In a league of copycat defenses, the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears might as well be different species.
Miami is second in the NFL in blitz rate, according to Pro Football Reference; Chicago is second to last. Miami has three defensive backs with double-digit pass rushes this season, according to Sports Info Solutions, including one with 69; Chicago has one with just nine. Miami has blitzed multiple teams with multiple Cover 0 looks; Chicago has used the pressure-heavy coverage just three times all season.
But after the Ravens wilted against the Dolphins’ hyperaggressive approach in Week 10, producing what offensive coordinator Greg Roman called a “straight-to-DVD performance” in a 22-10 road loss, coach John Harbaugh knows the Bears defense he’s studied on tape might not resemble the one he sees Sunday in Chicago. Not when blitzing quarterback Lamar Jackson, once one of the NFL’s worst strategies, has turned into one of the league’s better plans.
“I would expect them to blitz based on what they saw Thursday,” Harbaugh said Monday. “So we’re preparing for that as well.”
The Ravens are used to it by now. According to SIS, Jackson has been blitzed on 31.7% of his drop-backs this season, tied for the NFL’s second-highest rate, behind only that of Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields (32.0%). Jackson’s 120 drop-backs against the blitz this year not only lead the NFL but have him on pace for the second most in any season since 2015. (That year, Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles faced 235 blitzes in a 16-game season, according to SIS.)
Jackson’s last outing, in which he faced constant presnap Cover 0 looks — potential blitzers massed at the line of scrimmage, defensive backs in man-to-man coverage guarding the first-down marker — wasn’t even the most blitz-crazed of his season. Miami blitzed him 20 times on 50 drop-backs. In Week 4, the Denver Broncos blitzed him 27 times on 42 drop-backs.
Over his first three years in the NFL, Jackson had never faced 15 blitzes in a game, partly because of the Ravens’ run-heavy tendencies. This year, he’s had four such games.
“Week in and week out, that’s our main concern, especially as offensive linemen: Keep that guy clean,” center Bradley Bozeman said Thursday. “The guy, he’s special back there. Keeping him clean, letting him be able to do the things that he can do, let him be ‘Lamarvelous.’ And we’re going to continue to work and try to pick up these blitzes, keep guys off of him and do the best we can.”
The Ravens’ main concern this week is having Jackson ready for Soldier Field; he missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with an illness unrelated to the coronavirus. Not far behind on their to-do list: finding a counterpunch for defensive pressure.
Jackson’s struggles against the blitz this season don’t seem especially immense. He’s completed 63.5% of his passes for 6.9 yards per attempt, according to SIS, and has four touchdowns and three interceptions against five or more pass rushers. Jackson’s passer rating against the blitz (84.3) isn’t far below his season-long overall mark (93.1).
But in high-leverage situations, Jackson has underwhelmed. He has taken 12 sacks, or one for every 10 drop-backs. His mark of minus-17.7 expected points added — a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position, effectively valuing a 3-yard run on third-and-short more than a 3-yard run on first-and-10 — is one of the NFL’s lowest against the blitz, according to SIS.
“We’ll get it fixed, though,” Jackson said Nov. 11, after finishing 26-for-43 for 238 yards, a touchdown and an interception against the Dolphins. “We have a lot of games left in the season. We’re good.”
Two years ago, blitzing Jackson was like playing with fire — and defensive coordinators got towering infernos more than they did controlled burns. Despite subpar accuracy (57.8%), Jackson made the most of his completions, throwing 20 touchdown passes and just two interceptions and finishing with a 113.2 passer rating. His EPA against the blitz during his Most Valuable Player-winning season: 34.86, one of the NFL’s highest marks.
Defenses seemed to learn their lesson. Jackson was blitzed less often in 2020 (22.2% of drop-backs) than in 2019 (26.4%). His accuracy against pressure improved, as it has again this year, but his big-play rate stabilized. He threw just six touchdowns. His passer rating fell to 94.2.
Last week, the Dolphins decided to test Jackson’s presnap command and midplay processing with brutal repetition. Their exotic blitzes looked ripped from Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s pressure playbook. To free up outside rushers, Miami defenders would often engage interior linemen before “popping,” dropping into zone coverages that discouraged shallow routes over the middle.
When the Ravens had screens called against blitzes, they rarely worked — sometimes because of where the Dolphins lined up their defensive backs, tight end Mark Andrews said, and sometimes because of “poppers” rallying to the ball. On a handful of pass plays, the Ravens missed blocks. Other times, Jackson’s internal clock was a little slow.
“Pass pro[tection] is obviously something that, along with our run blocking and everything we do, it’s a constant chase,” Roman said. “We’re trying to get better at it all the time. When it comes to protection versus pressures and blitzes, it all depends. It’s kind of a math game. And once you solve the math problem, then it becomes a technique and guys-blocking-guys game. So I’d say overall, it was pretty good in that game, really, overall. I mean, they had some free runners that — we’ve just got to get the ball out.”
The Ravens might not be far from turning the corner. Patrick Mekari (ankle), the team’s top offensive tackle this season, returned to practice this week and could help stabilize the right side of the line. If wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (thigh) plays Sunday, Jackson should have his top three wide receivers available for just the second time this season. A few big plays might discourage the kind of safety blitzes that Miami weaponized in Week 10.
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Harbaugh this week has welcomed the opportunity to beat back pressure looks, saying the Ravens have “some great answers” for Cover 0 looks. As he put it Monday, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.” Considering Chicago’s banged-up, middling defense — No. 23 in overall efficiency, according to Football Outsiders — Bears coaches might feel the same way.
“In general, if people are going to kind of throw the dice out there,” Roman said, “you’ve got to make them play, or you’re just going to keep seeing it.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 4 ½