On his first snap in a Ravens uniform in 391 days, Ronnie Stanley could not know how involved he’d be. Quarterback Lamar Jackson’s opening play against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday night was a run-pass option, and Stanley, at left tackle, had to block as if running back J.K. Dobbins were headed his way on a shotgun handoff.
Only Dobbins wasn’t. Jackson, reading Cincinnati’s defense, pulled the ball out at the mesh point, reset his feet and threw a quick pass to tight end Mark Andrews in the right flat for a 7-yard gain. As the Ravens’ offensive line took on Bengals defenders, the ball ended up in a different neighborhood.
But on a night of quiet victories for Stanley, his welcome-back snap proved a tone-setter inside M&T Bank Stadium. With defensive tackle Zach Carter lined up over his inside shoulder and star defensive end Trey Hendrickson a gap away, matched up with fullback Patrick Ricard, Stanley had to carve out a hole for the Ravens’ two pulling linemen, right tackle Morgan Moses and right guard Kevin Zeitler.
A down block on Carter — an attempt to drive him laterally, toward the middle of the line of scrimmage — gave Dobbins a running lane that the Ravens ultimately didn’t take. Still, this was progress. This was what coaches and teammates and fans had been waiting for. In just a few seconds, Stanley had shown not only the power to dislodge a 290-pound lineman but also the technique and anchoring ability to seal the block.
More than a year after struggling in his first and only appearance of the 2021 season, Stanley flashed the form throughout Sunday’s 19-17 win that had made him an All-Pro selection in 2019 and one of the NFL’s highest-paid left tackles. Over 22 snaps and three drives, there was no indication that his surgically repaired (and re-repaired) left ankle, or his prolonged absence from action, was any hindrance.
“Ronnie played well,” coach John Harbaugh, who worked Stanley into a rotation with Patrick Mekari, said Monday. “Ronnie was Ronnie. To see that, and he felt good afterwards — he was strong, solid, he anchored really well — that was important with the ankle, to see that. We thought he was going to do that because he did it in practice. So big step, big step in the right direction for Ronnie.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Stanley didn’t allow a quarterback pressure or hit on his 13 pass-blocking snaps Sunday. He was also solid in his nine run-blocking snaps. Here’s a look at how the Ravens used him on his three series against Cincinnati.
First series (field goal)
Harbaugh said before the Ravens’ Week 3 win over the New England Patriots that Stanley was in “maybe the best shape that I’ve seen him in some ways since he’s been here.” When Stanley was clearing paths for the offense’s record-breaking running game in 2019 and 2020, his athleticism stood out, especially on second-level blocks. He was powerful enough to move defenders on double teams and agile enough to climb beyond the line of scrimmage and cut off pursuing linebackers.
On Stanley’s first drive, he showed his rare skill set. In one two-play sequence, he helped uproot defensive tackle Josh Tupou on a combination block and squared up inside linebacker Germain Pratt for a 6-yard read-option gain by Dobbins, then pulled into space on a toss play that wide receiver Devin Duvernay took for 12 yards.
Stanley ended the series with two solid pass-blocking repetitions. On a second-and-10 drop-back, he passed off Hendrickson to left guard Ben Powers after recognizing that Pratt would loop around his side on a late-arriving blitz. On third-and-10, he ceded almost no ground to Hendrickson on a bull rush, then stayed engaged and balanced as the Pro Bowl selection tried to rip through his grasp.
Second series (touchdown)
After taking a drive off, Stanley returned for what was his shakiest series of the game. But even then, finding flaws in the seven-play sequence was difficult.
On the Ravens’ first play, Stanley was knocked back on his heels somewhat as he tried to contain defensive end Joseph Ossai, who’d looked to beat Stanley with an inside move. But Stanley mirrored the pass rush, set his anchor and held off the smaller Ossai’s hand-fighting long enough for Jackson to relocate in the pocket, set his feet and find Duvernay for a 21-yard completion.
Later in the drive, Hendrickson slipped past Stanley and forced Jackson from the pocket — but mostly because Jackson seemed to scramble into the pressure. By the time Hendrickson disengaged from Stanley, he was almost behind Zeitler, having covered more ground laterally than vertically on his inside move.
Third series (turnover on downs)
After scoring 10 points on Stanley’s first two drives, the Ravens came away with nothing on their first possession of the second half. That was through no fault of Stanley, who had maybe his most impressive series of the game.
On the Ravens’ first play, he exploded out of his stance, selling a run block on what became a play-action bootleg. On their second play, Stanley not only helped Powers move defensive tackle B.J. Hill on a double team, but also rallied to Dobbins to help push the pile downfield, unafraid to intervene amid a mass of bodies and potential ankle hazards.
On the Ravens’ fourth, fifth and sixth plays, Stanley showed his flexibility in pass protection. First, he lent a helping hand to Powers against an onrushing Hendrickson as he waited to engage blitzing safety Jessie Bates III. Then he neutralized Hendrickson’s outside rush in a comfortable one-on-one rep. On fourth-and-3, Stanley transitioned smoothly from a presnap run-blocking posture to a pass-blocking set, quickly cutting off safety Vonn Bell. Only Jackson’s overthrown deep shot to wide receiver Tylan Wallace kept Stanley and the Ravens from celebrating again.
“I thought I played pretty good for the snaps that I had,” Stanley said after the game. “I just went in with zero doubts about my ability, and I think that was a big difference from last year, to be going in fully confident.”
Bottling up Burrow
Almost nothing the Ravens did last season against Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow worked. They rarely pressured him into sacks or bad throws. They struggled to stop the receivers he found in space. They couldn’t stay healthy. In two blowout wins, Burrow passed for 941 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception.
So in his first matchup with Cincinnati as the Ravens’ defensive coordinator, Mike Macdonald tried a new strategy: Sacrifice defenders in the box for more security in the secondary.
A year ago, Burrow had feasted on big plays, seemingly unafraid of aggressive throws downfield. He averaged a season-high 10.7 air yards per attempt in the Bengals’ Week 7 road win and 8.5 air yards per attempt in their Week 16 home romp, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. No qualifying quarterback in the NFL last season averaged more than 9.9 air yards per attempt, and only seven averaged more than 8.5 air yards per throw.
The Ravens’ defensive structure discouraged that approach Sunday. Burrow faced just three blitzes on his 37 drop-backs, according to The 33rd Team. Most of the time, he dropped back against zone coverage, specifically coverage shells with two deep safeties.
Against “Cover 2″ (two deep zones, five shallow zones), “Cover 4″ (four deep zones, three shallow zones) and “Cover 6″ (a hybrid with three deep zones) looks, Burrow was 13-for-18 for just 112 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He also took both of his sacks against the two-deep schemes.
With nothing available downfield, Burrow had to settle for shorter throws. He averaged just 4 air yards per attempt, the lowest mark of his career. Despite finishing with a season-high completion percentage (68.6), Burrow had the lowest QBR (30.8) of his season.
The Ravens’ defense was far from airtight. Cincinnati, which had one of the NFL’s worst rushing attacks entering the game, took advantage of Macdonald’s conservative game plan on the ground, running 21 times for 4.8 yards per carry. But after last season, that was a tradeoff the Ravens were willing to make.
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“We didn’t want to give up anything deep,” Harbaugh said Monday. “Make them throw short, then go rally and go try to tackle. They made some yards; they were throwing the ball in the flares and the wide screens, and they’re running the ball a little bit here, and there and moving the ball down the field, but took them a while to do it, and that was the plan, basically. Next week will be a different week and a different plan.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 5