Before the season started, it looked like one of the NFL’s best matchups. Now it might be one of the league’s most lopsided.
On one end is the Los Angeles Rams’ offense, which not only leads the NFL in usage of “11″ personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers), according to Sharp Football Stats, but also ranks second in yards per pass attempt with the grouping (8.4).
On the other end is the Ravens’ defense, which, a year after leading the NFL in yards per attempt allowed against 11 personnel, now ranks last (8.4), sunken by a secondary ravaged by injuries and big plays.
It is a precarious place for the Ravens to find themselves this week. If they want to keep their postseason hopes alive Sunday in Baltimore, they’ll have to survive a passing attack led by a strong-armed quarterback and all-star wide receiver who want nothing more than to replicate the assault that shredded the Ravens’ defense in Cincinnati.
Joe Burrow set a high bar Sunday. In a 41-21 win, the Bengals quarterback finished 37-for-46 for 525 yards — the fourth most in NFL history — and four touchdowns. Maybe most frustrating for Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale: Cincinnati coach and play-caller Zac Taylor didn’t need to change much about his offensive structure from play to play or series to series.
According to Sharp Football Stats, Cincinnati used three-wide-receiver formations on 94% of its plays Sunday. On those 46 drop-backs, Burrow went 36-for-43 for 425 yards and all four of his scores — good for a 148.4 passer rating — and was sacked three times. Against a Ravens defense missing cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Jimmy Smith and Chris Westry, along with Anthony Averett after a first-quarter ribs injury, the Bengals had their way.
Wide receiver Tee Higgins finished with a career-high 194 yards and two scores. Rookie Ja’Marr Chase had 125. Tyler Boyd added 85, including a 68-yard catch-and-run score. There was no way out for the Ravens: Cincinnati scored on its first seven drives, missed a field-goal attempt on its eighth and took a knee on its ninth.
“In the first half, they didn’t blitz a lot,” Burrow said. “They played a lot of zone coverage. That obviously wasn’t working out, so in the second half, they started blitzing a little more. That didn’t really work out, either.”
Sunday’s blowout amplified a season-long problem for the defense. Entering Week 16, the Ravens were third to last in the NFL in yards allowed per attempt against 11 personnel (7.8), by far the NFL’s most common grouping. And while the Ravens’ injuries and coronavirus-related absences have undercut their play in recent weeks, those struggles were nothing new. The pass defense was dismal through the season’s first nine weeks against 11 personnel (8.3 yards allowed per attempt), when it had both Humphrey and starting safety DeShon Elliott available.
“It’s been a crazy season, but it’s a defense, it’s a whole collective,” inside linebacker Patrick Queen said Sunday. “We’ve all got to play better. We’ve all got to step our game up. You can’t just pin it on the secondary. It’s been all of us. It’s tough with all the injuries. But at the end of the day, we’re supposed to have their back and play better up front.”
The potential return of defensive lineman Justin Madubuike and outside linebacker Justin Houston (reserve/COVID-19 list), and another week of recovery for injured defensive lineman Calais Campbell (thigh), should help.
But the Ravens’ postseason hopes now might hinge on whether their secondary can find a big enough Band-Aid by Sunday. Smith was activated off the reserve/COVID-19 list Monday and should be available. Westry could test out of the league’s protocols this week. But Averett, the team’s top remaining cornerback, is dealing with a fractured rib, according to the NFL Network, and practice squad call-up Tony Jefferson, a standout at safety Sunday, was added to the reserve/COVID-19 list Monday.
The Rams, like the Bengals, will test the Ravens’ depth out wide. They’ve lined up in 11 personnel on a league-high 83% of their offensive snaps this season, though less often in recent weeks, and have used 10 personnel (one running back, no tight ends and four wide receivers) on another 4%. According to Sports Info Solutions, quarterback Matthew Stafford has completed 67.6% of his passes in three- and four-wide-receiver formations for 4,166 yards (8.3 per attempt), 34 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
It’s one thing to ask Averett, Smith or Westry to limit Rams star Cooper Kupp, who leads the NFL in catches (132), receiving yards (1,734) and touchdowns (14). It’s another to expect the same if he’s matched up with recent Ravens cornerback call-ups like Daryl Worley and Robert Jackson. Especially when fellow wide receivers Van Jefferson (708 receiving yards) and Odell Beckham Jr. (41.3 yards per game with the Rams) can’t be ignored, either.
“The challenge of it is, guys are coming in that haven’t really been in the system,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “You basically have practices for a reason. So you’ve got the offseason, you’ve got training camp, you’ve got accumulated experiences throughout the course of the season, with games and adjustments you’ve made and reps that you’ve had that those guys probably weren’t here for.
“So, you kind of go back … You have to kind of go back to square one and say, ‘OK, this is how we play the coverage; this is how we play these routes; this is how we work together,’ and there’s just not going to be as much shared understanding of what you do. … There are going to be issues with nuances and little things that make the difference. I mean, the difference is inches. The difference is split seconds, in terms of making a play or not making a play.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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Line: Rams by 3 ½