Attacking Ravens' secondary might be Titans' primary goal

Ravens have fared well vs. potent passing teams

Ravens / Titans

Afc Wild - Card Game

January 02, 2004|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

Though the Ravens haven't given up on the idea that the Titans will try to establish the run in their playoff game tomorrow, chances are Tennessee will lean on its strong passing in attacking the Ravens' defense.

Tennessee is fifth in the NFL in passing (242 yards a game) and 26th in rushing (101.4 yards). The rushing average is the lowest in running back Eddie George's eight-year career.

Because the Titans have struggled running the football and they do not use fullbacks, quarterback Steve McNair has taken more snaps in the shotgun with multiple-receiver sets in the earlier downs the past two seasons than he has his whole career previously.

In previous years, that may not have been a bad idea against the Ravens. Teams found a degree of success in spreading out the Ravens and throwing downfield, but such a strategy this season plays right into one of the defense's strengths.

The Ravens have forced some of the worst showings of the year from three out of the four teams that finished in the top 10 in passing in the NFL.

Kansas City (second in the NFL in passing), St. Louis (third) and San Francisco (10th) all threw for less than 160 yards against the Ravens, with many of the attempts coming from spread receiver formations. Only Seattle (seventh) had success, throwing for 293 yards and five touchdowns in a game that looks like it can now be written off as an aberration.

"We've had to do it all year long," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "Seattle was a three-wide team, San Francisco always mixed it, Cincinnati is, Cleveland is. Most everybody has a three-wide package.

"We weren't very good against Seattle, but everybody else, pretty good. You can do the math yourself. None of them did too hot. And I'm not trying to sound arrogant, but we'll take what they give and try to stop it. Our guys have a lot of confidence. We're not bad. We're capable of playing, and we've proven that for 16 weeks."

The Ravens finished fourth against the pass, giving up 175.3 yards a game. The defense has held opponents below that average in four of the past five games.

"We are in the top six of every defensive category in the league," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We are the only team that can say that, so whatever a team wants to do, we feel like we are well-manned to go up against the challenge."

The Ravens have proven that the second half of the season. Since Gary Baxter shifted permanently to cornerback and Will Demps was inserted in his place at safety over the past five games, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna's 76.5 rating is the highest against the Ravens' defense.

Pittsburgh's Tommy Maddox and San Francisco's Jeff Garcia posted quarterback ratings of 22.4 and 18.8, respectively.

"I think they may try to spread us out a bit, but we aren't going to get caught up in that too much," cornerback Corey Fuller said. "We're going to do whatever it takes to win the game."

Fuller, who started the first half of the season and is now the nickel (fifth) defensive back, and dime (sixth) back Chad Williams have been major reasons for the pass defense's success.

The defense's play has not fallen when those two enter the game, a luxury many teams do not have. Both may play as much as half the snaps against the Titans.

"It's a nice feeling," Nolan said of having Fuller and Williams. "You can't fear getting into something because your personnel drops off. But we also play a lot of base [coverage]. Within our scheme, one of the great advantages is you can stay base on three and four receivers. But on second- or third-and-real long, we'll get into the matchup game with them."

It is a matchup game the Ravens have fared well in recently, and one they are expecting to have to go to early and often against the Titans.

"We're going in with the mind-set that this is going to be a pass-scale [pass-oriented] game," Baxter said. "They are not going to try and trick us and run the ball. We know their dimension, and they are going to try and pass the ball. So as DBs, you've got to be prepared for that."

However, the Ravens still see a team that can, and will if it has the chance, pound the ball on the ground.

"Last week, they went to three receivers against Tampa Bay, but they pounded them with the run at the same time and Tampa couldn't stop it," Nolan said. "They were probably a 50-50 run-pass ratio."

That, though, came in a game McNair sat out, and that ratio will likely lean more heavily toward the pass with McNair back and George averaging just 60.7 yards on the ground in 13 games against the Ravens.

Game data

Matchup: Tennessee Titans (12-4) vs. Ravens (10-6)

Site: M&T Bank Stadium

When: Tomorrow, 4:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 2, 7/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Titans by 1

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