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Ravens film study: How far has Josh Allen come vs. the blitz? Just look at the Bills’ 2019 loss.

If you asked him today, Josh Allen probably wouldn’t recognize the quarterback the Buffalo Bills started in Week 14 last season. He’d probably just as soon forget that December 2019 game ever happened.

For one afternoon in Western New York, the quarterback who a year later would be named second-team All-Pro was little more than a plaything for a blitz-hungry Ravens defense. In a 24-17 loss, Allen posted the worst full-game QBR (16.7) of his ascendant second season. He started the game with a bad overthrow, ended it with a tight-window misfire and filled the space in between with a lot more mediocrity.

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It was a performance that makes Allen’s record-breaking 2020 all the more remarkable — and Saturday’s AFC divisional-round rematch in Buffalo all the more intriguing. The Josh Allen the Ravens will face this weekend is not the one defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale stumped last season. This new-and-improved Josh Allen would welcome that 2019 game plan with open arms and a fruit basket.

The Ravens hadn’t bothered to disguise their intentions before their last trip to Bills Stadium. They’d entered the game blitzing on over half of opponents’ pass plays, easily the NFL’s highest rate, and coach John Harbaugh had told Buffalo reporters that he was “usually the one who wants to blitz even more [than Martindale], so we both have the same problem.”

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It wasn’t long before Allen was afflicted. According to a review of the game, the Ravens blitzed Allen on his first nine drop-backs and 11 of his first 12 overall. He completed just one of his first eight passes. Allen didn’t complete his second pass for a positive gain until midway through the second quarter, and by then he’d already been sacked twice, including once on a strip-sack.

The Ravens’ pressure rarely relented. When Allen faced fourth-and-8 from the Ravens’ 16-yard line with about a minute left, Martindale sent an all-out blitz, leaving three cornerbacks alone in man-to-man coverage. Even with a clean pocket, Allen missed the one wide receiver who’d won his matchup — Cole Beasley, spinning away from cornerback Marlon Humphrey — and instead forced a pass to wide receiver John Brown. Cornerback Marcus Peters batted it away easily.

Allen finished 17-for-39 for 146 yards, one touchdown and probably a loop of Ravens blitzers running through his mind. Over his 46 drop-backs, the Ravens sent five or more pass rushers after him 29 times (63%). Allen’s production there was cover-your-eyes bad: 7-for-24 for 52 yards, one touchdown and a 53.5 passer rating. He also took five sacks for 34 yards.

“You can’t let Josh just stand back and throw, of course,” Harbaugh said after the game. “He’s got such a great arm. And then the other thing goes with that is not letting him out of the pocket, because he does such a great job scrambling. … As a quarterback, he’s a really talented, gifted guy. I really like him. I think he’s a great guy, real hard competitor, and that was a big part of the plan, was trying to put pressure on him.”

Now the Ravens’ coaching staff has to decide whether they’ll do it again Saturday. It might be the most important question they face all week.

According to Pro Football Focus, Allen has been elite (105.7 passer rating) when defenses haven’t blitzed this season. And when defenses have blitzed, he’s been even better (111.6), throwing one touchdown every 13.2 attempts and one interception every 118.5 attempts.

Under Buffalo offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, Allen has become the fulcrum of a high-functioning, high-scoring attack. Former Maryland star Stefon Diggs, an offseason acquisition, led the NFL in receiving yards. Beasley joined him on the All-Pro team. Rookie Gabriel Davis is a field-stretching threat. Former Raven John Brown is coming off a 1,000-yard 2019 season. Even the Bills’ offensive line finished the year rated No. 10 overall by PFF.

Together, they’ve given Allen help when he’s under pressure and big-play opportunities when he has time in the pocket. And when his receivers can’t get open and his line can’t hold up, Allen improvises. He had a team-high eight rushing touchdowns in the regular season and led Buffalo with 54 rushing yards in Saturday’s wild-card-round win over the Indianapolis Colts.

“He can make all of those throws, and he does a great job of standing in the pocket,” Harbaugh said Monday. “He extends. He runs out right and left. He makes throws, and he takes off running right, left or middle.”

Like every quarterback, Allen would rather drop back undisturbed. According to PFF, he’s completed less than 50% of his passes and thrown six of his 10 interceptions when pressured this season, and he’s averaged almost 2 yards fewer per attempt when under pressure than when he’s not.

Martindale doesn’t lack for creativity in his pressure schemes, but he does have certain tendencies. The Ravens’ most common blitz packages come from a Cover 1 shell, with one safety in zone coverage, other defenders in man coverage and at least five pass rushers. According to Sports Info Solutions data, the Ravens posted an impressive 9.4% sack rate and 44.2% pressure rate during the regular season in Cover 1, holding opposing quarterbacks to an 80.3 passer rating.

Last season, Martindale’s blitz schemes got the green light in Buffalo. This time around, there’s good reason for caution. No quarterback saw more Cover 1 looks this regular season than Allen, according to SIS, and few were better against them. On 180 drop-backs, he had a 119.4 passer rating, including 16 touchdowns and one interception, and was sacked just seven times.

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So how will the Ravens approach Saturday’s clash? Sunday’s win over the Titans offered some clues. In the first half against Tennessee, one of the NFL’s best and most balanced offenses, the Ravens blitzed quarterback Ryan Tannehill 64.3% of the time, well above the defense’s NFL-high 45.3% rate. The Titans scored 10 points and averaged 4.6 yards per play, well below their averages of 15 first-half points per game and 6.2 yards per play.

The Ravens’ adjustment wasn’t to keep up the blitz; it was to tamp it down. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, they blitzed on just 30.8% of Tennessee’s drop-backs in the second half. The Titans were held to a field goal and averaged just 3.9 yards per play after halftime. Tannehill’s pivotal fourth-quarter interception came against a four-man rush.

Ironically, the Ravens’ best strategy in Buffalo might be to do the opposite of their 2019 game plan. Last season, their defense was one of the NFL’s best when blitzing. This season, it’s been one of the NFL’s best when not blitzing. With the addition of defensive linemen Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell, and the use of inside linebacker Patrick Queen on simulated pressures, the Ravens don’t always need to be aggressive to be effective.

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“We’ve got guys who can get to the quarterback,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve got [outside linebacker] Matt [Judon], of course, who’s always done a good job, and gets there, and got there in the game. ‘Yan’ [Ngakoue] did a great job. He brings it. He’s always a major threat rushing the passer. I think the key for those guys is to be able to play it all. That’s kind of how we’re built.”

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AFC DIVISIONAL ROUND

RAVENS@BILLS

Saturday, 8:15 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Bills by 2

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