Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale did not want to talk about fourth-and-9.
“I think that he made a great play,” Martindale said Thursday of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, whose game-saving, fourth-quarter, across-his-body completion to Tyreek Hill on Sunday spurred a comeback win in overtime. “We’ll leave it at that.”
Of course, Mahomes needed to attempt an impossible pass just steps from the sideline only because the Ravens, again, had gotten to him. Their 15 quarterback hits on the NFL Most Valuable Player candidate were the defense's most since 2014 and by far the most the Chiefs have allowed in a game this season.
During a week of buildup for Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-8) dominated by news of Lamar Jackson’s official starting role and hand-wringing over his injury-prone play, the Ravens’ own ability to make other quarterbacks uncomfortable has gone mostly overlooked.
But it will be never more critical than against the NFL’s leading passing offense, and in a game the Ravens (7-6) can hardly afford to lose.
“I do feel good about our pass rush,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “Our guys are relentless. They’re very energetic; they’re strong guys. We do a lot with pressures and things like that — that’s when the secondary comes in. They come in and cover early. It’s not easy. … I’ll tell you, it was a heck of a challenge [Sunday]. It was a chess match in terms of us covering and finding matches and hiding our coverages, and their offense and their quarterback figuring when we were going to free up some guys on routes, and it kind of went back and forth.”
While the Ravens’ quarterback changeover has transformed the look and operation of their offense, the Buccaneers’ has not. First-time backup Joe Flacco will actually enter Sunday as the game’s leading passer (2,465 yards this season), but Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston are not far behind.
In seven starts and eight appearances for Tampa Bay, Fitzpatrick has thrown for 2,366 yards. Winston, who has started six games, including the past three, and appeared in two others, has 2,154 passing yards. Combine those stats, and a Fitzpatrick-Winston mashup would rank third all time in single-season passing yards per game (331.4), behind only Peyton Manning's 2013 NFL MVP-winning season and Drew Brees' 2011.
Even with wide receiver DeSean Jackson (40 catches for 750 yards) set to miss his third straight game and tight end O.J. Howard (34 catches for 565 yards) on injured reserve, the team does not lack for options out wide.
Star Mike Evans is seventh in the NFL in receiving yards (1,207), and fellow wideouts Chris Godwin and Adam Humphries both have 600-plus yards and five touchdowns this season. On the Ravens, only wide receiver John Brown has managed that feat.
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“Tampa Bay is a very good football team, a very talented football team,” Harbaugh said Wednesday. “Very talented quarterback, excellent receiving corps, just a really good football team, and they have a lot to play for, so it doesn’t matter. We just have to be at our best on Sunday and get ready to roll.”
Where they fall short is up front. Winston has been sacked four times each of the past two weeks, and the Buccaneers have allowed 94 quarterback hits this season, fourth most in the NFL. Their run blocking is the worst in the NFL, according to analytics website Football Outsiders; only the Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals average less yards per carry.
Martindale said Winston is “playing at a very high level,” but his most vexing quality is that he is somehow better outside the pocket than in it. Overall this season, he has an 88.1 quarterback rating, among the bottom third of qualified quarterbacks. But when he's gotten outside the pocket, he's been unparalleled, according to ESPN. His 124.4 rating surpasses that of runners-up Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers.
“You’re constantly in search of that perfect game, but Jameis is doing the things that he needs to do to give our team a chance to win, and that’s all you can ask for,” Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter said Wednesday.
Inside linebacker C.J. Mosley felt much the same after the Ravens’ loss at Arrowhead Stadium. Their play was “pretty good,” he said, “but it wasn’t perfect.” Come Sunday, the defense can’t afford to let Jamison slip from its grasp, just as Mahomes and a crucial victory did a week earlier.
“We don’t want him to extend plays with his athleticism. I know sometimes it gets back to, ‘Yeah, I know [Gen. George] Custer had a plan, too,’ ” Martindale said with a laugh, referencing the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. “But we want to try to keep him in the pocket. We really do.”
Note: The Ravens did not have a player finish as the leading vote-getter at his respective position in Pro Bowl fan voting, which concluded Thursday. NFL players and coaches cast their votes Friday, and game rosters will be announced Tuesday night.