NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans faced the ultimate test when they took on the Baltimore Ravens' high-powered offense led by MVP front-runner Lamar Jackson in the divisional round of the playoffs Saturday. They did what few other teams could: They passed.
It wouldn't be right to say the Titans stopped Jackson, because he accounted for 508 yards of total offense. The significant accomplishment was minimizing the explosive plays that lead to touchdowns that Jackson has made a habit of creating.
"They weren't doing anything spectacular out there -- nothing we've never seen before," Jackson said.
How did Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees frustrate the Ravens' offense and help punch the Titans' ticket to the AFC Championship Game?
Force Jackson to move laterally
The Titans wanted to make Jackson run from sideline to sideline rather than get upfield and pick up chunks of yards. They collapsed the interior and rushed with discipline on the outside to minimize escape lanes for Jackson.
"We saw when he [Jackson] gained yards he was getting them between the hashes and the numbers. We defended from number to number and made him go laterally. There weren't big plays," coach Mike Vrabel said after the game.
Safety Kenny Vaccaro said the goal was to string Jackson out toward the sideline to keep him from making spin moves or sudden cuts to make defenders miss. In essence, they cut down the space Jackson had to work with and used the sideline as an extra defender. Pees dialed up stunts and twists up front, resulting in sacks by defensive lineman Jurrell Casey and former Raven Kamalei Correa.
The defensive backs were physical with the receivers at the top of their routes, which helped disrupt the timing and forced Jackson to move around while the defensive front closed in on its target. The safeties -- primarily Kevin Byard -- played top-down coverage to minimize the deep passes Jackson found success with during the regular season.
Jumping to an early lead
Another key for the defense was securing the early 14-0 lead. Both touchdowns came off turnovers, causing Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman to get away from running the football. Jackson attempted 59 passes against the Titans after attempting 40 passes just once during the regular season.
"They forced us out of our comfort zone a little bit," Ravens receiver Miles Boykin said. "We really haven't played a lot from behind. We got down by two touchdowns, and it was kind of hard for us to fight back into the game and stick to our play."
Roman used the rushing attack to generate explosive plays on the ground and in the air via play-action passes during the regular season. The Ravens ran the ball only 29 times on Saturday with some coming from Jackson scrambling. That's a far cry from the Baltimore attack that averaged 206 rushing yards per game and 37.1 attempts, both league highs. The early lead made Roman's playcalling one dimensional and allowed Pees to focus on stopping the pass by using packages that featured more defensive backs.
Fourth-down struggles and turnovers
A critical moment came early in the game, when Byard intercepted a Jackson pass that bounced off the hands of Ravens tight end Mark Andrews, which set up Jonnu Smith's fantastic one-handed touchdown reception to give Tennessee a 7-0 lead.
The Titans forced three turnovers, including an interception by Vaccaro and a sack-strip by Casey.
"It was beautiful," Casey said. "They made a check on the front line, and I kind of knew a pass was coming. I had been beating these guys all day. Coach said, 'We need a turnover,' to make sure we kept the lead, and I was able to execute."
The Titans dominated the trenches throughout the game, especially on fourth down. Baltimore finished the regular season as the NFL's No. 1 fourth-down offense, having converted 17 of their 24 attempts (70.8%) -- including 8-for-8 on fourth-and-1 attempts. On Saturday, the Ravens went 0-for-4 converting fourth downs, including two fourth-and-1 plays.
"They like, submarined and kind of took our legs out, and we could not get any movement on the line of scrimmage," guard Marshal Yanda said of the Ravens' first failed fourth-and-1 attempt. "They did a good job of submarining and not letting us get any movement on them."
Next up: Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes
The Titans go from facing the likely 2019 MVP in Jackson to preparing for the 2018 MVP in Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday (3:05 p.m. ET, CBS). Like Jackson, Mahomes is capable of picking up chunks of yards with his legs and creating explosive plays. However, the strategy will change against the Chiefs and their prolific passing attack (Mahomes ranked No. 7 in the NFL during the regular season with 287.9 yards per game. In Sunday's comeback win over the Houston Texans, Mahomes threw for 321 yards and five TDs. Pees will have to focus more on the passing game this week than last.
The Chiefs can attack defenses a variety of ways. Speedy wideout Tyreek Hill is a threat to score any time he has the ball. Tight end Travis Kelce has been able to dominate while being isolated on the backside of plays.
Mahomes finished with 446 passing yards and three touchdowns when the Titans beat the Chiefs in Week 10. Mahomes was returning from a knee injury that kept him sidelined for two games, but he still completed 72% of his 50 pass attempts.
Perhaps the best form of defense for the Titans in that game was running back Derrick Henry pacing the offense with 188 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Going to a ball-control offense that keeps Mahomes off the field should be the focus Sunday.