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Ravens film study: How the defense stifled Chargers QB Justin Herbert, why WR Rashod Bateman fits in well and more

Every AFC West quarterback the Ravens have faced this season has induced a certain strain of stress. The Las Vegas Raiders’ Derek Carr was the season-opening unknown. The Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes is maybe the NFL’s most gifted passer. The Denver Broncos’ Teddy Bridgewater was among the league’s most accurate starters in September.

And then there was the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert, the Ravens’ Week 6 test. He was blessed not only with a rocket arm — Ravens coach John Harbaugh’s data told him that Herbert throws the NFL’s second-fastest fastball — but also a coach who would not let defenses off the hook. If the Chargers faced third-and-long, Herbert could get them out of trouble. And if a fourth-down conversion were within reach, Brandon Staley wouldn’t hesitate to give his offense the green light.

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In Baltimore, the Chargers’ well-oiled attack ran into trouble over and over. In a 34-6 loss Sunday, they finished with season lows in passing yards (182), rushing yards (26) and total yards (208). Herbert finished 22-for-39 for 195 passing yards, a touchdown and an interception; his 67.8 passer rating was his lowest of the season.

The Chargers’ problem, though, was not so much their early-down struggles. Over their first five games, they’d averaged 5.5 yards per play on first and second downs. Against the Ravens, that rate fell off by less than a yard, to 4.8 per play.

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Where Herbert and the Chargers faltered most Sunday were on late downs. On third downs, they’d averaged 7.3 yards per play entering Week 6. The Ravens held them to 2.3 yards per play and stopped nine of their 12 conversion attempts. On fourth downs, the Chargers went from averaging 9 yards per play to 0.5 yards per play. None of their four fourth-down attempts moved the chains.

Herbert said afterward that Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale surprised the Chargers with “a lot of looks that we didn’t see on film.” More often than not, the Ravens were able to dictate terms on late downs. Even when Herbert had a clean pocket, he rarely had a favorable matchup. Here’s how the 10 third- and fourth-down opportunities the Chargers had through the game’s first three quarters unfolded:

  1. Third-and-11: Against a three-man rush, Herbert finds tight end Jared Cook at the sticks for an 11-yard completion against safety Brandon Stephens.
  2. Third-and-10: The Chargers try to burn the Ravens with another first-quarter screen pass, but safety Chuck Clark is wise to the play and gets in Herbert’s throwing window for a near-interception.
  3. Third-and-5: The Ravens get to Herbert for their first sack of the game. Running back Austin Ekeler doesn’t pick up safety DeShon Elliott, who comes unblocked off the right side.
  4. Third-and-5: Herbert works through his reads and finds wide receiver Mike Williams on a shallow crossing pattern. But Williams bobbles the ball, and inside linebacker Josh Bynes separates him forcefully from any chance of regaining control.
  5. Third-and-3: Elliott comes after Herbert again, this time on a “simulated” pressure, and Ekeler and Herbert appear to have another miscommunication. As Ekeler runs an in-breaking route out wide against cornerback Marlon Humphrey, Herbert throws as if he’s expecting Ekeler to run a hitch route. Humphrey comes closer to an interception than Ekeler does to a reception.
  6. Fourth-and-3: The Ravens send five pass rushers after Herbert, who goes after Humphrey again, now defending a quick-hitting hitch route. Herbert’s throw is high and hard, and Williams can’t separate from Humphrey quickly enough to get both hands on the ball.
  7. Third-and-7: The Chargers go no-huddle and catch the Ravens disorganized. Herbert, facing only a four-man rush, finds wide receiver Josh Palmer for an 8-yard completion and first down.
  8. Third-and-2: Defensive tackle Brandon Williams knocks back left guard Matt Feiler, helping to clog a cut-back lane, then tackles Ekeler after just a 1-yard gain.
  9. Fourth-and-1: The Ravens send a Cover 0 blitz after Herbert, who misses Palmer by a few feet on a hitch route defended by — who else? — Humphrey.
  10. Third-and-10: The Ravens ease up on the pressure, leaving Herbert to sort through a congested zone defense. He tries to fit a throw over the middle, but Elliott’s solid coverage denies Cook, who can’t get more than a hand on the pass.

“We knew we were going to be playing four downs,” Elliott said Sunday. “It wasn’t going to be three-and-out and off the field; it was going to be four-and-out. And we were like, ‘We need to create more turnovers, get them off the field.’ [When] we get off the field, we can give Lamar [Jackson] and our offense a better chance, and so that gives us a better chance to win the game.”

Fitting in

Rookie wide receiver Rashod Bateman’s busy Sunday revealed not only how long he could go in his long-awaited NFL debut (pretty long) but also how well he might fit in the Ravens’ passing game (pretty well).

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With Bateman having missed the season’s first five weeks while recovering from groin surgery, offensive coordinator Greg Roman cautioned Thursday that the Ravens would not “throw him into the fire for every play.” But the first-round pick ultimately got 45 of the Ravens’ 69 offensive snaps against the Chargers, finishing with four catches — all of which moved the chains — on six targets for 29 yards.

The only wide receiver who played more Sunday was Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (51 snaps), whose synergy with Bateman was obvious throughout. On five of Bateman’s six targets, Brown had either lined up on the same side of the formation or was motioning to Bateman’s side before the snap.

Brown’s field-stretching speed could make life easy for Bateman, a smooth route runner, on short and intermediate pass concepts. According to Sports Info Solutions, 269 of Bateman’s 472 receiving yards and 30 of his 36 catches last season at Minnesota came on passes between 5 and 15 air yards downfield. Against the Chargers, Bateman’s six targets came on four short- to intermediate-route types: one dig, one out, one slant and three curls.

As he’s integrated into the offense, Bateman could carve out similar space for Brown. The Minnesota product ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash in the predraft process, a speed that often showed up during his breakout 2019 season in Minneapolis. Lining up primarily as an outside receiver, he had 12 catches of at least 20 air yards. Only Golden Gophers teammate Tyler Johnson (13) had more in the Big Ten Conference that season.

There were some hiccups Sunday, Harbaugh acknowledged. Bateman’s fourth-quarter drop led to Jackson’s second interception. There was also room for improvement on his assignments and alignments.

“But he made the catches he had to make — until the end, so we’ll keep reminding him of that one,” Harbaugh joked. “But I thought he played really well. It wasn’t too big for him. He handled the speed of the game just fine. So it’s a really good start.”

Queen moves

Two years ago, Patrick Queen rose to stardom as a weak-side inside linebacker for LSU, primarily lining up on the side of the field where the fewest offensive players were. When he arrived in Baltimore, he moved over to middle linebacker, aligning mostly on the strong side.

With Queen’s recent struggles, and those of fellow inside linebacker Malik Harrison, the Ravens turned to Josh Bynes at middle linebacker Sunday. Queen, meanwhile, returned to his old weak-side spot, where he’s also lined up at times for the Ravens.

The shakeup seemed to get the best out of both players. Bynes finished with a team-high-tying six tackles, including one for loss, and was active in coverage. He also brought a sense of order before the snap. “I thought Josh did a really nice job with just calming things down,” Harbaugh said Monday.

A minor thigh injury limited Queen to just 19 snaps, but he finished with three tackles and appeared more instinctive in his reads, both against the run and the pass. According to Pro Football Focus, Queen graded out as the NFL’s third-best off-ball linebacker in Week 6.

“I think he played with confidence,” Harbaugh said of Queen. “The pressure was off him just a little bit with some of the calls that have to be made in there, and it freed him up a little bit. But OK, next week is a new week. Let’s keep improving.”

Week 7

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BENGALS@RAVENS

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Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 6 1/2

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