In the NFL, the quarterback is king, and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh on Wednesday likened protecting his to a game of chess in the trenches, with offensive linemen and running backs sliding like chess pieces to stymie attacks from opponents and keep quarterback Joe Flacco from getting sacked.
Through nine games, though, the Ravens have lost too many of these battles. Flacco was sacked five times on Sunday. Opposing defenses have now put Flacco in checkmate 30 times, third most in the league.
Twenty of those sacks came when opponents sent five or more rushers, according to Pro Football Focus.
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“Pass protection is not a simple thing -- by design. Pressures are always built that way. If you look around the league, you are going to see that it’s tough picking up blitzes,” Harbaugh said. “We’re doing a good job against the four-man rushes. We’ve got to do a better job against the [blitz] pressures.”
The offensive line is allowing an average of 14 total pressures per game, according to Pro Football Focus, and a big chunk of those have come when opponents blitzed them. But everyone who spoke with reporters on Wednesday -- Harbaugh, Flacco, some of the linemen themselves -- made sure to point out that blitz pickup was an offense-wide issue.
“That’s spread out,” Harbaugh said. “It is about being on the same page and picking up the pressures when they make them complicated for you. When they attack a protection where you can’t pick everybody up, then we’ve got to get the ball out to the right guy. … That’s not always the case.”
Right guard Marshal Yanda also feels the struggles with pass protection can be attributed to a combination of things. While he admitted the offensive linemen need to do a better job of “getting on the right guys” and not missing blocks, he also said it is also on the wide receivers and tight ends to get open and Flacco to get the ball out on time. The running backs also must hold their ground when staying in to pass protect.
“Sometimes it was a missed block or a missed blitz pickup where we didn't pick up the right guys or they brought too many and we got to throw hot,” the veteran guard said.
Added left tackle Eugene Monroe: “You can't just single out the offensive line. The entire offense plays a part in every play. You have to look at it and see where it came from, how it happened. The ones that are on the offensive line, we'll correct those mistakes. All sacks are accounted for on the entire group unless you just get beat one-on-one.”
Flacco has been blitzed on 148 of his dropbacks this season, according to Pro Football Focus. He has completed 54.8 percent of his attempts for 724 yards and six touchdowns on those plays. But he has also thrown three interceptions while averaging just 5.7 yards per attempt against the blitz.
That blitzing was more prevalent the last two games, when their opponents sent five or more rushers on 44.4 percent of Flacco’s dropbacks. The Cleveland Browns blitzed him on 18 of his 48 dropbacks, sacking him four times on blitzes. The Cincinnati Bengals blitzed him on 22 of 42 with four sacks.
“Teams are coming after us a little bit, and we’re kind of letting them,” said Flacco, who had at least one long sack Sunday. “We’re not really doing anything to combat it. We haven’t been good enough to stop it and do other things to get them out of it. It makes those guys’ jobs tough up front. Teams have been able to get enough guys up in there to cause a little bit of confusion, and that’s been the biggest issue.”
With a 109.8 pass rating against the blitz in the loss to the Browns, Flacco often made them pay for their aggressiveness. But the Bengals game was another story. Flacco threw both of his interceptions while being blitzed and completed just nine of his 18 attempts for 69 yards, one touchdown and a 38.7 passer rating.
The Ravens can combat some of these blitzes by beating aggressive defenses with draws and screen plays. The draws have been ineffective, the screens nonexistent.
“The biggest thing is we’ve got to be good in the stuff that we do,” Flacco said. “We’ve got to hit them with stuff that makes it hurt. [Opponents are] going to put guys up in there, [they’re] going to double-mug guys and [they’re] going to bring guys off the edge. [They’re] going to do all these things. [They’re] going to play one-on-one coverage. We’ve got to make it hurt, and we just haven’t been good enough to really have teams feel the effect.”
More often than not, it has been the Ravens offense -- specifically Flacco’s rib cage -- that has felt the effect.
In a season where a number of starting quarterbacks, including Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears, have gone down with injuries, Flacco, one of the NFL’s most durable quarterbacks, is still standing. But with every missed blitz pickup, Flacco, the chessboard king, is again put at risk. The Ravens know that can’t continue.
“I know we can do it,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve got a good scheme. We’ve got smart guys.”