In the time it took Ravens outside linebacker Matthew Judon to bounce off one block from Houston Texans right tackle Tytus Howard, loop around to the other end of the defensive line, watch quarterback Deshaun Watson scramble right, forward and back his way, then dip around left guard Max Scharping for the game’s first sack, a teammate could’ve jogged back and forth to the sideline for a water break. Maybe checked his email, too.
If Judon’s first-quarter strip-sack Sunday felt interminable, by football standards, it was. From snap to takedown, 10.31 seconds elapsed, the longest time before a sack in the past two seasons, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Every sprinter in the 2016 Olympic men’s 100-meter-dash final — a race longer than a football field — needed less time to cross the finish line.
“That’s pretty unheard of,” coach John Harbaugh said afterward of Judon’s sack time, which defensive line coach Joe Cullen told him might’ve been an NFL record. It wasn’t, but Cullen "was proud of it because of the effort, the effort it takes in coverage and in chasing down and keeping him in there, a quarterback like Deshaun Watson.”
The Ravens did not need their pass rush to strike like lighting in Sunday’s 41-7 win over the Texans. Of their season-high seven sacks — six against the elusive Watson and another against backup A.J. McCarron — none ranked among the 20 fastest in Week 11. The Ravens have built their defense around their secondary, and elite coverage can buy the time needed for 10-plus-second sacks.
Watson wasn’t inaccurate, but he was made uncomfortable. In three-plus quarters, the Most Valuable Player candidate was 18-for-29 for 169 yards and an interception; his 63.7 passer rating was a season low. Just one Houston receiver, Keke Coutee, finished above the NFL average of 2.83 yards of separation from the nearest defender at the time of a catch or incompletion Sunday, according to Next Gen Stats.
Watson’s running ability, while not as dynamic as Lamar Jackson’s, had worried the Ravens. He was athletic enough to escape pressure and talented enough to pick apart conservative defenses. The Ravens’ game plan was bold: They wanted to be just as aggressive in passing situations, if not more so, but not so aggressive that that in their pursuit, they left scrambling holes.
Entering Week 11, coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s defense led the NFL in blitz rate, bringing five or more pass rushers on nearly 50% of plays, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Only two other units were even above 40%. On Sunday, Watson dropped back to pass 37 times. According to a review of the game film, the Ravens blitzed him 19 times.
The pressure was worth the risk. When the defense did not blitz, sending only three or four rushers after Watson, he was sacked twice and finished 11-for-16 for 82 yards — a solid but decidedly unspectacular 80.7 rating.
When the defense did blitz, Watson was not only less accurate but also more turnover-prone. He dropped back 13 times against five-man rushes and attempted just seven passes, completing six for 78 yards. He otherwise scrambled twice for 10 yards and was sacked four times, including Judon’s strip-sack.
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Against six-man rushes, Watson avoided taking a sack but was just 1-for-6 for 9 yards, and an ill-advised jump throw — forced in part by safety Brandon Carr, who became a seventh pass rusher as Watson scrambled his way — turned into an interception by inside linebacker Josh Bynes.
“We all know, man, you can go on a drought, and then you can catch fire in an instant,” Judon said. “You know how this league goes.”
It was a slow burn. Judon’s opening-drive sack was a tone-setter for the afternoon. The Ravens took their sweet old time bringing down Watson, but they did it again and again. With Judon’s wait-and-see sack, the defense averaged about 6 seconds per takedown. Without it, the average was still about 5 seconds. Not until Watson’s sixth and final sack did the Ravens come close to extinguishing the play in four seconds. Even that play required the left side of the Texans’ line to completely forget about blocking Judon and defensive lineman Jihad Ward.
What the Ravens pass rush might have lacked in pyrotechnics, it made up for in attention to detail. A second-quarter sequence of back-to-back sacks showed the group’s resilience. On second-and-6 near midfield, with the Ravens leading 7-0, Watson faked a handoff and dropped back. The play-action slowed the edge rush from Judon and rookie Jaylon Ferguson, but the line’s moving pieces opened a hole for inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor. As Judon and Ferguson kept their outside containment, Onwausor fired through on a delayed blitz for a 9-yard sack.
On the next play, three Houston receivers lined up within about 5 yards of one another, with the widest only as far as the slot. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey started the play with his back almost completely turned to the far sideline, his attention seemingly focused on crossing routes out of the Texans’ bunch formation. But when the ball was snapped, Humphrey blitzed. From the opposite side, so did safety Chuck Clark.
The edge pressure was enough to knock Watson off his spot, but the defensive backs had erred. They’d rushed past Watson, who stepped up and scampered through a gaping hole in the left side of the pocket. One problem: All his receivers’ routes were taking them to the other side of the field. As outside linebacker Tyus Bowser approached, there was no one to throw to. Watson made it only as far back as the line of scrimmage before slipping. Another sack, another punt.
“Defensively, to control Deshaun Watson the way they did, and to get the sacks the way we did, and the pressures, and to force the quick throws, was just a team effort,” Harbaugh said Sunday. “And it’s hard to rush the way we did. We weren’t just running upfield. We were getting very disciplined rush lanes, and they did a great job of that. That takes a lot of effort. And our coverage takes a lot of effort ... but we covered the extended plays.”