When the Tennessee Titans last traveled to Baltimore in January, they accomplished the monumental task of stopping NFL Most Valuable Player Lamar Jackson with a defense that sought many times to string Jackson out and contain him as a runner.
But the thing that might have been the biggest assist in their stunning 28-12 victory in the AFC Divisional Playoffs was the fact that the Titans were able to jump out to a 14-0 lead and put Jackson and the Ravens in a deep hole that they were unable to dig out of.
And so, the Titans may have provided the league with a blueprint of how to beat the Ravens with that style of defense that keeps Jackson in check and stressing the importance of getting off to a quick start and making Jackson rely more on his arm than his legs and the designed runs that made him a dual threat sensation in 2019.
That fast start by the Titans stunned the sold-out crowd at M&T Bank Stadium that cold January night. The Titans won't have to worry about quieting the fans on Sunday, as none will be allowed into the stadium. But the fact remains that a fast Titans start is imperative if the Titans are to control the game.
Titans coach Mike Vrabel and many players and staff members admit as much.
“They start fast. This is a team that plays with a lot of speed. You turn the ball over, they're capitalizing,” Vrabel said. “They're leading their football games 143 to 83 in the first half, so they're building a substantial lead by the average. That allows them to play to their strengths, run the football and pressure the quarterback, pressure meaning mistakes, interceptions, sacks, long-yardage situation.”
Those things are all true, and the numbers back it up. Since becoming an NFL starter, Jackson has just one fourth-quarter comeback victory. The Ravens had not won a game since 2016 when trailing at halftime, a stat that predates Jackson even being drafted by the club until they defeated the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago.
Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who had the two touchdown passes that gave the Titans that early 14-0 edge in the playoffs, said a fast start is something the Titans have to make a point of emphasis for Sunday.
“That's going to be important to get off to a fast start. That's something that they're really good at. You look at their season and how they've been able to do that consistently,” Tannehill said. “It’d be a point of emphasis for us this week, is to come out and start the game fast, much like we did last week. Now the key is going to be able to put four quarters together and not just a half, so starting fast is definitely important.”
Doing so might be easier said than done for the Titans. In last year's playoff game, a Kevin Byard interception helped set up one touchdown drive, and a fourth-down defensive stop led to the other touchdown in the early lead.
Tennessee's defense has not been nearly as sturdy nor opportunistic this season. But they know the challenge of facing a player like Jackson, even though he has not performed as well in 2020 thus far as he did a year ago.
“You have the MVP of the NFL last year, so every team and every defense is going to try to put their best foot forward. Everybody is super excited to play those guys," Byard said. "We're going to be super excited as well. I just think that we have to out there and be sound in our coverages and run schemes and different things like that, and try and contain this guy and force him to throw the ball from the pocket and make him beat us like that."
The Titans promoted Trevor Daniel, who struggled against the Colts with a 17-yard shank and a blocked punt, to the 53-man roster. The Titans also signed Ryan Allen, released on Tuesday, back to the active roster.