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First-Down Failures Tripping Up Offense

Jackson evades Cincinnati defenders
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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System of a Down  

There has been a steady stream of chatter around the Ravens’ passing-game inefficiencies since the beginning of the season. It’s no secret that the struggle was magnified against the Cincinnati Bengals. Quarterback Lamar Jackson had one of his worst passing games in quite a while (and at least since the beginning of his MVP season). He averaged 4.9 yards per completion on 37 attempts. He threw one interception, when it easily could have been two or three — the Bengals’ dropped a couple of INTs.

When you strip down the factors for the team’s offensive ineptitude, you find an assortment of them. But one glaring issue really came to light against the Bengals: lack of first-down efficiency.

Football purists will tell you that first down is the most important down in football. If an offense can gain the edge on first down, they have the tactical edge to call a run or pass on subsequent downs and really put a defense on its heels. Conversely, if they are fighting an uphill down-and-distance battle, it’s naturally tougher to climb out of those holes. 

The Ravens were behind the eight ball plenty against the Bengals. Russell Street Report contributor @Yoshi2052 charted the team’s first-down plays and found that out of 24 snaps (discounting one kneel down), they only gained 80 yards on first downs, for an average of 3.0 YPP.

That level of first-down inefficiency had a direct correlation on the higher volume of third-and-longs Jackson and the offense faced. Of the team’s third-down attempts, nine were 3rd-and-7 or longer. 

You simply can’t make a living this way, it doesn’t matter who the quarterback is. 

The Bengals dared the Ravens to throw the ball against a stacked box on early downs and they couldn’t consistently answer the bell. 

It looked like offensive coordinator Greg Roman was trying to manufacture drive-starter type pass plays that netted the offense four or five yards, but the team didn’t execute. A potential solution could be to run the ball more out of some spread looks. If defenses are loading the box, he needs to spread them out, but the run should still be in play. 

Front Wall  

Credit the Cincinnati defensive staff for coming up with a creative game plan, especially in those third-and-obvious passing situations. The Bengals mostly used a five-man rush to contain Jackson in the pocket. Similar to Kansas City, the fifth rusher looped inside, creating a hat-on-a-hat front wall. With each gap accounted for, the reigning MVP didn’t exactly have a clean pocket to escape from when receivers were covered. 

To counteract this defense, Jackson had to remain patient in the pocket and let routes develop downfield. For as much as he struggled at times in this game as a passer, he did display poise in these situations, especially on a key second-level 3rd and 14 conversion to tight end Mark Andrews.

In addition to the “wall” technique that the Bengals employed, they also used some zone blitz drops to blur Jackson’s vision and disrupt his passing lanes. 

Overall, the plan Cincinnati put together will be studied and replicated by other teams. The Eagles have the same type of front to mimic those looks. Jackson will continue to be tested to stay in the pocket and deliver throws downfield in obvious passing situations. 

Return of the Run Defense  

For as much as the offense is being dissected for its lackluster effort, the Baltimore Ravens’ defense announced their comeback on Sunday. They pitched a perfect game by defensive standards — stopped the run game, rushed the passer, limited the pass, prevented big plays, and created turnovers.

On the run defense side of the house, it was a stellar effort by the edge defenders in particular. Outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson looked like a man amongst boys, as he consistently shed blocks and set the edge (something he struggled with last season).

Against Joe Mixon, a back who stresses defenses horizontally, the line and backers maintained their discipline and gap integrity. Cincinnati attempted to get Mixon loose on the perimeter consistently but the Ravens shut that down. They also tried some pre-snap misdirection but that didn’t work either. 

Considering the defense was gashed in previous games by misdirection and backs in space, it was encouraging to see them play their keys and not over-pursue throughout. Given their upcoming matchup against the Eagles’ Miles Sanders (who just had a 70+ yard TD run against Pittsburgh’s elite defense), getting the defense back on track to handle lateral movement and open-field big-play ability was a must. 

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