Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson talks about beating the Buffalo Bills and clinching a playoff berth.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Buffalo Bills ran 68 plays on offense Sunday, but the first and last were fitting bookends. They told the story of this Ravens defense, of how it can twist an offense into submission, one blitz at a time.
On the Bills’ first play from scrimmage, the Ravens sent seven players after the ball-carrier, which in this case happened to be running back Devin Singletary. He was lucky to fall forward for a yard. On the Bills’ last play from scrimmage, the Ravens sent seven players again, daring quarterback Josh Allen to solve a Cover 0 blitz on the game’s decisive play.
The measure of this Ravens defense, the star of a playoff berth-clinching 24-17 win Sunday at New Era Stadium, is its success when defensive coordinator Don “Wink’ Martindale’s pressure schemes do not actually pressure the quarterback. On fourth-and-8 from the Ravens’ 16, seven defenders were not enough.
But their coverage was. Cornerback Marcus Peters held close enough to wide receiver John Brown to study the stitching on his jersey. In one-on-one coverage, with no help coming, he won easily over the middle. Peters knocked Allen’s pass away just steps from the goal line, sprinted past the corner of the end zone and leapt into a cluster of Ravens fans, treating himself to an ice-cold brew.
There was much for coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Lamar Jackson and this renewed defense to celebrate after the Ravens’ franchise-record ninth straight victory. They’re headed back to the postseason for the second straight year. They’re 11-2 for the first time in franchise history and a game up on the New England Patriots (10-3). They can repeat as AFC North champions with a home victory Thursday night against the New York Jets.
A year after a season of defensive dominance epitomized by the Ravens’ fourth-down, all-out blitz against Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield in Week 17, Martindale has not messed with success. The Ravens entered Week 14 having blitzed on over half of their defensive snaps, by far the highest rate in the league. On Sunday, they held a capable Bills offense to 3.1 yards per play, by far their best mark of this season, and 209 overall.
“We want to be the heroes sometimes,” said outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who had 1½ of the Ravens’ six sacks and two of their 12 quarterback hits. “It’s usually Lamar and the offensive line [who] are the heroes of the game and they milk the clock. Today, we were called upon. We focus on our situation, even though they drove the ball down the field. We knew, ‘Bend but never break.’ ”
As Jackson said afterward, “our defense was the key to victory.” It was a second straight game of just enough offense. The Ravens finished with 257 total yards, nearly a quarter of which came on tight end Hayden Hurst's career-high 61-yard catch-and-run score in the third quarter.
The Bills’ third-ranked defense made it a slog. Jackson entered halftime with 30 passing yards, a touchdown and an unfortunate interception. He finished 16-for-25 for 145 yards, three touchdowns and the pick, his first since Week 5. The biggest highlight for the Ravens’ NFL-best ground game might have been his passage into the 1,000-yard club for the season; Buffalo's aggressive alignments and blitzes kept the Ravens mostly bottled up (33 yards for 118 carries).
The Ravens, meanwhile, kept Allen on the run, blitzing him 30 times, according to ESPN Stats and Info. At halftime, the former No. 7 overall pick had more passing yards than Jackson (39), but he’d needed seven more passes, and he’d already been sacked four times. Martindale had compared Allen to a scrambling tight end for his open-field ability, but he finished with just two carries for a season-worst 9 yards. Seemingly everything else was a low for 2019, too: his 43.6% completion rate (on 17-for-39 passing), 146 passing yards, the six sacks.
“You can’t let Josh just stand back and throw, of course,” Harbaugh said. “He’s got such a great arm. And then the other thing goes with that is not letting him out of the pocket because he does such a great job scrambling. … As a quarterback, he’s a really talented, gifted guy. I really like him. I think he’s a great guy, real hard competitor, and that was a big part of the plan, was trying to put pressure on him.”
Safety Earl Thomas III said Martindale told the Ravens ahead of the game that they’d blitz heavily, fully aware of the risks. Buffalo’s offensive line entered Sunday with the NFL’s No. 6 adjusted-sack rate, according to Football Outsiders. There was no guarantee the Ravens would rattle Allen. “But he still stuck with it, and it paid off for us," said Thomas, who was happy to notch the first full sack of his career.
A cursory glance at Allen’s incompletions Sunday (22 in all, plus another three on plays that were called back) shows just how high a priority pressure was. The Ravens came after him like they were auditioning for “Mad Max: Fury Road.” According to an unofficial review of the game, the Ravens sent four or fewer pass rushers on just five of those 25 unsuccessful drop-backs — an 80% blitz rate. On Allen’s five incompletions in the game’s decisive drive, Martindale sent six rushers three times and saved a seven-man rush for the knockout blow.
“It seems like, all year, they’ve been saying our pass rush has been questionable,” defensive tackle Brandon Williams said. “We get to the quarterback. We’ve been hitting the quarterback. We hit him, I think, over 10 times in the first half. We’re getting after him.”
The Ravens have built their offense to bully defenses and their defense to stymie the NFL’s wave of dynamic passing attacks. On Sunday, Jackson could not dominate like he has become accustomed to. The offense was limited by injuries and inconsistency. Six times it went three-and-out.
Their safety net was a defense that throws caution to the wind. And it caught them just in time.
“I feel like a couple weeks ago — more than a couple of weeks ago — we were looking porous as a defense,” Judon said. “We were allowing everything to happen to us. We came in as a defense and came together. We added some pieces that we needed. We put it into motion, and it’s working for us. Shout-out to our coaches, each and every one of them. They knew what to call at the time we needed.”
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