After the Ravens’ running game, for the first time all season, finally looked like the Ravens’ running game, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked to explain why.
“I don’t think there were any new plays,” he said after the Ravens’ 37-26 win Sunday in Gillette Stadium. He mentioned the Ravens’ outside rushing concepts and praised their quarterback: “Lamar did a good job.”
Belichick’s diagnosis was simple but correct. The Ravens’ reinvigorated ground game — a season-high 188 yards on 26 carries (7.2 yards per attempt) against a strong defensive front — didn’t necessarily come from a reinvented ground game. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman called gap plays, where blockers look to crack open a predetermined hole by dislodging defenders. He called zone plays, where blockers are responsible for covering an area, not necessarily an assigned defender.
Roman’s most important decision Sunday, though, was to involve Jackson more in the Ravens’ running game. Over the team’s first two weeks, Jackson had 12 carries for 130 yards and a touchdown (excluding kneel-downs). According to Sports Info Solutions, however, only five of those attempts came on read-option plays, long the bread-and-butter of the Ravens’ record-breaking rushing attack.
And those five carries were a mixed bag. In the Ravens’ Week 2 loss to the Miami Dolphins, Jackson had a career-long 79-yard touchdown run on an “inverted veer” concept, a play that, by flipping the action in the popular “veer” option, gives the quarterback the choice to run inside or hand the ball off for an outside run. But on the Ravens’ four other option plays, all keepers by Jackson, they ran for a combined 20 yards.
On Sunday, Jackson finished with eight carries for 110 yards and a touchdown (excluding kneel-downs) — and only one of those rushes came on a scramble. By relying more on quarterback-driven running plays, the Ravens changed the Patriots’ math on defense, forcing them to account for another ball carrier in the box.
New England especially had no answers for the Ravens’ “bash” reads, in which the running back next to Jackson in the shotgun formation heads to the back side of the play, away from the pulling action, and the offensive line blocks for Jackson as if he’s keeping the ball. The Ravens ran the concept four times, and Jackson kept it every time, finishing with gains of 5 yards, 17 yards, 20 yards and a 9-yard touchdown run that effectively clinched their win late in the fourth quarter.
Other option plays twisted the Patriots’ run defense into knots, too. Jackson’s game-high 38-yard run came on an inverted-veer play, and running back Justice Hill (six carries for 60 yards) took a pistol formation handoff on an option play for 34 yards.
The read-option made the Ravens’ running game “really tough to defend,” Harbaugh said Sunday. “If I was assessing what they were doing, I think they were going to force Lamar to run a little bit and say, ‘OK, are you really willing to do that? Is he willing to do that? Because they basically took away the sweep lanes. They were playing tough against the running back stuff, especially in the first half and into the third quarter between the tackles, and then they were saying, ‘OK, run Lamar, see how much he’ll do it,’ a little bit.
“They played good defense against him. But Lamar is a tough guy. He made a lot of plays that way and made the running game go.”
Sunday’s showdown against the Buffalo Bills could be a litmus test for Roman, Jackson and the Ravens’ rushing attack. Buffalo has the NFL’s fifth-best run defense, according to Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics, and has mostly handcuffed Jackson in their past two meetings. In Jackson’s first start against the Bills, a 2019 regular-season win, he had nine carries for 43 yards on designed runs. In a playoff loss a year later, he was limited to just six carries for 11 yards.
When the Ravens replaced ultra-aggressive defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale with Mike Macdonald this offseason, their blitz rate was always expected to be a casualty.
In 2019 and 2020, Martindale sent five or more rushers after the quarterback on an NFL-high 54.9% and 44.1% of the Ravens’ plays, respectively, according to Pro Football Reference. Last year, undercut by injuries and poor performance, the defense’s blitz rate crashed to 31.1%, still sixth highest in the league.
Over Macdonald’s first three games as coordinator, the Ravens’ blitz rate has fallen even further, to 28.1%, 10th highest in the NFL. Unfortunately for the defense, so has its pressure rate. The Ravens have pressured opposing quarterbacks on just 19% of their drop-backs, 24th best in the NFL and down from their 23% rate last season.
Injuries have been a factor, especially at outside linebacker, where only Odafe Oweh has played without limitations this season. The low pressure rate is all the more glaring because of the circumstances of the Ravens’ first three games: the New York Jets’ Joe Flacco and Patriots’ Mac Jones weren’t especially quick to get rid of the ball, and the Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa, more of a quick-strike passer, was playing from behind for most of Week 2.
When the Ravens have collapsed the pocket, good things have typically followed. Three of the Ravens’ four most recent interceptions all came on pressures. In Week 2, Tagovailoa overthrew wide receiver Jaylen Waddle down the left sideline as outside linebacker Justin Houston bore down on Tagovailoa from his blind side. Safety Marcus Williams intercepted the too-long deep shot.
On Sunday, Jones faded to his left as Ravens cornerback Damarion “Pepe” Williams pressured him on an unblocked blitz. Jones threw off his back foot to the back of the end zone, where cornerback Marlon Humphrey made the easy pick.
Later in the fourth quarter, Jones threw a wobbly pass over wide receiver Kendrick Bourne’s head as defensive lineman Calais Campbell freed himself for a quarterback hit. Cornerback Marcus Peters’ interception — Jones’ third overall of the day — ended New England’s final drive of the game.
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“Even though the hiccup [against Miami] happened last week, we’re used to seeing that from our defense,” Jackson said of the Ravens’ takeaways Sunday. “We see it all week in practice, so there’s no doubt in my mind that that’s going to happen, and they just showed it today. They were locked in. They were like not letting Mac have his way.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Bills by 3 1/2