The Ravens offense opened Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills with a 3-yard carry up the gut by running back Mark Ingram II, an unmemorable play in an unmemorable day for the team’s top-ranked ground game.
In the aftermath of the Ravens’ 24-17 win at New Era Field, their ninth straight overall and a playoff berth-clinching result, the run mattered less than cornerback Marcus Peters’ decisive fourth-quarter deflection or any of the defense’s six sacks or tight end Hayden Hurst’s 61-yard catch-and-run score. But the play did serve in part to explain the Ravens’ ground-game struggles.
In one short-lived inside rush, there was a missed opportunity out wide, solid execution by the Bills and a noncall along the offensive line. It’s not fair to say that, in holding quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Ravens to a season-low 118 yards on 3.6 yards per carry, Buffalo solved the Ravens’ rushing attack. With Jackson’s rushing threat, the Ravens, more often than not, will always have a numerical advantage at the line of scrimmage.
But the offense can and should grow from a day in which it finished with as many rushing first downs (six) as three-and-outs. The Ravens will need Jackson and offensive coordinator Greg Roman to make wiser in-game decisions. They’ll need to figure out countermeasures against defenses as consistent as the Bills and San Francisco 49ers. Maybe most importantly, they’ll need officials to learn from previous mistakes.
The issues started early. After forcing a three-and-out on the game’s opening drive, the Ravens took over at their own 20-yard line, and Jackson and Ingram went out for the offense’s first drive, lined up in the familiar pistol formation.
The Ravens’ execution needed to be perfect for the play to have a chance, and it wasn’t. Interestingly, Jackson didn’t appear to have the option to keep the ball, which might’ve sprung a big play out wide. Instead, as Ingram took the handoff, nine Bills defenders were already within 2 yards of the line of scrimmage. Safety Jordan Poyer and linebacker Matt Milano knifed inside to bring him down after the short gain.
Of course, there were other problems out of the Ravens’ control. Their opening play called for a double team from center Patrick Mekari and left guard Bradley Bozeman. But when Mekari got out to Star Lotulelei, one of the NFL’s better-paid defensive tackles, he probably did not expect an attempted bear hug. As Bozeman helped keep Lotulelei’s right arm inside, Lotulelei wrapped his left arm around Mekari. What he was giving up in leverage, he was making up for in obstruction: He didn’t want Mekari to get to his second-level block.
“He’s just trying to take two with one,” Bozeman said Tuesday, speaking generally about the strategy. “He’s trying to free up his linebacker to go make the play. And that’s what they’re able to do whenever they do eat up two with one by holding them.”
That scene seemed to repeat itself throughout the afternoon. On the Ravens’ 24-yard touchdown drive, the game’s first, Jackson had the biggest play, running for 8 yards off left tackle on a zone-read keeper. But as Jackson scampered for the sideline, an official threw a flag: defensive holding. On a guard-center double team, Lotulelei had again wrapped his left arm around Mekari’s left shoulder before throwing him to the ground.
In the fourth quarter, Buffalo defensive tackle Corey Liuget was guilty of perhaps the most obvious such violation. To Mekari’s frustration, it wasn’t called, either. After a shotgun snap to Jackson, Mekari pulled around right guard — or tried to, anyway.
Liuget, who’d lined up between Mekari and Marshal Yanda, shot out his right hand and grabbed Mekari by the pads over his left shoulder. Mekari was essentially stuck, held up by Liuget as if he were a dog trying to break free of his leash. Liuget didn’t let go, he replanted and his left leg knocked the rookie off balance, pulling both to the ground.
After Ingram’s 3-yard gain, Mekari complained angrily to the officials about the noncall. He said Yanda “was pissed about it,” too. The offensive line had lost center Matt Skura to a season-ending knee injury after an awkward collision against the Los Angeles Rams just two weeks earlier. Now the Bills were jeopardizing other players’ health, they said.
“He was trying to pull. [Liuget] grabbed him and literally slung him to the ground,” Bozeman said. “Like, it's crap. But it's part of the game we're playing.”
“It's a penalty,” Mekari said. “They can't hold us, and the refs sometimes see it. Sometimes they don't. But there's nothing really you can much do about it. You're not going to complain too much about it. You let the refs know, and if they see it, great. If they don't see it, then move on to the next play and hope they see it next time.”
Mekari wasn’t the only linemen held Sunday. Earlier in the fourth quarter, on the Ravens’ final touchdown drive, Bozeman and left tackle Ronnie Stanley double-teamed defensive tackle Jordan Phillips on a zone read in Bills territory. They relocated him with ease, but as Phillips was driven back, he got one hand on Bozeman’s shoulder pads.
The cause-and-effect was immediate: Bozeman couldn’t climb to the second level, where Tremaine Edmunds was waiting to fill the gap. Without a block on Edmunds, the linebacker flowed downhill and stopped Ingram after just a 1-yard gain. Bozeman seemed to throw up one hand in protest as Ingram was dragged down, then gestured to the officials in frustration after he and Phillips got untangled.
Given the hand fighting at every line of scrimmage, should it be an easy call? “Yes, it should be,” Bozeman said. “The ones that happened this last game, it should be. I mean, when you’re literally tackling people to the ground, it’s an easy call. They’re right there in open space. Should be called, but it’s not called.”
Mekari, who replaced Skura after he was hurt in Week 12 and made his first start in Week 13 against the San Francisco 49ers, said opposing defenses have adopted the tactic “more and more so.” Double teams are essential to the Ravens’ power running schemes, and few defenses have had an answer. Bozeman said he was “tackled” at the goal line in a recent game. Added Mekari: “As the weeks go on, as teams have a, I guess, harder time stopping us, they hold us."
Ravens defensive end Chris Wormley said he doesn’t intentionally hold opposing linemen on double teams, though he acknowledged that it could benefit a defense. Especially against the Ravens.
“With the way our offensive line plays and how dominant they’ve been this year, you might try and do something different when things aren’t going the defense’s way,” he said. “Maybe that was part of their scheme that week, to try and do something a little different that our offense hasn’t seen. But, yeah, [defensive line coach Joe] Cullen doesn’t teach us that bit. You’ve got to ask the Bills’ D-line coach, I guess.”
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