Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Matthew Judon talks about how the defense played against the Buffalo Bills.
From a ragged but resourceful effort on offense to deepening ambitions for a Super Bowl trip, here are five things we learned from the Ravens’ 24-17 win over the Buffalo Bills.
The Ravens are as resourceful as they are dominant.
They lost their best pass catcher to a leg injury. They ran for a season-low 118 yards. Their genie of a quarterback was largely contained to his bottle. They were whistled for 56 yards in penalties as they attempted to mount a game-saving defensive stand.
Does that sound like the formula for beating a 9-3 team on the road in a game with significant playoff implications for both sides?
Yet the Ravens won, because that’s what they do in 2019. You cut off their first path to victory and their second? They’ll find a third.
In this case, a defense that had taken its lumps the previous week harassed rapidly improving Bills quarterback Josh Allen into a dreadful 17-for-39 performance. The Ravens hit Allen 12 times, held him to nine rushing yards and made eight tackles behind the line of scrimmage. When they had to stop the Bills as the clock ticked down in the fourth quarter, they did so, despite the best efforts of an overzealous officiating crew.
As is usually the case when this defense performs well, many players chipped in. Outside linebacker Matthew Judon looked like a prime Terrell Suggs with a strip-sack to set up the Ravens’ first touchdown drive and a tackle for loss on an Allen pass to the flat. Defensive tackle Brandon Williams tied for the team lead with seven tackles. Cornerback Marcus Peters defended three passes, including Allen’s final fourth-down attempt.
The Ravens weren’t perfect; they allowed Bills receivers to get behind them several times and were bailed out by Allen’s deep-ball inaccuracy. But their aggressiveness carried a windy day in Buffalo.
Give quarterback Lamar Jackson his own medal for resourcefulness. He lost tight end Mark Andrews, his go-to man on third down, early in the game. The Bills did a better job than any previous opponent of cutting off his running lanes. But Jackson completed 11 of 15 passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns in the second half, just enough to get his team over the line against a rugged opponent. It’s no accident that the Ravens have won 17 of 20 regular-season games since Jackson became their starter midway through last season. He has a sublime feel for what his team needs each week.
The Ravens delivered their most ragged offensive effort in recent memory.
The Bills deserve laurels for what they did to the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense. They combine a bruising front with one of the league’s best defensive backfields, and they played with terrific discipline in maintaining a net around Jackson whenever he looked to improvise. The Ravens quarterback came in averaging 7 yards per carry but picked up just 40 on 11 attempts in Buffalo.
Buffalo’s tenacious resistance aside, the Ravens did not finish drives as sharply as they have for most of the season.
On their first possession of the game, Andrews could not pull in a long pass in traffic on second down, and Jackson sailed his third-down throw over an open Seth Roberts.
On their second possession, the Ravens had second-and-4 from the Bills’ 12-yard line, but Justice Hill lost 6 yards after Jackson bobbled a shotgun snap (one of several such mishandles), and they had to settle for a field goal. This was an unfamiliar lapse for an offense that came in fifth in the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage.
In the second quarter, Jackson threw high on a short pass to Willie Snead IV, who deflected the ball into the hands of Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. Only an impressive stand by the Ravens defense kept that mistake from leading to points for Buffalo.
The Ravens’ struggles extended to play calling. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has operated with a magic touch for most of the season but not in this game. In the second quarter, Roman called for a direct snap to Mark Ingram II on second-and-goal, doing the defense a favor by effectively removing the threat of Jackson from the play. Ingram went nowhere, though the Ravens did score on the next down. In the third quarter, Jackson completed a screen pass to Marquise Brown for an 8-yard loss, which is hard to do and a sign of how easily the Bills read the play. A few minutes later, Roman called for a pass on third-and-2 that led to a wild, back-pedaling incompletion.
The Ravens converted just three of 11 third-down attempts after coming in with a league-best 48.9% success rate. When they got the ball with a seven-point lead and seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, they went three-and-out.
We’ve learned over the past two weeks that as versatile and creative as the Ravens are with Jackson engineering Roman’s offense, they can’t simply show up and trample the league’s best defenses.
The Ravens can’t afford to play without Mark Andrews for long.
Coach John Harbaugh received good news in the postgame locker room when Andrews said his leg injury was not serious and he expects to play Thursday against the New York Jets.
After Andrews exited the Bills game, we quickly saw why he ranks high on a list of the team’s most essential players.
Jackson seemed unsure where to look for the remainder of the first half. Andrews came in leading the Ravens in touchdown receptions and sixth in the league in third-down-conversion catches. Without him, the offense stalled on those high-leverage plays.
Brown, the Ravens’ top deep threat in theory, has disappeared from the offense over the past two weeks, catching four passes on five targets for minus-1 yard (yes, you read that correctly).
If there was a thin silver lining to Andrews’ absence, it was fellow tight end Hayden Hurst catching a 61-yard touchdown pass off play action to start the second half. The touchdown offered a well-deserved showcase for the 2018 first-round pick, who would probably have gaudier numbers on a different team. Hurst had been a highly efficient receiver through 12 games, with 23 catches on 29 targets. He just hadn’t seen the ball nearly as much as his good buddy, Andrews, who came in with 79 targets. His speed and sure hands make him a formidable secondary option for Jackson.
With their wide receivers seeing the ball so infrequently, the Ravens badly need both Andrews and Hurst.
The middle of the Ravens defense has taken a leap with the addition of Domata Peko Sr.
The Ravens were already formidable on the interior with Williams playing inspired football and Michael Pierce delivering his usual powerful work against the run.
But when Pierce’s ankle injury prompted them to sign the veteran Peko (and Justin Ellis, who was inactive in Buffalo), they improved both their depth and their inside pass rush.
Though Peko has averaged a modest 19 snaps per game and made just one tackle against the Bills, he routinely pushes blockers into the backfield. That collapsing pressure bothered Allen throughout the game.
With Williams, Pierce and Peko (combined weight: 1,001 pounds) rotating, the Ravens are guaranteed to have two unmovable boulders at the center of their defense whenever they need them.
The Bills found little room attacking the middle. They only got running back Devin Singletary (17 carries, 89 yards) untracked by targeting the weaker edges of the Ravens defense.
A mere playoff appearance is not good enough for this team.
The Ravens officially stamped their passport to the postseason Sunday, a milestone that felt like a big deal in Baltimore as recently as last December, when Harbaugh’s team ended a three-year playoff drought.
But the players mostly shrugged off their achievement. They share a grander vision for this season.
“We haven’t done enough,” Judon said.
He’s right. According to the DVOA statistic developed by FootballOutsiders.com to measure overall efficiency, the Ravens were the eighth-best team of the last 35 seasons through 12 games. Their odds of winning the Super Bowl were twice as good as those of any other team, according to the analytics web site. Those numbers are likely to look similar this week after a tough road victory that moved the Ravens closer to home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
They’ve won nine straight games, seven of those against winning teams and five of them on the road. They’ve outscored opponents by 15 points a game, best in the league.
The Ravens have won two Super Bowls in 24 seasons in Baltimore, but they’ve simply never entered the last three weeks with a resume this commanding. A team this good should not be satisfied with merely playing into January.
Talk to any team in August, and they’ll tell you a Super Bowl victory is the only meaningful standard. But we all know that’s nonsense for most rosters in most seasons.