Baltimore Ravens

How will the Ravens defend the Bills’ aerial attack? A look at 3 important playoff questions.

As the Ravens’ AFC divisional-round playoff game against the Buffalo Bills approaches, there’s an obvious X-factor to monitor: the weather in Western New York.

And when kickoff finally does come Saturday night, snowfall or snowfall, there’s an obvious matchup to scrutinize: Bills quarterback Josh Allen versus the Ravens’ pressure-happy defensive schemes.


But so much more than precipitation and pressure will shape the teams’ prime-time showdown. Here are three questions that could determine who advances to next weekend’s AFC championship game.

1. How will the Ravens’ pass defense line up?

Buffalo Bills All-Pro wide receiver Stefon Diggs, a former Maryland star, is “one that got away,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh acknowledged. That can’t happen Saturday night inside Bills Stadium.


Diggs has gotten away for 128 or more receiving yards in four of Buffalo’s past five games; the one week he was limited to seven catches on eight targets for 76 yards, the Bills scored six offensive touchdowns against a solid Miami Dolphins defense.

“Dynamic,” Ravens safety Chuck Clark said of Diggs. “He can do it all for his team. He can make explosive plays, big plays, getting yards and scoring the ball.”

How do the Ravens contain the NFL’s leading receiver (127 catches for 1,535 yards)? With slot corner Tavon Young lost for the season, it’s not as simple as having Marlon Humphrey or Marcus Peters shadow Diggs all game, as the Los Angeles Rams might ask Jalen Ramsey to. That could leave the Ravens compromised elsewhere in their pass defense.

And besides, that’s not really defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s style. Against the Tennessee Titans and Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Brown on Sunday, the Ravens knew they wouldn’t see as many three-wide-receiver formations as, say, Buffalo would deploy. And if there weren’t a slot receiver to worry about, wouldn’t it make sense to have Humphrey just follow Brown?

Martindale didn’t bother. He kept Peters at his usual left cornerback position, called on Smith to take the right side, when needed, and had Humphrey cover the slot. It was a familiar approach, and the right one: Tannehill finished 18-for-26 for 165 yards, one touchdown and an interception; his 83.0 passer rating was his third lowest all season. (It helped, of course, that Tennessee wide receiver Corey Davis was limited by injury to just 32 snaps.)

Don’t expect the Ravens to reinvent the wheel by Saturday. Humphrey saw a lot of slot receiver Cole Beasley last season in Buffalo, helping to hold him to four catches on seven targets for 29 yards and a touchdown. Beasley earned All-Pro honors this season (82 catches for 967 yards and four touchdowns), but a knee injury limited him in practice all week. In a lot of situations, Humphrey would be an obvious candidate to mark him.

“He’s really strong, plays well in the run game, plays well with his hands and moves good for a bigger guy,” Beasley said of Humphrey. “He seems like he’s a dog and competitor, so I know he’s looking forward to the matchup, but this is what you live for, to go against the best guys.”

But what happens Diggs also lines up inside, where he started almost a quarter of his snaps? The Bills are comfortable attacking defenses out of a “trips” formation, with three receivers on the same side. They also used “10″ personnel (one running back and four wide receivers) on 15% of their offensive snaps this season, according to Sharp Football Stats, posting an impressive 101.9 passer rating.


Either look could put the Ravens in a tough spot. Would Smith cover Beasley in trips? Could Buffalo get Diggs matched up with Anthony Averett or Tramon Williams in a four-wide-receiver formation? There’s not a lot of drop-off in the Bills’ wide receivers room. Gabriel Davis (35 catches for 599 yards), former Raven John Brown (33 catches for 458 yards in nine games) and Isaiah McKenzie (30 catches for 282 yards) are all plenty capable.

The Ravens’ cornerbacks could be in for a long night, especially if their blitz can’t get home. Even when Martindale’s pressure was suffocating him last season, Allen extended plays with his legs and gave his receivers a chance. Some of his most impressive throws in a wild-card-round win against the Indianapolis Colts came on the move.

2. Can the Bills’ run defense survive with a light box?

The best evidence that the Bills can stop the Ravens’ rushing attack is more than a year old by now. In the teams’ Week 14 meeting, Buffalo held a record-breaking ground game to just 118 rushing yards, the offense’s lowest output all season.

“We did a lot of good things in that ballgame,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. But he acknowledged much had changed. “That was a different team and a different year; they’ve grown since then and they’ve added some wrinkles to their offense that we’re going to have to adjust to. We realize we can’t just look at what we did last year and say that was good enough.”

There’s not a lot of other evidence to suggest that the Bills’ run defense will be good enough Saturday. While the unit ranked 17th overall in the regular season in efficiency, according to Football Outsiders, Buffalo struggled mightily against offenses led by mobile quarterbacks.

Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals rushed for 217 yards in Week 10. Cam Newton and the New England Patriots went for 188 yards in Week 10, and 145 in Week 16. Buffalo’s worst game all season came against the Kansas City Chiefs, who exploited the Bills’ fears in coverage by committing to their running game in Week 6 (46 carries for 245 yards).


Unless Buffalo changes up its defensive tendencies Saturday, the Bills could be playing with fire, or something more catastrophic. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Buffalo has lined up with a “light box” — six or fewer defenders in the area occupied by defensive linemen or linebackers — on 51.4% of its defensive snaps, the league’s fourth-highest rate. In that alignment, typically a countermeasure against passing attacks, it’s allowed 6.1 yards per carry, the most in the NFL.

When the Ravens have faced a light box, typically prompted by a spread formation, they’ve rushed for 6.5 yards per carry, the most in the NFL. Quarterback Lamar Jackson has thrived in space, and the emergence of speedy rookie running back J.K. Dobbins has added to defenses’ misery.

There are no easy answers for Buffalo. Defensive end Jerry Hughes said this week that the Bills’ plan for stopping the Ravens’ rushing attack is different from last year’s, probably because the Ravens’ rushing attack is also different. Over this season, offensive coordinator Greg Roman has added counters to the kind of motion-reliant plays that Buffalo snuffed out last year.

Even if the Bills commit to stuffing the box with defenders, success is far from certain. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Dobbins and running back Gus Edwards are among the league’s most efficient runners against stacked boxes.

“The success of it comes down to the players on the field,” Roman said. “Believe me, I’ve called a lot of good plays over the years that didn’t end up good, and I’ve called some bad ones that ended up great. So it’s really about them getting it done on the field, having their preparation [and] understanding the problems when a team stacks a box. There are a lot of different ways to stack that box. …

“Going into a game, you have to be … ready for everything. That’s what part of this season has really been about, especially during the early and mid-part of the season, was seeing how people were playing us, running some things against those things and seeing how it would end up, and then gathering information for playing the long game. So I think that factors in as well and factors into our evolution.”


3. Is Mark Andrews primed for a big game?

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Ravens tight end Mark Andrews’ four-catch, 41-yard game Sunday against Tennessee didn’t put his name in any headlines, but Saturday’s matchup might.

In the Indianapolis Colts’ wild-card-round loss to Buffalo, tight ends Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox and Trey Burton combined for 14 catches on 16 targets for 136 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Philip Rivers’ passing chart looked like the stuff of Ravens dreams: a lot of green dots over the middle, Jackson’s favorite area to target.

This was not an isolated incident for the Bills. The Miami Dolphins’ Mike Gesicki torched their pass defense. So did the Las Vegas Raiders’ Darren Waller. And the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce. Even the Seattle Seahawks’ Jacob Hollister had five catches for 60 yards. According to Football Outsiders, Buffalo allowed 61.1 yards per game to tight ends this season, fifth most in the NFL.

The Ravens offense’s biggest play in Week 14 last season came on a 61-yard catch-and-run touchdown by tight end Hayden Hurst, who exploited a bust in coverage. Now it’s Andrews who has the defense’s attention.

“He is probably Lamar’s favorite target along with [wide receiver Marquise] Brown, so we’ll have to do a good job against the tight ends that we’re going to face with the Ravens and Brown as well,” Frazier said.

There’s an obvious defender for Jackson to pick on Saturday: Pro Bowl inside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. When targeting him in coverage this season, quarterbacks posted a 114.3 passer rating (43-for-64 for 543 yards and four touchdowns). If Jackson has the Bills’ attention in the running game, Andrews could make them pay through the air.


“He’s one of the best tight ends in the game,” Buffalo safety Micah Hyde said. “Lamar looks for him on a lot of plays and puts it anywhere around him and he goes and gets it, so just another big body, a challenge for us, and that’s where the tight ends are going in this league.”