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Ravens film study: Why a clean pocket mattered for QB Lamar Jackson, and a surprise standout on defense

To understand the state of the Ravens’ offensive line, start at the end of Monday night’s season opener. They ran just five plays in overtime. None looked all that pretty.

First, there was a throwaway on a play-action bootleg that fooled not one Las Vegas Raiders linebacker. Then a check-down from Lamar Jackson, whom defensive end Maxx Crosby crunched as the quarterback found wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Then a short carry from running back Latavius Murray on which two blockers lost near the line of scrimmage. Then an incompletion despite a clean pocket, with the ball jarred loose from tight end Mark Andrews just as he turned upfield.

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The dagger in the Ravens’ 33-27 loss came next. Jackson dropped back on third-and-7 with a six-man protection scheme. The Raiders sent five pass rushers after him. Defensive end Carl Nassib got lost in the presnap shuffle. By the time right tackle Alejandro Villanueva looked to his right for an outside rusher, Nassib was by him. Ty’Son Williams didn’t pick him up right away, either. Nassib pinballed off the running back and into Jackson, knocking the ball free. The Raiders recovered. Two plays later, they were celebrating a comeback victory inside Allegiant Stadium.

“If you’re a quarterback, you’re trying to go through your progressions, and guys [are] in your face, they’re trying to get them a sack, it’s going to be like that,” Jackson said. “Sometimes you can’t go through your reads.”

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It was telling that the even-keeled Jackson acknowledged even a smidge of frustration. For four-plus quarters Monday, pass protection had been a problem. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the Raiders pressured Jackson on 54.5% of his drop-backs, their highest single-game pressure rate in the five-plus years NGS has tracked data.

Maybe most glaring for the Ravens, Las Vegas didn’t need a lot of help to knock Jackson off his spots. According to Pro Football Focus, Nassib’s sack came on just the Raiders’ second blitz all night. (Their first took Jackson down, too.) On one end of the line, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue finished with six quarterback pressures against left tackle and former teammate Ronnie Stanley, still finding his footing after a season-ending ankle injury last season. On the other end, Crosby had nine pressures against Villanueva, who’s struggled adjusting to life on a new side of the line.

When the Ravens kept Jackson clean Monday, good results followed. On 21 clean drop-backs, according to PFF, he was 13-for-18 for 170 yards, with three scrambles. But on his 18 pressured drop-backs, he attempted only 12 passes, completing six for 65 yards and a touchdown. He scrambled three times and was sacked three times.

Jackson also struggled on quick-strike throws. On his 14 drop-backs with under 2.5 seconds in the pocket, according to PFF, he was just 6-for-14 for 32 yards. His 25 drop-backs with more than 2.5 seconds in the pocket were more of a mixed bag, with good passing production (13-for-16 for 203 yards and one touchdown) and worrisome pass protection (14 pressures and three sacks allowed).

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With Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones in dominant form and defensive end Frank Clark poised to return from injury in Week 2, the Ravens’ line will have to get right without injured left guard Tyre Phillips (knee), who was placed on injured reserve Wednesday. Kansas City allowed 5.9 yards per carry in a Week 1 win over the Cleveland Browns, but the Ravens’ inconsistent run blocking could stifle their hopes for a big ground game Sunday night.

Dazzling debut

Odafe Oweh’s rookie season was always going to be hard to project. He left Penn State with just seven sacks over three seasons, including none in a seven-game 2020. He left his pro day with first-round measurables: a 4.37-second 40-yard dash, a 39 ½-inch vertical leap, a chiseled 6-foot-5 frame. He left the Ravens’ preseason without the kind of pass-rush production he’d stacked early in training camp.

But in his NFL debut, Oweh might have been the Ravens’ best pass rusher. He finished with a team-high five quarterback pressures on 29 pass-rush snaps (17.2%), according to NGS, more than twice as many pressures as runners-up Justin Houston and Pernell McPhee (two apiece). His first career sack came late in the second quarter, denying a potential touchdown pass from quarterback Derek Carr and nearly forcing a fumble before an eventual Raiders field goal.

Even more impressive, Oweh had taken the scenic route to get to Carr. After widening his pass-rush arc to disrupt nearby tight end Darren Waller’s route, he tried to deke past rookie right tackle Alex Leatherwood with a chop (a swat of a lineman’s hands) and rip (an uppercut-like maneuver used to slide past a lineman). When that didn’t work, Oweh spun back inside and chased down the scrambling Carr. When he finally got there, Oweh’s celebration was muted. He didn’t dance. He was fine with attaboys from teammates.

“Relentless motor, high effort, speed,” Campbell said of Oweh, who led all rookie defenders in Week 1 quarterback pressures, according to PFF. “He has a bright future, and he has to keep making plays like that to give ourselves a chance to win. But he can’t even celebrate it, because when you lose a game like that, that sack doesn’t really matter.

“But he knows that; it’s just one of those things where you’re happy for him and you want to see him continue to develop and make his plays. … We tease him a lot, too, because last year, he didn’t have any sacks in college. We gave him a hard time, but now we can’t talk about it [anymore]. He earned that right. But it would have been much better with a win, though.”

Trend watch

As the first defensive coordinator for the “Legion of Boom”-era Seattle Seahawks, Gus Bradley didn’t mind conservative game plans. He trusted his athletic secondary to hold up in Cover 3 zone schemes (three deep-lying defensive backs, four underneath defenders), his front four to get to the quarterback and his second-level defenders to execute their run fits. In 2011 and 2012, Bradley’s last two years in Seattle, the Seahawks had a top-10 defense, according to Football Outsiders.

Bradley’s reliance on Cover 3 has waxed and waned over the last decade, during stops with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Los Angeles Chargers and now the Raiders. Every time he faces Jackson, though, he seems to go back to his most famous roots.

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In 2018, the Ravens faced Bradley’s Chargers defense twice in three weeks. In a Week 16 road win, Jackson faced Cover 3 looks on 42.9% of his drop-backs and blitzes on 21.4% overall, according to Sports Info Solutions. In a wild-card-round loss in Baltimore, the Chargers’ Cover 3 rate jumped to 52.5%, and their blitz rate fell to 7.5%.

On Monday, Jackson’s third encounter with Bradley, the Raiders’ defense was even less diverse in coverage and nearly as conservative in its pass rush. According to ESPN, the Raiders ran Cover 3 on 70% of Jackson’s drop-backs, tied for the fourth-highest rate in a game since 2018. And according to NGS, Jackson was blitzed just 9.1% of the time.

In a copycat league, Bradley’s game plan could serve as a beacon for opposing defensive coordinators.

Extra points

>> Cornerback Tavon Young had a forgettable opener in his first game in nearly a year. Targeted six times in coverage, he allowed five completions for 54 yards, according to NGS. He was also twice called for defensive pass interference, the second a questionable 32-yard infraction on a middle-of-the-field shot to wide receiver Bryan Edwards midway through the third quarter.

Young played in just one of the Raiders’ final five drives, appearing for four snaps. He finished with 25 defensive snaps overall, fewer than cornerback Chris Westry (33) and rookie defensive back Brandon Stephens (25). Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said last month that Young, who tore his ACL in Week 2 last season, was still “callousing up, so to speak,” as he approached Week 1.

>> The Ravens made a concerted effort this offseason to improve their play-action production, partly by introducing more under-center looks. It seemed to pay off. With play fakes holding the Raiders’ pass rush at bay, Jackson was 10-for-13 for 147 yards and no sacks on 15 drop-backs, according to Pro Football Focus. On his 24 drop-backs without play-action, Jackson was 9-for-17 for 88 yards and a touchdown, and was sacked three times.

Carr, meanwhile, had just three play-action opportunities. Don’t expect the Chiefs to undervalue them as much as the Raiders did. Nearly a third of quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ 36 attempts Sunday against the Cleveland Browns came off play-action.

>> In the first half, the Ravens’ Williams rushed seven times for 64 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown. In the second, he had just two carries for 1 yard. What changed?

At his postgame news conference, Harbaugh wasn’t asked specifically about playing time, but he said Williams “did a great job out there.” Still, there were missed connections with Jackson. In the second quarter, a bumbled exchange on a zone-read run led to a fumble, which Jackson recovered. In the third quarter, Jackson missed Williams in the flat, leading him too far upfield on an open third-and-5 pass.

>> The Ravens blitzed Carr on 35.6% of his 59 drop-backs. While he was sacked three times, Carr was pressured on just 20.3% of his drop-backs, according to NGS.

Week 2

CHIEFS@RAVENS

Sunday, 8:20 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

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