Three of the Ravens’ biggest pass plays this season have at least this much in common: No one bothered to guard the wide receiver running downfield.
In Week 2, it was Marquise “Hollywood” Brown who was left unmarked as he ran a vertical route against the Kansas City Chiefs on a 42-yard jump-pass touchdown from quarterback Lamar Jackson.
In Week 4, it was James Proche II who had an unbothered path across the field on a 32-yard catch-and-run to help put away the Denver Broncos in the fourth quarter.
And on Sunday, it was Sammy Watkins whom the Chicago Bears forgot to pick up on a crucial 29-yard catch late in the fourth quarter, setting up running back Devonta Freeman’s go-ahead 3-yard touchdown run one play later.
All three completions came on third down. All three came in the second half. And all three had a similar origin: with the wide-open wide receiver having started the play in a “bunch” formation to the quarterback’s right.
Against Chicago, Tyler Huntley faced third-and-12 and a 13-9 deficit in the final minute of regulation when he motioned wide receiver Tylan Wallace over from the outside into a reduced split. That left the Ravens with a “trips bunch” look on one side — tight end Mark Andrews closest to Huntley, Wallace farthest and Watkins in the middle of the cluster — and wide receiver Rashod Bateman isolated on the other side.
At the snap, Andrews drew the most attention, as he usually does; Bears safety Marqui Christian picked up the tight end in man coverage over the middle, and cornerback Duke Shelley seemed to lurk in zone coverage just behind him. Cornerback Kindle Vildor, after some presnap pointing, was left to pick up Wallace, who also came free on a shallow cross after Vildor was redirected by Andrews’ route.
The Bears had another defensive back in coverage, Deon Bush, but the safety was playing 20 yards off the line of scrimmage. As soon as Watkins realized he was open, he raised his hand to get Huntley’s attention. Huntley saw him, and got his pass off just in time. Outside linebacker Robert Quinn had beaten left tackle Alejandro Villanueva easily and was closing in on sack No. 4 ½.
“They came at me, man, so I was just going through my reads, and they just happened to drop [Watkins], and he was wide open,” Huntley said after the 16-13 win. “I was happy that I saw him. I wish I would have gave him the ball quicker and the game would have probably been in our hands a little quicker, but it all played out how it played out.”
The bunch formation is a favorite of Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s. According to Sports Info Solutions, only the Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray and Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger had more drop-backs out of “bunch right” looks last season than Jackson, who finished 17-for-22 for 245 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in the formation. Entering Sunday’s game, he was 11-for-15 for 130 yards and a touchdown out of bunch right.
“Bunch formations are tough,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “We deal with them all the time on defense as well. Especially if you motion in and out, or you shift guys on and off the ball, or you change up who’s lining up where, it messes with your matchups.”
Defenses often change how they defend clusters of receivers, Harbaugh said, but sometimes wires can get crossed, “especially when things happen fast on the run, or if you’re coming out of the huddle, like we were, and going no-huddle. They just messed up the communication, and two guys covered one guy, and Sammy popped open.”
Over his two-plus seasons as a starter in Baltimore, Chuck Clark has led the Ravens’ defense without much fanfare. Lining up everywhere from a deep-lying center fielder to an edge rusher to a box safety, he’s tackled well, covered well and communicated well. Splash plays have eluded Clark — he has just three interceptions in his career — but few players in the Ravens’ locker room have garnered more respect than the soft-spoken veteran who wears the green dot.
After an impressive start to the season, however, Clark has found himself in the middle of explosive play after explosive play. The Ravens have allowed an NFL-worst 23 plays of 30-plus yards this year, with the normally reliable Clark leaving the defense exposed at times. On some plays, he’s been at fault. On others, others have shouldered more responsibility. Just look at Clark’s past month:
- Week 7: Clark bit hard on a fake screen, leaving Cincinnati Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah wide open on an eventual 32-yard touchdown. Later, he couldn’t bring down wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase in the open field and stop his back-breaking 82-yard score.
- Week 9: Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson got behind Clark and cornerback Marlon Humprey on a 50-yard touchdown. (“It’s just something we had a mess-up on,” Clark said days later.) Later, running back Dalvin Cook ran by Clark on a 66-yard carry, though he caught up to make the open-field tackle.
- Week 10: Clark missed a tackle on Miami Dolphins wide receiver Isaiah Ford’s 52-yard catch-and-run, which came after a coverage bust. As a deep-lying safety, he was also left to knock wide receiver Albert Wilson out of bounds after another coverage bust on a 64-yard catch-and-run.
- Week 11: Clark missed a tackle on Bears wide receiver Darnell Mooney on his 60-yard catch-and-run score, knocking down fellow safety Brandon Stephens in the process.
According to Pro Football Focus, Clark has seven missed tackles this season, putting him on pace to break his career high of nine, set in 2019. He also has the lowest pass coverage grade of his career. Clark’s struggles have become inseparable from the secondary’s.
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“I think when you watch us, in practice and different things, I think we’re practicing right, we’re doing the things right,” Humphrey said after the loss to the Dolphins. “It seems like we’re getting to the game and there’s kind of a disconnect, at times. At times. I’m not going to say we haven’t done good things in the past, offense and defense. But there seems like there’s certain series or plays that’s kind of getting us, and the certain mistakes that I think can be fixed.”
But with just seven regular-season games remaining, Clark and the Ravens are running out of time to find solutions.
Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 4