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Ravens film study: A big gamble costs the defense vs. Joe Burrow and the Bengals

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow entered Week 7 as one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks against man coverage. The Ravens’ losing bet Sunday seemed to be that, against their defense, he wouldn’t be.

It was a curious strategy. Over the season’s first six weeks, Burrow led all qualifying quarterbacks in passer rating against man-to-man looks, according to Sports Info Solutions, defined here as Cover 0 (no deep safeties), Cover 1 (one deep safety) and Cover 2 man (two deep safeties). Opponents adjusted accordingly; Burrow had seen man coverage on more than 10 drop-backs in just one game before Sunday.

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That wasn’t enough to force a change in the Ravens’ defensive philosophy. On almost two-thirds of Burrow’s 38 drop-backs inside M&T Bank Stadium, he faced man coverage. He seemed unbothered by it, completing 14 of 24 passes for 304 yards, three touchdowns and one interception and not taking a single sack.

Just a week earlier, Martindale had flummoxed the Los Angeles Chargers’ offense with looks that star quarterback Justin Herbert wasn’t expecting. The Ravens’ game plan Sunday was a surprise, too. Only this one didn’t work. Burrow finished with a career-high 416 passing yards in a 41-17 road romp.

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“Anytime you lose, it hurts,” Ravens inside linebacker Patrick Queen said Tuesday. “And then when you lose like that, it hurts for sure — and to a division opponent. We’ve just got to move on. We already moved on. We’re already working towards the next opponent. So we’ve just got to pick up the pieces, communicate, execute, uphold that standard like I said that’s required over here, and we’ll be fine.”

The Ravens’ defensive strategy wasn’t necessarily doomed from the start. In Week 3, the Pittsburgh Steelers called for man coverage on 10 of Burrow’s 19 drop-backs; he finished 7-for-9 for 97 yards and two touchdowns, but also threw an interception. The Green Bay Packers, even without star cornerback Jaire Alexander, limited Burrow two weeks later to 95 yards on 9-for-15 passing against man looks, and also forced an interception.

With cornerback Marlon Humphrey seemingly capable of containing star rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, and the Ravens’ defensive front expected to turn the heat up on Burrow, Martindale’s aggressive posture wasn’t unexpected. But it did leave the team vulnerable in the back end. And it couldn’t stop Burrow and the Bengals from figuring out the defense over the course of the afternoon.

From the opening kickoff, the Ravens seemed intent on getting after Burrow. In the first quarter, he was pressured on all nine of his drop-backs and completed just three of his nine attempts for 40 yards. Burrow’s biggest early completion was, in hindsight, a warning shot for what was to come. After avoiding a would-be sack by rookie outside linebacker Odafe Oweh, he found Samaje Perine open for a 23-yard catch-and-run on third-and-long. It required just one breakdown, with the running back slipping out of the pocket, apparently unmarked.

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But as the Ravens’ pass rush slowed, their pass defense softened and their tackling worsened. On tight end C.J. Uzomah’s 55-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter, the Bengals’ play design led safety DeShon Elliott to vacate his deep zone and cover a crossing route. That left Humphrey all alone downfield with Uzomah, who separated easily, then shook off a tackle attempt at around the 20-yard line.

In the third quarter, Cincinnati started to have its way with the Ravens’ defense, not only physically but also mentally. Before Uzomah’s 32-yard score, Burrow made an instantly recognizable presnap check at the line of scrimmage, recreating Green Bay Packers quarterback and State Farm pitchman Aaron Rodgers’ “Discount Double-Check” move. In Cincinnati’s season opener against the Minnesota Vikings, that motion had called for a quick-hitting tight end screen in the flat.

When Burrow went back to the belt Sunday, the Ravens were prepared. Maybe too prepared. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd, they figured, was the likely target. Outside linebacker Justin Houston, aligned to Boyd and Uzomah’s side of the field, even flashed a thumbs-up to Elliott. When Burrow dropped back, four defenders converged on Boyd, leaving Uzomah to leak out downfield. He caught a pass from Burrow at the 15, slipped past Elliott and cruised into the end zone.

Even when the Ravens tried to keep everything in front of them, they gave up the game’s biggest play. About five minutes after Uzomah’s score, they rushed just four defenders on Chase’s back-breaking 82-yard touchdown, deploying outside linebacker Justin Houston in a shallow zone and safety Chuck Clark in a deep zone. On third-and-2, Chase separated from Humphrey on a slant route, ran through Elliott’s tackle attempt, spun away from Clark’s and outraced everyone to the goal line.

The rookie finished with eight catches for a career-high 201 yards, the overwhelming majority of which came against Humphrey.

“Ja’Marr did a great job against him,” said Burrow, who called Humphrey the NFL’s best cornerback. “There are multiple times where he got that guy one-on-one and won his one-on-one matchup.”

The Bengals’ offensive fireworks Sunday make two Ravens games especially interesting: their Week 16 rematch with Cincinnati, and their return to action in Week 9.

When the Ravens smothered Burrow in Baltimore last year, they blitzed 20 times, sacked him seven times and racked up 21 pressures on 39 drop-backs. On Sunday, they blitzed 14 times and forced Burrow into his lowest completion percentage against man coverage (58.3%) of the season. The Ravens just couldn’t get home — Cincinnati allowed a season-high 14 pressures but just one sack — nor could they stop Chase.

But it’s the Ravens’ next game that could be a litmus test for Martindale’s willingness to play more conservatively. Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins is 47-for-76 for 650 yards and three touchdowns against man coverage this season (102.4 passer rating), and has taken just two sacks on 81 drop-backs. His favorite target is wide receiver Justin Jefferson, who’s third in the NFL in receiving yards versus man-to-man looks (288).

Play-action pains

The Ravens leaned on their play-action passing game Sunday as hard as they have all season. They got mixed results.

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According to SIS, Jackson dropped back to pass 19 times after a run fake, a season high, and went 9-for-16 for 188 yards, another season high. Wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown’s 39-yard score in the third quarter came after Jackson faked a handoff to running back Ty’Son Williams.

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But after taking just one sack over the Ravens’ first 79 play-action drop-backs this season, Jackson was taken down three times Sunday. Coach John Harbaugh said the offense’s struggling ground game limited its play-action effectiveness, and Jackson appeared hesitant to throw check-downs to running backs and tight ends when no one came open downfield.

“I think their deep coverage is pushing out pretty deep, and the linebackers are playing play-action, because they’ve seen it a lot, so they’re recognizing it pretty well and playing it,” Harbaugh said Monday. “If you don’t run the ball really well, your play-action pass doesn’t get as much respect. So it all goes together. You have to run the ball to throw the play-action; you have to hit passes and spread them out to run the ball. Executing across the board makes everything better, and we have to get better.”

‘11′ problems

The NFL’s most popular personnel package is still “11″: one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers. Nearly 60% of the league’s offensive plays this season have been run with the grouping.

Until they can stop it, that’s bad news for the Ravens. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Ravens are allowing 8.3 yards per pass attempt against 11 personnel this season, among the NFL’s worst rates. The Ravens hadn’t given up more than 6.6 yards per attempt over the previous three seasons.

The Bengals took some time to get into a groove with 11 personnel Sunday. Once they did, though, Burrow was nearly unstoppable. In the first quarter, he was 5-for-13 for 54 yards. In the second quarter, he was 7-for-10 for 72 yards with the package. In the decisive third quarter, he was 10-for-12 for 235 yards and two touchdowns.

Part of Cincinnati’s solution was shoring up his protection against the Ravens’ exotic pressures and presnap looks. Burrow was pressured nine times in the first quarter in 11 personnel, twice in the second quarter and not once in the third.

The Bengals’ most notable tendency change was their limited use of “empty” sets, which likely would’ve invited trouble in Baltimore. Burrow dropped back with no running back beside him just twice Sunday. From Week 2 to Week 5, he’d averaged 11 drop-backs per game in empty, three-receiver formations.

Week 9

VIKINGS@RAVENS

Nov. 7, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

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