Anatomy of a wild-card win: Titans can work their underwhelming defense against Lamar Jackson

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Mark Schofield
·6 min read
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Earlier this week we talked about the difficulties the Baltimore Ravens defense would face when trying to stop Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry. Despite an off-season spent loading up on the defensive front, Henry and the Titans’ offensive system still pose challenges for the Ravens this weekend.

This is not to say the Titans will have it easy when Baltimore has the football. Anything but.

Staring at the Titans defense on Sunday will be perhaps one of the NFL’s most difficult problems to solve: Lamar Jackson.

The reason why Jackson remains a vexing dilemma for opposing defenses is because of the ways Greg Roman utilizes him, and how those concepts in the air and on the ground force defenses to make difficult choices. The beauty of having an athletic quarterback who is a danger with his arm and his legs – or the curse if you are a defensive coordinator – is that QBs change the numbers game. No longer are offenses playing 10 on 11, instead these quarterbacks force you as a defense to prepare for all 11 players in the run game.

When that happens, you can force the defense to be wrong no matter what they do.

Take one of Baltimore’s run designs, a concept known as “counter bash.” Ted Nguyen from The Athletic broke this design down a few weeks ago, and I would highly recommend giving that piece a read. As you will see in this video of the concept (recorded prior to the Ravens playing the New York Giants) the counter bash play puts defenders in almost an impossible position. Between the pulling linemen to the running back moving away from that action (bash is shorthand for “back away”) to Jackson himself, this concept can make you wrong in the blink of an eye:

Of course, because something is difficult does not mean it is impossible, and defending counter bash is no different. Anytime I contemplate stopping offensive designs I turn to Cody Alexander, creator of MatchQuarters.com and a brilliant defensive mind. Cody wrote a detailed piece on how defenses can defend bash concepts, including counter bash, that you can read here. One of the things that Cody mentions is a concept known as “cross-keying:”

The term cross-key refers to where the LBs’ eyes are located at the snap of the ball. In a simple single-back gun formation, only two players can carry the ball, the RB and the QB. In a cross-key technique, the LBs will key the opposite back, or back away. In the illustration to the left, if the RB works to the Will, he simply folds into the “B” gap and receives the RB. In the case of Power Read, the Will fits upfield to collect the stretching RB. The Mike in this situation will mirror the QB, regardless of what the guards are doing. By cross-keying the LBs, a DC has secured the fits versus Spread offenses that utilize stretch paths by the RB, or simple Bash plays like Midline from the gun.

For an example of this in action we can watch…the Titans themselves defending counter bash back in Week 11:

As you watch this play out, watch how the linebackers stick to their pre-snap reads, and the Titans work to stop this from becoming a huge play:

Notice the phrasing there: “[s]top this from becoming a huge play.” Because even though Tennessee does things by the book here, Jackson still manages to rip off an eight-yard gain. Because again, even when you do everything right, this design – and Jackson himself – can make you wrong.

There is of course another problem when playing the Ravens, and that is the play-action passing game. With so much thought given to stopping the running game, that can expose you to shot plays down the field, which is something the Titans learned back in Week 11. On this touchdown from Jackson to tight end Mark Andrews on a wheel route, the Titans are in zone coverage. But that asks the curl/flat defender, in this case safety Amani Hooker, to carry that route from the tight end from the short area of the field deep. Watch as his eyes fixate on the run fake in the backfield, delaying his drop and enabling Andrews to get deep:

To be fair, carrying that route is a tough ask for a curl/flat defender, but that is the job.

Now, if there is good news for the Titans defense facing Lamar Jackson it is two-fold. First, your offense can provide a helping hand. Baltimore’s offense can be dependent upon the game script. If the Titans work out to a big lead and the Ravens need to be more one-dimensional with their plays, then designs such as counter bash and the play-action passing game might not be called as much, and their impact may be diminished. Jackson gaining eight yards on a running play might not move the needle much if the Titans are up 17 in the fourth quarter.

The second is this: Jackson can be hesitant at times with his reads and decisions, particularly against zone coverage. Furthermore, his eyes can lead you to the football. Playing a mobile quarterback often forces defenses to play more zone coverage, as you want to keep eyes on him in the secondary. This dates back to the days of Joe Montana in Super Bowl XVI, when anytime he saw man coverage from the Miami Dolphins – and the backs of players in the secondary running away from him – he was more than willing to tuck and run.

Now watch this play, a straight dropback from Jackson, where the quarterback first flashes his eyes to the left and an in-breaking route from Dez Bryant. Despite the soft cushion – and maybe by design, as this was the first passing play of the game – Jackson works back to the right and tries to throw a corner route to Willie Snead.

But the delay in working from left to right, and eventually making the throw, gives backside DB Breon Borders (now on Injured Reserve) a chance to read the QB’s eyes and break on the ball:

Now, the Ravens almost have a big play here, which Borders prevents with a leaping deflection. Yet you can see how a pass slightly lower becomes not an incompletion, but an interception. There may be opportunities with zone coverage looks to keep eyes on Jackson and create turnovers, should the QB delay as he does here.

So yes, a difficult task awaits Tennessee on Sunday, but not an impossible one.