The first time that Lamar Jackson saw the Dolphins defense that would perplex and punish him, ruining his Thursday night, the Ravens quarterback almost solved it.
On third-and-9, with the Ravens already in field-goal range on the game’s opening drive, Miami lined up eight defenders at the line of scrimmage. The Dolphins were showing “Cover 0,” a man-to-man, pressure-heavy scheme that sacrifices a safety in zone coverage for the promise of overloading an offense’s pass protection.
Miami coach Brian Flores and defensive coordinator Josh Boyer understood the risks; the Dolphins’ defense is one of the NFL’s most aggressive. Execute it well, and Miami would have an unblocked blitzer coming for Jackson. But if the Ravens could hold on just long enough, if Jackson could buy himself enough time against a defense with more pass rushers than he had protectors, there was a big play to be had.
And they almost had it. The offensive line kept the pocket clean. All Jackson had to contend with was rookie safety Jevon Holland, flying in from the edge, the Ravens’ preferred path for an unmarked blitzer. Jackson felt the heat, faded away from it and, just in time, lofted a high-arcing pass to wide receiver Sammy Watkins, running away from cornerback Justin Coleman downfield.
The ball landed at the back of the end zone, within arm’s reach. Watkins either didn’t see it or didn’t think it was catchable. Jackson said afterward that he didn’t ask Watkins what happened. So much else had gone wrong in the Ravens’ 22-10 loss anyway. But their troubles started there.
“[Cover] 0 is, like, one of those things where you have to make them pay, you know?” tight end Mark Andrews said. “And I don’t think, early on, we did that enough. That’s one of the things — you make them pay early on, they kind of get out of there. You know, I think you see toward the end of the game — again, they played a great game — but we did a lot of things toward the end of the game that I think we needed to capitalize early on.”
The Dolphins entered Thursday’s game with one of the NFL’s lesser defenses, ranked 23rd in yards per play allowed and 25th in overall efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. But once they found something that worked against the Ravens — show pressure, bring pressure — they found no reason to change course.
According to a review of Thursday’s game, Miami’s defense lined up in a Cover 0 look before 31 of Jackson’s 50 drop-backs. The strategy effectively turned one of the NFL’s most explosive open-field runners and downfield passers into a frazzled, inefficient, checkdown thrower.
Against presnap Cover 0 alignments, the Ravens averaged just 3.9 yards per play — more than 2 yards below their season-long average — and Jackson finished 15-for-27 for 139 yards, one touchdown and one interception (66.7 passer rating). He scrambled just once, for 3 yards, and was sacked three times, for minus-21 yards.
“We’ve seen it before,” Jackson said of Miami’s blitz-happy approach. “We were practicing it the whole week. We just got to do a better job, do a better job facing that. Get a handle. I feel we’ll be good. The Dolphins played a great game.”
Their game plan took a logical approach to an unexpected degree. In earlier games against the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen and Houston Texans’ Tyrod Taylor, both dual-threat quarterbacks, Miami sent Cover 0 blitzes five times, easily the most either had faced all season.
In the Ravens’ Week 7 blowout loss, the Cincinnati Bengals might’ve given the Dolphins all the encouragement they needed to double down against Jackson. Cincinnati showed a Cover 0 look six times, mostly on third- and fourth-and-long, and had its way almost every time. The Ravens’ biggest-gaining play went for 3 yards. The one time they exceeded that, the play was called back because of holding. Another time, they were called for a false start.
So, no, Ravens players said after Thursday’s game, they were not surprised by how Miami attacked them.
“They did kind of what we thought they were going to do,” center Bradley Bozeman said. “They blitzed us a lot.”
As with any offensive failure as stunning as the Ravens’ — they finished with a season-low 304 yards, converted just two of 14 third-down opportunities, and committed two turnovers, one of which Miami turned into a scoop-and-score — there was no lone culprit. There was blame to spread around, from Jackson to the skill position players to the pass protection to the coaching.
The most obvious influence of the Dolphins’ Cover 0-heavy approach was on how Jackson played. Facing constant blitzes, he was pressured 19 times, according to Sports Info Solutions, tied for the most in his career, and sacked four times. He scrambled just three times, hemmed in by Miami’s waves of pressure. His average depth of target on pass attempts was 7.8 yards, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, his second lowest this season.
Jackson was maybe as active as he’s ever been before the snap, changing calls at the line of scrimmage as he searched for escape valves. But the Ravens’ array of wide receiver screens, some of them seemingly audibled into, rarely worked. Miami tackled well in space and pursued ferociously with second-level defenders who bluffed blitzes before dropping and finding the ball.
Jackson also left big plays on the table. On the drive after cornerback Xavien Howard’s 49-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown and 15-3 lead early in the fourth quarter, Jackson homed in on Watkins on a first-and-10 drop-back. The Ravens’ protection gave Jackson a comfortable pocket against another Cover 0 pressure, but in waiting for Watkins to get open near the sideline, he missed Andrews over the middle. The tight end was streaking downfield, a couple of steps past the nearest defender. Jackson never saw him get open.
The Ravens’ receivers didn’t help Jackson often enough, either. Both Watkins and wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown fumbled. Tight end Josh Oliver dropped one pass and Brown dropped two. Only Watkins and Miles Boykin stood out as perimeter blockers, and only fellow wide receivers Devin Duvernay and Rashod Bateman stood out after the catch.
Up front, the Ravens’ pass protection had bright spots individually but struggled collectively. Center Bradley Bozeman’s occasionally shaky shotgun snaps seemed to throw off Jackson’s timing. Right tackle Tyre Phillips again struggled; on one Dolphins sack, he didn’t even pretend to engage with defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, who read his upfield push correctly as a screen indicator. Ogbah got in Jackson’s throwing window and defensive end Adam Butler closed in for a sack after Jackson held on to the ball.
The Ravens’ backs struggled at times with Cover 0 blitzes, too. On one third-and-long drop-back early in the third quarter, Jackson seemed to assign fullback Patrick Ricard to a blitz pickup on the right side of the line. But when a Dolphins defender came through, Ricard and running back Le’Veon Bell took the same man. That left another Miami pass rusher to get in Jackson’s face as he wound up for a deep shot to Brown that fell incomplete.
“They had the guy off the edge coming in hot,” Jackson said. “So I tried to get the ball out to the receivers to make a play. You know, sometimes it was tipped passes, you know. The ball was getting batted down. They just played a great game.”
As the Ravens prepare for Sunday’s game in Chicago, offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s play-calling will again come under scrutiny. The Bears have sent just three Cover 0 blitzes all season, according to SIS, but Miami’s approach and execution could offer a blueprint — not only on the obvious passing downs where the Ravens struggled but in early downs, too.
The Ravens averaged 2.9 yards per carry after the first quarter, with running backs Devonta Freeman and Bell combining for just 6 yards on seven attempts in that stretch. Those struggles on first and second down set the table for Miami on third down, where the Dolphins could play off coverage, guarding the first-down marker, and not worry about pick plays or easy man-coverage beaters. Jackson had 10 drop-backs of third-and-7 or longer Thursday, tied for the second most in an NFL game this season. In those down-and-distance conditions, he went 4-for-8 for 23 yards and took one sack.
It wasn’t until late that Roman, Jackson and the Ravens found some answers for Miami’s pressure. After averaging just 2.0 yards per play on Jackson’s first 25 drop-backs against presnap Cover 0 looks, the Ravens averaged 11.7 yards over his final six. Rather than looking for screens or outlet passes into condensed areas, Jackson started finding Bateman on sideline shots. He hit Andrews once as he slipped across the field, with Miami’s coverage compromised by a handful of interfering Ravens routes.
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It was all too little, too late. Jackson’s final pass Thursday played out as so many before it had. As soon as he took the shotgun snap, he faced pressure off right tackle from an unblocked Dolphins defender. Running out of space and time, he threw up a prayer to Bateman in the corner of the end zone. Coleman, who’d nearly allowed a touchdown on Miami’s first Cover 0 blitz, intercepted Jackson’s pass on its last.
This is a copycat league, Jackson was reminded afterward. What would be the Ravens’ answer the next time they faced a plan like the Dolphins’? “Do our thing,” he said. “We’ll be good. There were some plays we left on the field, some things we left on the field. Little mishaps. Just be us. That’s it.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 6 ½