to throw him the ball. But by then it was too late. The pocket collapsed and Lamar pulled the ball back into his body just before Brooks Reed drove him to the ground.
This is where Jackson is as a passer. After 37 regular season starts and three more in the playoffs, passing is still a paint-by-numbers exercise. I guarantee you that any of the “passing” quarterbacks in this league, understanding the route combination would realize pre-snap that Long couldn’t possibly cover Dobbins’ route from a five-yard cushion. Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees – pick your favorite – all these guys would have the ball in J.K.’s hands about a half second after the snap.
This evening, Jackson and his Ravens will travel to frigid (and possibly snowy) Orchard Park, New York, to face a very good Buffalo team. One team’s playoff journey will continue. Football is always a wildly unpredictable event. If anyone claims that they predicted that Cleveland would jump out to a 28-0 lead on Pittsburgh if the first quarter of last week’s game, I would certainly ask to see the proof.
But within our understanding of the liklihoods of this game, the story lines seem crystal clear.
If the Baltimore defense can find a way to slow the Buffalo offense to the point where Lamar can keep running the ball, then the Ravens will probably win. About the only notable weakness in this Buffalo team is its run defense. Even in beating Indianapolis last week, they still surrendered 163 rushing yards to the Colts.
Those of you who watched that game might be quick to point out that more than half of those yards (82 to be exact) came on just three plays. Other than that, the Colt run game was little heard from. It wasn’t like they pounded the ball down the Bills’ throat all day.
This is true. But understand that this is who the Ravens are as well. They are not a grinding, 12-play, nine-minute, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust team. They are a big play running team – a one-missed-tackle-costs-you-a-48-yard-touchdown kind of team. In their own way, they are just as dependent on the big play as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And if they are allowed to keep running the ball for the whole sixty minutes, that big run will almost assuredly come to pass (no pun intended).
On the other hand, if Buffalo solves the Baltimore blitz scheme (and a blitz-based pass defense always comes with some element of risk) and puts Baltimore in a position where they have to start throwing the ball, then the Ravens will be in trouble.
And that’s even if it doesn’t snow.