In late December, when Greg Roman looked back at all the strange things the Ravens had seen over this season, he was grateful — for the opportunity to game-plan on the fly, for what quarterback Lamar Jackson had learned, for how it would prepare their offense for a potential postseason run.
“A lot of adjustments have been made,” Roman said Dec. 31. “It’s kind of been a year of adjustments, really, in a lot of ways, and it’s something that we fully anticipate and are expecting.”
When Tennessee ended the Ravens’ record-breaking 2019 season in the AFC divisional round the year before, the Titans had blunted their running game and occasionally flummoxed Jackson with new defensive looks. It was a learning experience for the Ravens offense, one they carried into an up-and-down-and-up-again 2020.
When the Ravens’ rushing attack ran into an unforeseen brick wall Saturday in Buffalo, Roman again had to improvise. The most surprising thing about their 17-3 loss wasn’t their inability to crack the Bills’ pass defense. It was that Buffalo rarely changed its defensive game plan. It didn’t have to.
On a typical drop-back, Jackson would’ve come to expect a Cover 4 shell, or “quarters” coverage: two deep safeties covering the middle zones, two cornerbacks covering the deep outside zones, and three (or fewer) defenders underneath. Sometimes Buffalo would send an all-out blitz. Sometimes it’d send a cornerback off the edge, especially if it sensed a run play.
But on drop-backs, the Ravens mostly got what they would’ve wanted for Jackson. According to Sports Info Solutions, he faced a Cover 4 scheme on 117 drop-backs in the regular season. On 99 attempts, he completed 64 passes (64.6% accuracy) for 786 yards, nine touchdowns and just two interceptions. His passer rating (110.9) against quarters coverage was higher than against any defense he faced in 2020 besides Cover 0 (116.9).
And yet the offense sputtered and wheezed for much of the night in Orchard Park, New York. The Ravens finished with just three points, tied for their fewest under coach John Harbaugh. Running backs Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins combined for just 84 rushing yards. And Jackson took three sacks, averaged just 6.8 yards per pass attempt and threw a pick-six on his first-ever red-zone interception.
As with the Ravens’ 2019 divisional-round loss, there was no one culprit on offense Saturday. But some were more to blame than others.
The Ravens’ wide receivers and tight ends weren’t winning them a Super Bowl this season. It was a group with a high-level tight end (Mark Andrews), a dynamic but not-quite-there-yet No. 1 wide receiver (Marquise “Hollywood” Brown), a dependable slot option (Willie Snead IV) and a handful of other average targets.
On Saturday, the group mostly did what it was asked. Ravens receivers ran the same Cover 4 beaters, over and over. They blocked out on the edge. They caught the ball when they should’ve (16 catches for 160 yards).
But there were reminders throughout the night that this group is far from polished. Receivers slipped coming out of their breaks. They were jammed at the line of scrimmage.
There was also miscommunication with Jackson. On a second-and-5 play near the end of the first half, wide receiver Miles Boykin ran a shallow crossing route. Rather than “sit” in a wide-open hole in Buffalo’s zone, he continued toward the sideline as Jackson tried to elude pressure. When Jackson finally targeted Boykin, he threw it behind him. After the incompletion, Jackson could be seen on the telecast telling Boykin to “stop.”
4. Running backs
Edwards and Dobbins combined for 32 rushing yards on the Ravens’ opening drive. After that, they were rendered nonfactors in the running game, averaging 3.5 yards per carry over the final 52-plus minutes.
Their biggest impact came in the Ravens’ passing attack, and it wasn’t always a positive one. Dobbins finished second on the team with three catches for 51 yards, including a 31-yarder that got the Ravens into field-goal range early in the second quarter. But drops were costly. He couldn’t secure a would-be first-down pass midway through the first quarter, then mishandled a potential catch-and-run score on a swing pass from backup quarterback Tyler Huntley in the fourth quarter.
Dobbins also missed a block on Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes on a potentially game-changing third-quarter play. On an apparent presnap slide protection, the offensive line shifted left at the snap. After right tackle Tyre Phillips put up little fight against Hughes, instead focusing more on defenders to his left, Hughes smoothly eluded a cut-block attempt from Dobbins.
Jackson had Brown running wide open from right to left, but the pressure kept him from delivering an on-target throw. The pass fell incomplete, and one play later, the Bills had a pick-six.
3. Greg Roman
Roman has become something of a scapegoat in local and national circles, and it’s easy to see why. It’s one thing for fans to point to the coordinator after an inconsistent Ravens season ends with a disappointing offensive showing. It’s another for analysts like Kurt Warner and former Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. to say the team’s passing concepts badly need an upgrade.
Indeed, no one would confuse Roman’s schemes with Andy Reid’s. The Ravens, for the most part, kept it simple Saturday. There were numerous plays with mirrored concepts, in which the receivers on both the strong and weak side run the same routes. There were too few run-pass-option and play-action plays to counteract the Bills’ aggressive run defense, especially on first down. There wasn’t much variety in Roman’s downfield Cover 4 beaters.
But when Jackson dropped back Saturday, he typically had an open receiver (or two) to target. Even with the team’s running struggles, Roman’s play-calling had Ravens open in the flats and over the middle. The passing attack found a way to stress the Bills’ underneath defenders, play after play. It just struggled with execution until after halftime.
2. Offensive line
Saturday’s game was the third straight playoff matchup in which the Ravens’ offensive line has uncharacteristically struggled. Against Tennessee last season, Jackson was sacked four times, including once on a strip-sack. In the wild-card round, a weak Titans pass rush sacked Jackson five times. On Saturday, the Bills took down Jackson three times and mostly bottled up the Ravens’ ground game, which, on paper, was a clear strength.
Pass protection issues, in particular, seemed to bubble up at exactly the wrong times. Hughes’ first of two sacks denied Jackson a deep-shot opportunity to Brown, who had about 5 yards of cushion as he bent his deep post route toward the middle of the field in the second quarter. Correctly or incorrectly, right tackle D.J. Fluker had left fullback Patrick Ricard to handle Hughes all by himself on the play, and he could hold up for only so long.
It was also a long night for right guard Ben Powers, whose strengths as a run blocker were obscured in a more pass-heavy game. In the second quarter, Jackson couldn’t step into a sideline throw to a wide-open Andrews because defensive tackle Justin Zimmer had pushed Powers back into Jackson’s lap.
One quarter later, Hughes sacked Jackson after defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson beat Powers and forced Jackson to pull the ball and relocate rather than find Snead open over the middle.
And, of course, there were center Patrick Mekari’s snapping problems. If not for Jackson’s athleticism, the Ravens would have been in for an even longer night.
1. Lamar Jackson
After Saturday’s loss, Snead said “the sky is the limit” for Jackson. He also cautioned that this game — the second-lowest rated of Jackson’s playoff career, according to Pro Football Focus — could be a “wake-up call.”
The trouble started early, when Jackson held on to the ball too long in the face of a cornerback blitz by Levi Wallace and took a needless back on first-and-10, derailing a promising opening drive.
That set an ominous tone. Jackson seemed at times to not trust what he was seeing. The Bills’ defensive structure changed only so much, but Jackson either waited too long to deliver quick hitters over the middle or looked receivers off before they would’ve gotten open in the flats. On the third-and-3 before kicker Justin Tucker’s second missed field-goal attempt, he tried to hit Andrews on a tight-window sideline throw when Edwards was open over the middle on a simple check-down.
On Jackson’s pivotal interception, he made cornerback Taron Johnson’s job easy, staring down Andrews as he waited for him to turn around at the goal line. Jackson had a clean pocket; he could’ve easily manipulated the coverage with his eyes and pivoted left, where Snead was a far better option. Instead, Jackson forced the pass to Andrews and watched it go the other way.
Even some of Jackson’s good plays could’ve been great plays. On two third-and-long conversions Saturday, Roman had Brown and Snead run deep crossing patterns that he figured would stress the Bills’ deep safeties.
The first time the Ravens ran it, Jackson found Brown for a 21-yard completion on third-and-18. The second time, Jackson scrambled 15 yards on third-and-13. Both times, no defensive back bothered to cover Snead as he streaked across the field.
Jackson “is an elite runner, an elite passer, but there are steps he can take, better strides that he can take,” Snead said, “and he knows that.” The same goes for the offense as a whole.