When Ryan Tannehill became their starting quarterback, the Tennessee Titans became a different team.
Ending Tennessee's run with Tannehill is the Ravens' goal heading into Saturday night's divisional playoff game. After starting the season 2-4, the Titans are one of the NFL's hottest teams – 8-3 since Tannehill replaced Marcus Mariota as the starter in Week 7.
Tannehill isn't the spectacular player that Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is, but his style works for the Titans. He has been accurate, completing 70.3 percent of his passes during the regular season. He has rarely turned over the ball, ending the regular season with 22 touchdown passes and just six interceptions.
Meanwhile, Tannehill has been helped enormously by running back Derrick Henry, who has rushed for at least 100 yards in six of his last seven starts. Against the Patriots, Tannehill completed just 8 of 15 passes for 72 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Yet, Tennessee rolled to a 20-13 victory behind Henry, who was a bulldozer with 182 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries.
Ravens Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas looks at Saturday's game this way. Stopping Henry is the key to stopping Tannehill.
"If Tannehill tries to pass on us, I don't think that will go in their favor," Thomas said. "We know they're going to try to run the ball. But we just have to stop the run and play sound on the back end. I think that will take care of the play-action pass."
When Tannehill does pass, it's often after a play-action fake to Henry. The threat of Henry running the football forces linebackers, defensive linemen and safeties to honor him until they're sure he doesn't have the football.
That gives Tannehill extra time to throw and receivers extra time to work routes. Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh expects to Tannehill to use play-action frequently on Saturday.
"They're a big play-action, boot, a movement team," Harbaugh said. "Ryan Tannehill has done just an excellent job with that. It's been schemed up really well. It starts with the run game, of course. The run game is what makes all that go."
Tannehill has also excelled against the blitz, which is an interesting aspect of Saturday's matchup. The Ravens blitzed more than any team in the NFL this season and facing Tannehill is unlikely to change Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale's aggressive approach.
The Ravens may be the league's most creative blitzing teams, bringing extra rushers at any time like inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor, cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr, and safeties Thomas and Clark.
However, blitzing against Tannehill this season hasn't always led to stopping him. Including the Patriots game, Tannehill has completed 63 of 97 passes against blitz pressure this season (64.9 percent ) for 791 yards, seven touchdowns and just two interceptions, with a passer rating of 105.7. Tannehill's success against the blitz has been a major part of him becoming a better quarterback than he was with the Miami Dolphins.
"It's an extremely aggressive defense," Tannehill said. "That's going to be a key for us this week is being clean on all those things and try to take advantage of some opportunities that are there when they do pressure."
Tannehill has also been outstanding in the red zone, using his mobility to extend plays and giving receivers more times to get open. The Titans offense is the only unit that has scored touchdowns more often in the red zone this year than the Ravens. Arm strength was never an issue with Tannehill, but at age 31, he has found a comfort zone as a quarterback in an offense that plays to his strengths.
"The thing that I see that he does well is how efficient he is in the red zone because he can extend plays with his feet. Here we go again, talking about those types of quarterbacks," Martindale said. "He's playing at a high level."
The Ravens would love to contain Henry and put Tannehill in positions where he must throw to keep Tennessee's offense on the field. Tennessee is 0-2 this season when Tannehill throws the ball 30 times or more. That's more evidence that stopping the running game will play a large role in Baltimore's ability to stop Tannehill.
"The key to stopping play action is stopping the run game," Thomas said. "I think when the run game gets going, that's when the play action shot's available, because the defense is so aggressive trying to stop the run. So, if we knock that out from the start, I think we'll be fine."