The Ravens entered Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills with, by some measures, the NFL’s best offense. They led the league in yards per play, points per game and overall efficiency, according to Football Outsiders. They had a Most Valuable Player favorite in quarterback Lamar Jackson.
They ended Sunday’s home collapse without any real progress made against a defense that has vexed Jackson and coordinator Greg Roman like few others have.
In the 23-20 loss, the Ravens averaged a season-low 4.6 yards per play. They had just two drives of longer than 38 yards, the second of which ended with a game-changing goal-line interception. Their running game couldn’t establish itself. Jackson had his worst passing performance of the season. There were inopportune penalties and struggling stars and bad-weather misfortunes against a defense missing an All-Pro-caliber defensive tackle (Ed Oliver), cornerback (Tre’Davious White) and safety (Micah Hyde).
It was the kind of lockdown performance that the Bills, under defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, might well now expect. In their three meetings over the past four years, the Ravens have averaged just 4.6 yards per play — a mark equal to the Washington Commanders’ NFL-low average for this season — and searched fruitlessly for consistent success. They’re averaging minus-0.11 expected points added per play against Buffalo since 2019, according to the play index site nflfastR; only the Pittsburgh Steelers have limited the Ravens more effectively in that span. (EPA accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position.)
Even average performances from the Ravens’ offense likely would have been enough to knock off Buffalo in their past two matchups. In their 2020 divisional-round playoff win, the Bills scored one offensive touchdown and had just 220 yards of total offense. In Sunday’s comeback, they finished with a season-low 326 yards, and the Ravens turned their two turnovers into 10 points.
“Our offense is very confident in what we can do,” right guard Kevin Zeitler said Sunday, after his first game against Buffalo as a Raven. “Whether we call passes or we call runs, the guys in the room, we truly believe, whatever is called, we can get it done. And obviously, I think it’s just more [about] consistent execution, and I don’t think there’s any reason to panic. We’ve just got to keep getting better.”
If the AFC’s road to the Super Bowl runs through Buffalo this season, the Ravens’ next encounter could be just months away. Here’s where their offense will have to improve:
Run offense formula
Roman has probed the Bills’ defense with different personnel tendencies over their three meetings. In 2019, when the Ravens held on for a 24-17 win in Buffalo despite just 118 yards rushing, he relied mostly on “11″ personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) and “12″ personnel (one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers). Neither package averaged more than 3.7 yards per carry.
In their 2020 loss, before Jackson was knocked out of the game late in the third quarter with a concussion, the Ravens leaned more on “11″ personnel and heavier formations featuring fullback Patrick Ricard. They were more successful, especially early, but still all but abandoned designed runs as the game wore on.
On Sunday, the Ravens seemed determined to outmuscle Buffalo, which is content to line up in its “nickel” defense (five defensive backs) against even tight-end-heavy and fullback-added formations. Of Roman’s 26 designed-run calls, 23 came with Ricard on the field.
But the Ravens averaged just 4 yards per carry on those attempts. Early-down success was especially elusive; on running back J.K. Dobbins’ six first-down carries Sunday, he totaled just 9 yards, almost half of which came on his 4-yard first-quarter touchdown. Those struggles kept not only the Ravens off schedule but also Buffalo in its preferred defensive structure.
“We know going in, they’re a very good defense,” Zeitler said. “There is a reason they’re, like, No. 1 in everything, and it was going to be a tough game. We started off nice, and things were rolling our way, but just like any good team, which they are, they made adjustments and they battled. It was an absolute battle out there, and we couldn’t pull it off.”
Unlocking Mark Andrews
Andrews entered Week 4 as the picture of consistency for the Ravens’ passing attack. His 12 straight games with 50-plus receiving yards was the NFL’s longest active streak and tied for the second-longest such streak by a tight end in the modern NFL.
Buffalo’s defense, though, is a graveyard for tight end production. No unit in September better defended the position, according to Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics, and the Bills only burnished their reputation in Baltimore. Andrews was limited to two catches on five targets for 15 yards, his lowest output since the Ravens’ 2019 win in Buffalo (one catch on three targets for 14 yards). In Andrews’ return trip the following year, he had four catches on 11 targets for 28 yards.
Part of the problem is personnel. Taron Johnson, whose pick-six in the Ravens’ 2020 playoff loss doubled Buffalo’s lead, is one of the NFL’s more versatile slot cornerbacks. Inside linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds have played together as starters since 2018, with only occasional interruptions, a cohesiveness that becomes apparent in how well they pass off receivers in zone coverage. And Jordan Poyer, who had two interceptions Sunday, is an All-Pro safety.
But there have also been missed opportunities. In 2020, Jackson twice short-armed passes to a wide-open Andrews, costing the Ravens potential double-digit gains. On Sunday, he overthrew Andrews on a would-be 16-yard touchdown pass to open the second quarter. The Ravens instead settled for a field goal.
Beating ‘Cover 4′
With a steady pass rush, a reliable linebacking corps and a star-studded secondary, the Bills have all but dared Jackson on drop-backs to take what’s available underneath or suffer the consequences.
In 2020, Jackson dropped back 19 times in Buffalo against “Cover 4″ looks, according to Sports Info Solutions, a pass coverage with four deep zones — typically split between two cornerbacks and two safeties — and three shallow zones. He went 9-for-14 for 135 yards but was pressured eight times, scrambling three times and taking two sacks.
On Sunday, Jackson saw more of the same. According to The 33rd Team, Jackson dropped back 11 times against “Cover 4″ looks but went just 3-for-6 for 18 yards. He was hurried five times, pressured seven times and sacked twice. He also scrambled three times for 28 yards.
Harbaugh indicated Monday that the Ravens’ pass protection plans undercut some of Jackson’s effectiveness against Buffalo’s zone schemes. With rookie Daniel Faalele starting at left tackle and star defensive end Von Miller often lining up over right tackle Morgan Moses, the Ravens had to keep Jackson well protected on obvious passing downs. Sometimes that meant sacrificing the integrity of their route concepts.
“We weren’t able to quite do the high-low, maybe, type of challenges as quickly as we wanted to because we were working our protection,” Harbaugh said, referring to a concept that gives the quarterback the option of passing to either the target in front of or behind a defender’s zone. “Sometimes those guys got out late; I think Pat got out late one time. You saw J.K. get out late one time, and Lamar was able to dump him the ball. Or the checkdown ended up being Lamar, because we had the protection set up to protect against those two pass rushers, and Lamar found his way through, and he was the checkdown.”
Good teams make their own luck, but the Ravens haven’t had much of it against Buffalo in their past two losses.
They’ve dealt with bad weather. In 2020, amid gusts of wind as high as 26 mph, All-Pro kicker Justin Tucker missed two first-half field-goal attempts. His first one, from 41 yards, hit the left upright, while the second, from 46 yards, doinked off the right. Rainy conditions were a problem for players on both teams Sunday, but maybe no one struggled more with drops than Ravens wide receiver Rashod Bateman.
They’ve dealt with iffy calls. On Sunday, officials missed an apparent pass-interference call against Ravens wide receiver Demarcus Robinson on third down but penalized tight end Mark Andrews for offensive pass interference, a questionable flag that turned a first-and-goal at Buffalo’s 1-yard line into third-and-16.
And they’ve dealt with bad timing. Jackson has thrown only four interceptions in the red zone in his career. The first one was returned 101 yards for a touchdown by Johnson, ending the Ravens’ last scoring threat of their 2020 loss. The fourth one came Sunday, when Poyer picked off Jackson’s jump-ball throw to wide receiver Devin Duvernay, not only denying a go-ahead touchdown but also moving Buffalo into better territory for its decisive drive.
“At the end of the day, it’s our job to get in the end zone,” Moses said, “and we’ve got to perfect those things.”
Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 3