Losers of six of their last seven games, the Titans (2-6) hand the ball to rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who makes the first road start of his career. The Ravens (5-4), who sit last in the AFC North and have lost consecutive games for the first time this season, shook up their secondary after allowing six touchdown passes to Ben Roethlisberger, cutting cornerbacks Dominique Franks and Chykie Brown and adding Danny Gorrer and Tramain Jacobs.
ESPN Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley take a closer look at the 1 p.m. ET game.
Hensley: The Ravens shut down the run (No. 6 in the NFL) and give up big plays in the passing game. Can the Titans win if they need Mettenberger to carry the offense?
Kuharsky: We don’t know yet. He’s got an NFL arm, and he’s willing to stand in and sling it. If they can protect him and make some catches for him, we’re going to learn a lot over the next eight weeks. But the way the Ravens allow big plays, I would expect Ken Whisenhunt can draw up some things that have a chance can allow Mettenberger to let it rip and make some big plays. Under pressure, I would think he’ll make some mistakes, too. So what’s larger and had the best chance to sway the game, the big plays or the big mistakes?
As far as the Ravens' offense goes, the Titans are quite familiar with Gary Kubiak from his time as head coach in Houston. How has Kubiak altered things for the Ravens?
Hensley: Kubiak has changed the Ravens' passing philosophy, taking them from a vertical team to one that focuses more on the intermediate routes. That has increased Joe Flacco's efficiency (90.7 passer rating, second-best of his career) and decreased the number of sacks (13 in nine games). His zone blocking scheme has made the Ravens the 10th-ranked rushing attack in the league. That's their highest ranking since 2011. The knock on Kubiak in Houston was that he was too predictable. But this is the most balanced offense under coach John Harbaugh. Even though the Ravens have struggled recently on offense, no one can argue with the results. The Ravens went from being the 29th-best offense last season to the ninth-best unit this year.
Speaking of the Ravens' improved ground game, running back Justin Forsett surprisingly is fifth in the NFL in rushing, and the Titans rank 28th in run defense. Are they as bad as the numbers look?
Kuharsky: They aren’t bad every week or all the time, but they certain have stretches where they let backs have too easy a time. They don’t tackle well consistently and there are still times when they aren’t gap sound. Part of that is that they are still adjusting to defensive coordinator Ray Horton's new 3-4. Part of it is that they simply aren’t that good. Rookie inside linebacker Avery Williamson has been a big addition. He brings a bit more size inside and has a thumper mentality that is a must from the spot in this scheme. DeMarco Murray and Arian Foster really ate the Titans up and Ben Tate did too, as the Browns really did well by staying dedicated to the run even when facing a big deficit that they managed to overcome at LP Field.
Baltimore always has the reputation of being a tough defense. But the pass defense ranks 24th and has given up 34 pass plays of 20 yards or more. Quarterbacks have posted a 94 passer rating against the Ravens. How big of an issue is the pass defense?
Hensley: This has been the biggest trouble spot for the Ravens this season. You can chalk up three of the Ravens' four losses to their inability to stop the big pass play. In the season opener, now ex-Ravens cornerback Brown was beaten by A.J. Green for the winning 77-yard touchdown. Two weeks ago, rookie safety Terrence Brooks got turned around on a 53-yard pass to Mohamed Sanu in what became the biggest play in the Bengals' winning drive. And last Sunday night, the Ravens gave up six touchdown passes to Roethlisberger, including a 47-yard score to Markus Wheaton that crushed the Ravens heading into halftime. The secondary will improve once Jimmy Smith (sprained foot) can return in a few weeks. But the Ravens need improved safety play -- whether it's Matt Elam, Darian Stewart, Will Hill or Brooks -- to stop the deep pass.
The Ravens secondary's best friend this season has been the team's pass rush. The Ravens have recorded 15 sacks in the last four games. Elvis Dumervil, who leads the Ravens in sacks, will line up against former Ravens right tackle Michael Oher. Do you foresee a successful homecoming for Oher on Sunday?
Kuharsky: I don’t. Oher has lived up to what you suggested about him when the Titans signed him. He’s simply not that effective and the Titans got the guy you saw last year, not the one who played better earlier in his career. The offensive line is a huge disappointment overall, with the exception of first-rounder Taylor Lewan who will be starting his fourth game since taking over from Michael Roos, who suffered a season-ending knee injury. Pro Football Focus rates Oher as the fourth-worst tackle out of 74 in the NFL. The Titans can get out of his deal after this season having spent $6 million on him and owing him nothing more. His work is telling them that’s what they should do.
How much do the slugfests of the AFC North against other good teams help the Ravens when it comes to facing lesser teams like the Titans?
Hensley: One of coach John Harbaugh's strengths is attention to detail, and he focuses on that when playing the lesser teams. There have only been a few times when a team with a losing record upsets the Ravens, and it's extremely rare at home. It's proven to be that way this season. The Ravens have played three teams with losing records (the Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons), and they've beaten them by a combined score of 115-34. Let's see if that trend continues Sunday against the Titans.