For the third time since the Buffalo Bills and the Baltimore Ravens selected quarterbacks in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, those two teams and those two quarterbacks will meet. Well, technically, this is the fourth meeting between Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen, but that first faceoff—a 47-3 drubbing by the Ravens to open the 2018 NFL season—had both quarterbacks coming off the bench, as Nathan Peterman started the game for Buffalo and Joe Flacco for Baltimore.
The Ravens and the Bills have an awful lot in common this year. They’re led by superheroes at quarterback who do things that most mere mortals can only dream of doing. They feature struggling rushing attacks, or at least rushing attacks that struggle when someone other than the superhero quarterback runs the ball. And they’re both expected to win their respective division.
With Buffalo and Baltimore each sitting at 2-1 through the season’s first three weeks, Sunday’s matchup is a big early season game. While it may sound crazy, the potential for this game to matter in a tiebreaker scenario when December rolls around is fairly high.
The Ravens have plenty of star power on their roster, and Buffalo will need to find and exploit some key matchups in order to leave Maryland with a win this weekend. Here are the five players we’re watching this week.
QB Lamar Jackson
This is a premiere quarterback matchup—one that feels like it should be happening in primetime. Instead, much of the country will watch two of the leading MVP candidates square off at 1:00 PM Eastern. Jackson has been magnificent in the early going, completing 63.6% of his passes for 749 yards, 10 touchdowns, and two interceptions. He’s also rushed for 243 yards and two touchdowns on just 26 carries. He’s been even better through three games this year than he was when he won MVP in 2019, as he’s thrown for more touchdowns (10 this year, 7 in 2019) and rushed for more yards (243 this year, 179 in 2019) while completing passes at the same rate. Jackson is one of the league’s “Ultimate Weapons” in the sense that a defense can do everything right to stop him from a schematic perspective, but he just makes things happen that teams cannot prepare to face. Buffalo has had success in containing Jackson in the past, most recently stymying him in a 17-3 victory in the Divisional Round of the 2020 playoffs, but that was with a fully healthy secondary. Cornerback Tre’Davious White and safety Micah Hyde are both out, as is cornerback Christian Benford, and safety Jordan Poyer is coming off a foot injury suffered two weeks ago. Granted, Buffalo’s pass rush is significantly better than it was in 2020, but containing Jackson is still going to take a near-perfect defensive effort with a lot of moving parts coming in and out of the lineup for Buffalo.
WR Rashod Bateman
Normally, a wideout whose best asset is the ability to beat a team deep doesn’t make me nervous when playing Buffalo. The Bills have been outstanding at shutting down big plays in the passing game since head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier arrived. However, the Bills allowed two big plays last weekend, and with another week coming with some uncertainty regarding who will play in the back end, it means Buffalo has to be vigilant in keeping Bateman in front of them. On the year, he only has eight catches, but he leads the Ravens with 28.3 yards per catch for a total of 226 receiving yards. If Poyer can play at the level he usually plays, this should be a non-issue; however, if he’s hampered by the foot injury, then the Bills will need to hope that either safeties Jaquan Johnson or Damar Hamlin can protect on the deep passes over the top.
TE Mark Andrews
Jackson’s top target is still his tight end, and Andrews is off to another impressive start. He’s hauled in 22 passes for 243 yards and three touchdowns, all of which lead Baltimore’s receivers. The Bills are uniquely built to limit production from an athletic tight end thanks to linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds in the middle, and Andrews has struggled against Buffalo more often than not in his career. In three total matchups against the Bills, he’s only caught eight passes for 73 yards on 18 targets. That’s a testament to the athleticism of Buffalo’s linebackers and the game-planning skills of McDermott and Frazier. If Buffalo can force Andrews into a similar disappearing act, they’ll be in great shape come Sunday.
DT Justin Madubuike
With center Mitch Morse (elbow) and right guard Ryan Bates (concussion) either limited or out of commission, it’s possible that the Bills will have at least one new starting offensive lineman on Sunday. Last week, the Bills were a regular M.A.S.H. unit, as Morse, backup Greg Van Roten, Bates, and backup Tommy Doyle all suffered injuries. If Baltimore can generate pressure in Allen’s face, that leads to some rushed decisions, and it could also lead to some more max-protect schemes to keep Allen clean. The Miami Dolphins did a great job crashing the right side of the offensive line to prevent Allen from rolling that way and making big plays, and that pressure right up the gut prevents him from stepping up through the pocket. Madubuike has 1.5 sacks and three tackles for a loss already, and he could be a huge problem if he’s allowed to go one-on-one with a backup offensive lineman.
S Marcus Williams
The 26 year old is doing it all for the Ravens right now, as he leads the team in tackles (27), pass breakups (4), and interceptions (3). He’s also allowed 8% of the passes thrown when he was the closest defender to be completed for a total of 178 yards. Buffalo’s passing game stresses defenses all over the field, and both Allen and offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey have done a nice job finding easy matchups for Allen to exploit. If Williams plays his cards right, he could find himself in a similar position as cornerback Jevon Holland did last week: poised to make a game-changing interception. If he doesn’t, though, he could be on the wrong end of that exploitation Buffalo has nearly perfected.