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Opponent preview: ♪ How do you solve a problem like Lamar J.? ♪

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If I can figure out a path to stop Lamar Jackson, the Bills’ coaching staff has a shot, right?

Hoo boy. That Lamar Jackson guy sure has looked pretty good this year. There’s little question that the Buffalo Bills face the biggest test of the season this Sunday and because we like to bring interesting content to you, Matt Warren asked me to look at how teams have slowed down Lamar Jackson. Thanks a lot, Matt.

Well since we’re very much against a phone call to Jeff Gillooly, it’s time to hit the film room...er, couch.


Methodology

It was tempting to just analyze the couple games Baltimore has lost, but one of those heavily featured turnovers. Those are hard to replicate in the best of times, and the Baltimore Ravens have been incredibly stingy giving up the ball. Instead, I used the drive-finder tool courtesy of Pro Football Reference and searched for drives of six plays or less that came to an end without a scoring opportunity. To take a look at that yourself, here’s the link to my exact query. With those 31 drives to look up, I set out to find some trends (notes included below).

Play 1

There was no shortage of plays where Baltimore was bunched up like this. There’s a single receiver off screen to the bottom with one defender assigned there as well. The Miami Dolphins were successful here because they didn’t overcomplicate things on an obvious play call. Even with that, though, Miami had to play disciplined football to react to the play correctly.

Buffalo has had troubles with gap integrity at times this year. Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier should make this a point of emphasis this week.

Play 2

This play is selected because it’s drastically different than what most of the defensive stops used. The primary defense on the 31 drives where the defense stopped Baltimore in six plays or less were heavy in Cover-1 looks with stacked boxes to stop the run. Here on 2nd and 11, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ coaches have faith in their team’s ability to come back to the play to prevent a big gain and so used a more traditional look.

A fair amount of successful defensive stops had a sack involved. Shocking, I know. Most of the sacks were what are called “coverage sacks,” in which the quarterback doesn’t have anyone open and runs out of time. Buffalo’s secondary stacks up well with any team in the league and will have a shot at creating some coverage sacks.

Play 3

A lot of suggestions have included using a spy. Philosophically, a spy is nothing more than extending the idea of man coverage to the quarterback in addition to the skill positions. This is important because that helps open up the idea that a spy can be any defender on the field. While Cover-1 seemed to be the dominant starting look, many of the better defensive efforts used some deceit like this play. Looking more like a Cover-2 concept, one safety takes the role of spy and acts accordingly.

Play 4

Like many successful plays against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens, this one started as Cover-1. Most times this leaves the outside coverage man-on-man. Interestingly, despite me insisting on the claim that Cover-1 was incredibly common against the Ravens, I haven’t done a great job showing it. Let’s look at a couple stills.

I don’t claim to be an expert on schemes, but Cover 1 is an easy look to identify. The circled player is the single “high” safety, in others words the deep man. The role is considered a zone concept usually, but very often can read and react to a wide variety of circumstances. The lack of back-end support can be a problem against a vertical offense. In the lineup above, the compressed nature of the Ravens’ offense telegraphs run so there’s no worry about that. That also allows the Cincinnati Bengals to stack the box. Along with a disciplined approach on this play, things went down here in favor of Cincinnati.

The next play the Ravens spread out the offense more. Cincinnati still shows the single high safety but spreads out their players well. Regardless of team and many other factors, Cover-1 was the dominant look used to stop Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. Why is that?

This chart from the NFL shows a distribution of passing attempts to various areas of the field for the Baltimore Ravens. There are three sets of information for each area of the field. These include the number of passes thrown, the completion percentage to that area, and the average gain. League rank is included next to each data point.

Looking at what I circled then, the rankings are what I want to draw attention to. For passes to the deep left part of the field, the Ravens attempt the fewest in the league. Their average gain of 6.76 yards is near the bottom of the league and completion percentage ain’t much better. The number to the deep right are similar.

Deep middle passes are intriguing as they attempt more passes to that part of the field than 28 other teams. The average gain there is mediocre, and Lamar Jackson’s completion percentage is slightly worse than mediocre.

Add it all up and the Ravens have struggled to move the ball over the top of a defense. That allows teams to free up a back-end defender who is less likely to be needed that often.


Summary

Cover-1 isn’t some magic bullet that will stop the Ravens. It was a glaringly common component of successful defensive stops, though. The Bills will still need to be disciplined, maintain gap integrity, and mix things up to try and confuse Lamar Jackson. Shuffling some assignments on the back end, dialing up some fun blitzes, that sort of thing.

On the plus side, the Bills do have the defensive backs to trust them on islands. There’s enough speed on the linebacker side of things to have some hope they’ll be able to shoot into gaps and shut down runs down. Sunday should be an interesting day as the Buffalo Bills take on one of the league’s best. More importantly there is some reason to believe that a win is possible.

(As mentioned near the beginning of this post, here are my notes):

Ravens notes.pdf