The Bills dropped their fourth game of the season to the red-hot Baltimore Ravens, 24-17. The Ravens rode into New Era Field with an eight-game win streak and AFC bragging rights on the line and out-played the home team for the better part of the afternoon. The visiting team expected “a very loud crowd, very enthusiastic crowd, very knowledgeable crowd, but even beyond that the football team is really good,” stated Head Coach John Harbaugh after the game. Unfortunately for Bills fans, the colleague of Head Coach Sean McDermott quieted the crowd and walked out of the stadium with the win.
Sluggish Start for Josh Allen
Sluggish is probably an understatement, seeing as how the Bills’ offense has averaged 401 yards over the last three games but only mustered 74 net yards in the first half. But the Ravens’ veteran-led defense did a number on the second-year quarterback. Defensive Coordinator Don Martindale rolled out a super aggressive game plan meant to fluster QB Josh Allen, and it worked as designed. Martindale blitzed 67% of Allen’s dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus (PFF), which led to six sacks. Four of the six sacks came in the first half, almost in Belichick-ian fashion, by “heating” the young QB up early to screw up his internal clock. “I think that sometimes that’s a misconception that we blitz all the time,” corner Marlon Humphrey told reporters after the game, “but today we definitely, definitely, blitzed a lot.”
The consistent five- and six- and even sometimes seven-man pressures in the first half put the offensive line, tight ends, and running backs 1-on-1 so often, which made it very difficult for Allen to stand tall on the spot. The offense had zero answers to the pressures early on, so the defense continued to bring the heat. The only opportunities via play call or execution that may have halted the onslaught of purple defenders driving Allen into the turf were a couple of deep shots that Allen missed on the first few drives. On 3rd-and-4, the Bills sent a 3×1 bunch set to the wide side of the field and ran WR Isaiah McKenzie to the flats, WR Cole Beasley into the hook-to-curl area, and sent WR John Brown on a deep crossing pattern (Spot concept variation). Allen looked quickly to the flats but saw the safety, Brandon Carr, playing over the top, so Allen decided to launch it deep but threw it too far up-field when Brown appeared to be streaking across the field towards the boundary. “The wind took the ball, that wasn’t on him,” stated Brown, “If anything, I’d say it was on me.” Either way, it was another missed opportunity that may have taken some of the gunpowder out of “Wink” Martindale’s 12 gauge.
The Bills went 3-for-10 in the first half, and a lot of that had to do with the Ravens sending an extra man at Allen. While Allen has flourished in the short area this season, a lot of the passing concepts on the first few drives were down the field. On the second drive for the Bills on 3rd-and-12, the Ravens sent a six-man pressure at Allen, but the QB stood in the pocket and targeted WR Robert Foster 35 yards down the field on a levels concept. The Bills got a favorable matchup against the safety, Carr, but Allen and Foster weren’t on the same page. Allen looked to throw Foster down the field more, whereas Foster broke flat to the sideline on the top-down read by Allen on the three-level concept.
The same thing happened on the Bills’ third drive out of an empty set. The offense ran a smash concept by sending TE Dawson Knox, who was aligned in the slot to the corner, and a stop route by RB Devin Singletary, who was aligned outside. Knox used his physicality to throw CB Jimmy Smith and separate, but Allen was unable to drop it in the bucket to his tight end. “We were behind the defense on a few plays there, and just didn’t connect,” Daboll stated on Monday.
“I have to do a better job finding completions early on,” Allen stated. Daboll confirmed those struggles by Allen when he said that “if you (Allen) got read one and read one is open, go ahead and give it to him.” These struggles by the staff and young QB led to several three-and-outs.
The Ravens consistently stacked the line of scrimmage, sometimes purposely leaving the middle of the field wide open, daring Allen to throw it there, but he just wasn’t comfortable doing so. When defenses stack the line of scrimmage or show amoeba looks, Allen struggles to process the underneath coverage post-snap, which can cause him to hold the ball or tend to throw outside the numbers.
It wasn’t until right around the six-minute mark of the second quarter that Allen began to convert some passes on third down against the Ravens’ pressure. The Ravens sent a creeper pressure (three defensive linemen + linebacker) at him on 3rd-and-4. Allen sidestepped the defensive tackle, who had beaten LT Dion Dawkins, and found Beasley on the outside, who was 1-on-1 with CB Smith. On the next drive, you can hear someone yell out “0” prior to the snap, alerting the offense that the Ravens were in Cover 0. Allen went on to hit Beasley on the outside this time as Cole ran a speed out to the near boundary. A 14-yard stutter-drag route by Beasley on 3rd-and-17 set up kicker Stephen Hausckha for a 47-yard field goal, and a little confidence started to build on offense.
After trying to go deep on their first offensive play of the second half, Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll busted out a WR screen to McKenzie, which gained 24 yards against a five-man pressure and then a strike to Brown on a whip route/dig combination for 18-yards on the very next play. The drive ended in another long field goal as Knox dropped his eighth pass of the year on a nice scramble by Allen.
Then came Beasley’s turn to let Allen down on 3rd-and-5, when Allen really needed some completions. Allen spun out and away from the six-man pressure, rolled left, and led Beasley up the field. Beasley separated from Humphrey after running a flat route but was unable to corral the soft pass from his QB. Singletary followed up with a drop later, as he let the ball get into his chest when he had at least an 8-yard cushion from the safety.
One of the major trends this year on the defensive side of the ball is to run Cover 0. It’s defensive coordinators’ ways of combating the long ball, but it is especially effective against young quarterbacks. Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen saw their share of these pressure looks on Sunday and on the season. According to offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, Allen saw 16 blitz zeroes on Sunday, which is an astronomical number and when you look at these numbers below, you will see why the Ravens chose that approach.
As you can see, Jackson has seen the most Cover 0 in the league and he has flourished. He’s really flourished against blitz and pressure across the board, but he has been able to find the proper targets when teams have decided to send this look at him.
Jackson took a sack on 3rd-and-long against the Bills’ version of Cover 0, then later threw an interception even when Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman gave him a route underneath to combat the blitz. Some screens and a blown coverage later forced the Bills to lighten up their aggressive plan. The 61-yard touchdown to TE Hayden Hurst was a miscommunication between safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde. It was Cover 0 with Poyer taking the #3 receiver. Hyde thought they were pattern-matching the release, whereas Poyer thought he was locked on the receiver, but then mid-play realized that he should have matched Hurst over the middle, and by then it was too late. Jackson anticipated the pressure and threw it to a spot as he was hit. It was a game-changing play and the type of play that can force a defensive coordinator to change his tune.
The Ravens did let up on some of the pressure looks early in the second half, choosing to show blitz but then bluff and drop into coverage for a good portion of the third and fourth quarter against Allen. They then dared Allen to take shots down the field from the pocket late on their final drive. On the final two plays, the Ravens showed Cover 0 looks. On 3rd-and-8, the offensive line blew the protection and let safety Chuck Clark shoot the A-gap untouched. Luckily, Allen was able to throw the pass deep and incomplete. The Bills then lined up for 4th down, got a glance at the Ravens’ defense, which was showing Cover 0, then called a timeout. The Ravens came out and once again showed Cover 0, so Allen found his best matchup, Brown vs. Peters. Brown stated the route was a “shake-and-move,” towards the middle of the field.” It was a “great throw by Josh,” Brown stated after the game “and a great play by the defender.”
Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll has to do a better job of building in outlets to get the ball out of Allen’s hands quickly. “You try to make sure what you’re putting together and what you’re executing is the right stuff,” Daboll stated on Monday. But Allen has to pull the trigger on the short routes over the middle, even if a defensive back is squatting a few yards off the receiver. If there aren’t better blitz-beater routes or screens built into the offense, Allen is going to struggle against the blitz. It will severely limit his ability to scramble and create explosive plays with his legs and limit the running game overall because the defense will be sending blitzes into run calls.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for Allen’s issues against these looks this season. In this game, I think the chunk plays early-on, were called to offset the pressure early, simply didn’t work. Was it aggressive? Yes, but it was an attempt to get the Bills up early to get the Ravens out of their run game. If Allen connects on 1-2 of those passes, Martindale likely has to reduce the pressure. Instead, the Ravens kept the pedal to the metal and it forced the Bills to keep their tight ends and running backs into block instead of out in routes, which in turn allowed those Ravens defenders to insert as rushers, and it flustered Allen all day.