Embarrassed by the fashion in which Tennessee Titans star Derrick Henry shredded their defense for 195 rushing yards in the playoffs this past January, the Baltimore Ravens worked during the offseason to improve their ability to stop the run.
General manager Eric DeCosta traded for 6-foot-8, 300-pound Calais Campbell — a five-time Pro Bowl selection — and signed free agent Derek Wolfe (6-5, 285), with the pair of defensive ends providing a formidable front with big tackle Brandon Williams (6-1, 336).
That trio was supposed to team up against Henry and Tennessee (6-3) on Sunday in the rematch of that divisional round clash, a 28-12 upset that was part of the wild-card Titans' run to the AFC title game. Unfortunately for the Ravens (6-3), injuries to Campbell (calf strain) and Williams (ankle sprain) have forced the Ravens to shift to Plan B.
If Campbell and Williams can't go — both were listed as doubtful on Friday's injury report — Baltimore's defense will have to adopt a next-man-up mentality against Henry, one of the league's most prolific running backs.
"It's a challenge no matter who you have," Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale said. "The way we drafted, the free agents we signed, they need to step up and play their role."
With Wolfe, Justin Ellis and third-round draft pick Justin Madubuike up front last weekend, the New England Patriots racked up 173 rushing yards in a 23-17 win. The competition won't be any easier against Henry, who's closing in on 1,000 yards again and had his fifth 100-yard game of the season in the Titans' most recent outing, a 34-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 12.
Still, Martindale insisted that "the sky has not fallen. We'll be fine and ready to go."
It sure won't be easy.
"You better have your helmet strapped up and get ready for this ride," Ravens safety DeShon Elliot said. "You better be coming downhill and hit him every time."
Even without Campbell and Williams, the Ravens' defense has enough hard hitters and Pro Bowl starters to give the Titans reason for concern.
"Whoever's in there, it's going to be a huge challenge for us to be able to move the football," said Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel, whose team has lost three of its past four games to drop into a first-place tie with Indianapolis in the AFC South.
The Ravens trail the unbeaten Pittsburgh Steelers by three games in the AFC North. The winner of this game gets the edge over the other in playoff seeding and can gain momentum heading into the final six weeks of the regular season.
"We're at that point in the season where teams are going to start separating themselves, and we want to be one of those teams," Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "Things haven't gone in the right direction the past month or so. Nothing catastrophic, but if we don't get things turned around quickly, then we're not going to be in a good position."
The Titans will be missing some key players as they try to get back on track.
Tennessee said Friday that outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, dealing with a knee injury, wouldn't play at Baltimore; on Saturday the team placed him on injured reserve, meaning he must miss at least three games. The injury caused Clowney to miss a 24-17 victory over the Chicago Bears on Nov. 8, though he returned to action four nights later against the Colts.
Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, hasn't recorded a sack since signing with the Titans on Sept. 7.
The Titans also announced Saturday that safety Kenny Vaccaro has been ruled out against the Ravens due to a concussion. A day earlier, Tennessee said left guard Rodger Saffold (ankle), wide receiver Adam Humphries (concussion), cornerback Adoree' Jackson (knee), tight end MyCole Pruitt (knee) and defensive lineman Larrell Murchison (ribs) wouldn't be available at Baltimore.
If a lack of regulars leads to inconsistency for either team, big plays and ball security could be even more crucial. The Ravens and the Titans have feasted on takeaways this season, and the game could hinge on protecting the football.
Tennessee has been very good at it, committing only four turnovers — four fewer than the previous franchise record over the the first nine games — and owning a plus-10 turnover differential this season. Meanwhile, the Ravens had forced a turnover in 21 straight games before coming up empty at New England.
"It's always huge if we can try to win the turnover margin, and obviously take care of the football on our end," Vrabel said. "It doesn't do any good if you're getting turnovers but you're giving it back to them."
Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson had three turnovers in that playoff defeat in January and didn't direct a touchdown drive until the fourth quarter. Asked if he's looking for revenge, the reigning NFL MVP said that playoff game "is over with. We're just going into this game trying to be 7-3. That's all."
The Titans bolted to a 14-0 lead that day, which was part of the reason Jackson ended up throwing 59 passes. Tannehill, in contrast, went 7-for-14 for 88 yards.
Because the Ravens rely heavily on the run, they're far better when playing with a lead than coming from behind.
"That allows them to play to their strengths: run the football and pressure the quarterback; pressure meaning mistakes, interceptions, sacks, long-yardage situation," Vrabel said.
Said Tannehill: "A point of emphasis for us this week is to come out and start the game fast."