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Ravens film study: How the pass rush made life miserable for Bengals QB Joe Burrow

In his breakout 2019 season at LSU, Joe Burrow had a first-round talent at running back in Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Justin Jefferson, another teammate, is maybe the NFL’s top rookie wide receiver. Ja’Marr Chase could be the first receiver drafted in 2021. The Tigers' offensive line was honored as the nation’s best. There was high-end talent everywhere.

So, yes, the Heisman Trophy winner had a lot of help. But he also didn’t have to face defenses like the one Don “Wink” Martindale oversaw Sunday.

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Burrow’s introduction to the Ravens became a crash course in NFL pressures. At the end of the Cincinnati Bengals' 27-3 loss at M&T Bank Stadium, the No. 1 overall draft pick had been sacked seven times and hit 15 times. He’d lost the ball twice and thrown an interception. At times, Burrow looked less like a record-breaking rookie quarterback than a tourist dropped in a foreign land, unsure of where to go or what to do.

“He had a good plan,” Burrow said of Martindale afterwards. “We just didn’t execute our plan very well. I didn’t play very well.”

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The Ravens tend to have that effect on rookie quarterbacks, who rarely savor their first trip to Baltimore. But Martindale’s defense was at its best Sunday, and the dominance started up front. Against an overmatched offensive line and an uncertain Burrow, the Ravens caused trouble for Cincinnati’s aerial attack with everything from four-man pass rushes to back-of-the-playbook blitzes. Here’s a look at how they helped limit the Bengals to a season-low 205 yards.

Keeping it simple

Under Martindale, the Ravens don’t have much of an appetite for dropping seven defenders into coverage and letting a “conventional” front four get after the quarterback. If they’re sending just four pass rushers, one of them might be an inside linebacker who’s covering for an outside linebacker headed to the flat. Or maybe it’s a safety taking on a center as a defensive end backpedals into a shallow zone.

Some days, it seems as if the Ravens have just about every pressure package there is. But sometimes the best play calls are also the simplest ones.

On six drop-backs Sunday, the Ravens sacked, hit or forced Burrow to scramble with just four pass rushers. And on four of those drop-backs, they needed only the basics — two edge rushers and two interior defenders — to puncture the pocket.

Cincinnati’s struggles up front have been well documented. The Philadelphia Eagles sacked Burrow eight times on 52 drop-backs in Week 2 — and they needed a blitz for just two of those sacks. But if the Ravens can get more of the one-on-one wins they did Sunday from their less established pass rushers, the NFL’s No. 1 scoring defense will be even tougher to handle.

On the Bengals' first play from scrimmage, the Ravens called for outside linebacker Pernell McPhee and defensive end Calais Campbell to run a stunt, a maneuver in which pass rushers exchange roles to confuse blocking assignments. When Campbell’s outside move created a hole, McPhee raced inside to get in Burrow’s face. He completed a nice 14-yard pass, but it hadn’t come easily.

One quarter later, McPhee didn’t need any help from Campbell. On another four-man rush, he froze right tackle Bobby Hart with a hesitation move, attacked his outside shoulder and turned the corner with a rip move. With defensive tackle Brandon Williams crowding Burrow and no one open downfield, McPhee wrapped up Burrow for his first sack this season.

Outside linebacker Tyus Bowser hit Burrow one play later on another simple rush, disrupting an open check-down pass. In the third quarter, defensive end Derek Wolfe’s upfield penetration forced Burrow to scramble for a 6-yard gain.

Keeping it moving

Cornerback Marlon Humphrey’s corner blitz early in the fourth quarter led to the NFL’s third-fastest sack of Week 5: just 2.67 seconds from snap to takedown, according to the league’s Next Gen Stats. A third-quarter sack by safety DeShon Elliott took just 2.87 seconds, seventh fastest overall.

But the Ravens' pass rush thrived Sunday largely because its midplay pressure never relented. On inside linebacker Patrick Queen’s second-quarter strip-sack of his former Tigers teammate, for instance, he had to take the scenic route. After Queen had his initial inside blitz picked up, he ended up almost 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and about 7 yards away from Burrow.

Still, he kept his motor running and his pursuit alive. With Queen’s elite acceleration — a former running back, he ran the 40-yard dash at the scouting combine in 4.5 seconds — he quickly tracked down Burrow, who’d held the ball for too long and didn’t know Queen was about to give him a violent blind-side shove. The ball escaped Burrow’s grasp and bounced right to Queen.

In the fourth quarter, it was safety Chuck Clark who took advantage of Burrow’s unwillingness to take a chance downfield. As Burrow faked a handoff, Clark waited to see how the Bengals would protect the right side of their line. When two receivers stayed home to block, Clark took off after Burrow.

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Tee Higgins redirected Clark on his first charge, but the wide receiver lost his balance, and Clark quickly recovered. When Burrow tried to escape the collapsing pocket for a better view of his options, he ran right into Clark.

Keeping it weird

The Ravens blitz with their defensive backs. A lot. Four Ravens defensive backs had a sack last season, among the NFL’s most productive secondaries. Coach John Harbaugh explained Monday that cornerbacks and safeties “aren’t usually accounted for in the protection quite as much,” which means defenses can sometimes get unmarked blitzers if they send them.

The Ravens didn’t hold back Sunday. Cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Humphrey, safeties Clark and Elliott and defensive back Jimmy Smith all took down Burrow, marking the first time in Pro-Football-Reference’s extensive database that a team has had five defensive backs record a sack in one game.

The Ravens' boldness was routinely rewarded. When Clark lined up across from left guard Michael Jordan and center Trey Hopkins late in the first quarter, neither player picked him up at the snap. The Bengals couldn’t block the Ravens' six pass rushers with their five linemen anyway, but Clark had the shortest path to the ball. Rather than take the sack or aim for the sideline, Burrow threw a prayer downfield that Peters intercepted.

Martindale’s confidence in his defense is such that he doesn’t mind taking his two All-Pro corners out of coverage. In the Ravens' blowout win of the Los Angeles Rams last season, the secondary helped set the tone in the first quarter with a double-cornerback blitz that ended with an easy sack for Smith.

In the third quarter Sunday, Martindale went back to his bag of tricks. This time, he sent Peters and Humphrey after Burrow, flying in from reduced splits that helped streamline their pursuit. Neither player got the clean shot that Smith did, but Burrow happened to lock in on the receiver who was double-teamed, not the receiver in single coverage over the middle.

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With the pocket quickly collapsing, Burrow tried to scramble, again. That ended poorly, again. Peters jumped on his back, raked his right arm and jarred the ball loose — his first career sack. The Ravens were unlucky not to recover the fumble just yards from the goal line.

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“It goes to show that we’ve got a lot of guys who, when we blitz, you don’t know who is going to be free,” Humphrey said Sunday. “Whenever we blitz, we all come thinking, ‘I’m going to get the sack.’ All guys that are blitzing are thinking, ‘I’m going to get the sack.’ Sometimes you get freed up, and you never know who it might be.”

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