The Ravens got back on track in Foxboro with a solid win against a solid team. They had to, if they had any chance at a successful season, but bouncing back from such a devastating defeat was always going to be difficult. The Ravens now complete their AFC East set with a visit from Buffalo.
The Dolphins proved that the Bills are far from invincible, now how do the Ravens fling the Bills into full-blown crisis mode and have Ken Dorsey smashing windows in the booth this time?
Find out below…
Defensive Keys to the Game
Dorsey makes another angry meme by the end of the game
This week, the Ravens face what I believe to be the fiercest offense in the NFL, regardless of the loss last week. It’s why Battle Plans must start this week with what the Ravens defense needs to do, to slow down a formidable Buffalo passing attack.
Let’s start with the obvious: facing Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs is a ghoulishly nightmare scenario for the Ravens given what the Dolphins did to them just two short weeks ago. If both are on their game, you need an equally potent offense to get past the Bills and hope for the luck of possessing the ball last. (Or manipulate the clock in the way that Mike McDaniel so expertly did at the end of the game against the Ravens back in Week 2.)
Allen has blossomed into one of the league’s premier passers. This will be his first game back in Baltimore since his very first game in the NFL, a game which also featured Lamar Jackson’s first snaps in the league. Allen, back then, confirmed many of the fears that keen observers of his time as a Wyoming Cowboy had, completing only six of fifteen passes against a suffocating Ravens defense. In fact, in his first two seasons, two of his three least efficient passing days were against Baltimore.
But times change and, if truth be told, the roles seem reversed going into this weekend between Allen and the Ravens defense. Allen’s curve of development has pointed stratospherically upwards since those first two underwhelming seasons, in a surprising triumph against the tide of data-points sweeping player evaluation.
Much of the credit for the rise of Allen has, rightly, gone to Brian Daboll. That is, at least from a coaching perspective. There is no doubt that Allen’s growth is mostly down to himself and his personal drive which, it has been cataloged, was a major reason why the Bills saw fit to make him such a high draft pick back in 2018. But if it doesn’t all go to Daboll, and of course Allen, then the other beneficiary reputationally, is Ken Dorsey, former Bills Quarterbacks coach and now Offensive Coordinator.
When Daboll hired Dorsey as QB coach upon joining the Bills as Head Coach in 2017, Sean McDermott had already seen first-hand what Dorsey could do with a mobile, strong-armed Quarterback. Dorsey coached Cam Newton to the best seasons of his career in Carolina when McDermott was Defensive Coordinator there, under Ron Rivera. Dorsey has always been considered an up-and-coming, need-to-know offensive mind in the NFL, but his path has surprisingly led him to a play-calling gig only now.
The Buffalo Bills 2022 offense will make for an interesting study on internal candidates taking up the baton from an outstanding predecessor, and the early returns are good. Dorsey is not at all reinventing the wheel with his work on this Buffalo offense ,but there are subtle changes and one or two that the Ravens can potentially take advantage of.
I’d like Mike Macdonald to make a bet early in this game. Firstly, though, I’ll write what I wrote in the Kansas City Battle Plan last season: Facing this offense is a series of gambles. Defenses can make several choices about how they’d like to allow Buffalo to move the ball on them. One fact is entirely unavoidable though: they will move the ball and the Ravens will give up a good amount of points in this game.
Every defensive stop is a win. That’s why I’m making my first gamble about getting off the field on the first drive, and hoping that might have some lasting effects.
Being straight with you, this approach could give up a very early, big-play TD. But this offense has such a tightly scripted and usually successful first drive approach, that you likely give up one anyway. With Dorsey’s play-calling and Allen at the helm, in the early part of the season, the Bills have perfected matriculation.
The two-high defensive shell that permeates the NFL right now is partially predicated on neutralizing potent deep passing offenses, forcing “gunslingers” to take their shots deep after getting impatient that their favorite deep passing play isn’t there over and over again.
As you can tell from the hint of condescension in my last sentence, that’s not the only reason teams run a two-high defensive shell; there are many other benefits. If the only one was banking on NFL Quarterbacks having the patience of a petulant child, it wouldn’t be so wildly successful.
Having said that, many of these “gunslingers” do have the requisite disposition to be foiled by this. Allen, it turns out, certainly does not.
Dorsey and Allen have built their early-season success off plays with deep passing combinations like the Portland passing concept that combines a Post and a Dig route from opposing sides as decoys, while relentlessly and in a pre-meditated fashion, targeting shorter routes featured alongside these deeper routes.
The deep routes are intended to occupy the deep coverage apparatus of those two-high shells, clearing out or at least causing hesitation in underneath defenders. Those quick-hitters early are either used to keep the offense on-schedule and constantly moving, if defenders stay disciplined to taking away the deep shot, or intended to manipulate less patient Defensive Backs and/or play-callers to come off their careful and considered approach.
That’s why I would start off in man coverage and even roll into middle-of-field-coverage (MOFC) looks from that two-high shell. They can use that shell to disguise as much as possible given that the Bills run a lot of motion at the snap to identify coverage but make sure they start with some sticky coverage underneath – particularly on Diggs who the Bills will target on stick and out routes early. Live on the edge of penalties and don’t give up anything underneath early. I’d also stay in press man as the Bills will take advantage of any soft coverage quickly.
This approach comes with it, an inherent risk that Allen gets what he wants on one of those deep concepts and completes a long one that blows it apart. But it’s a far lower percentage throw to make and a dangerous one with Marcus Williams back there. I would gamble on a less than perfect connection with Gabe Davis deep, early in the game, than a Diggs option route that is consistently wide open against whatever variation of Zone you’re running.
I know Americans don’t and will never understand the sport of Cricket, so please bear with a paragraph to explain my metaphor in terms my UK compatriots will easily grasp. There is a relatively new form of Cricket called T20, that limits the time you have to score. Because time is limited, scoring is more frequent, meaning that success for the bowler – the one trying to prevent the scoring – changes dramatically. Even one ball bowled without a “run” being scored, referred to as a “dot ball,” can be considered a victory for the team trying to prevent scoring.
The Ravens need to adjust their sights accordingly this week – look for the “dot balls” i.e. the drives that the Bills don’t score on – getting two or three, plus a turnover or two, could be a recipe for a win this week. In that context, the kind of gamble I’m proposing here, so early in the game, with time to recover from a hefty blow, is not the craziest strategy that it might have initially seemed.
What comes next?
I praised MacDonald after Week 1, I was critical of him after week two, and I will be mostly cutting him some slack, whatever happens this week. This game will be a crucial learning experience for him. I would give him a free swing at this game to try some stuff and see if it comes off. Some very good, very experienced Defensive Coordinators will be embarrassed by the Buffalo offense this year, so he may as well come out swinging.
That first swing described above, if it works, will require some parries and deflections to the counterpunches that the Bills will go to next. This strategy that I’m outlining is predicated on taking advantage of Dorsey’s inexperience, and the strange outburst we saw at the end of the game last week, which seemed to belie his patient approach at the wheel of this offense so far.
Only Miami have taken the fight to Buffalo from a play-calling perspective; only they have put them in a bind that Dorsey had to find his way out of. He has some pedigree, but he hasn’t yet been faced with much adversity as an Offensive Coordinator. Mostly, his Plan A has worked like a charm and he hasn’t had to adjust. The Ravens need to make him adjust by being unpredictable like the Dolphins did some – he can be rattled.
That means the gambles need to continue from Macdonald. If that early approach outlined in the first section is successful, he needs to abandon it immediately as this offense looks to get quickly back into a rhythm where it’s dictating play. Keep changing things up enough, to dictate to them, so Macdonald needs to keep moving – stay one step ahead, not wait for the punch before countering.
There haven’t been too many clues to other idiosyncrasies of this offense but there are two things that the Ravens defense needs to get immediately prepared for: screens and RPOs. It hasn’t been as heavily featured as in other offenses but this incarnation of the Bills offense is definitely predisposed to an RPO or a screen.
The Ravens should stay in their early MOFC coverage and use Safety depth to manage the RPO game. I’ve written about this before but one way to take away in-breaking routes against the RPO scheme is to run a kind of inverted cover 2, where the Safety aligned in the post pre-snap is able to abandon his responsibility of bailing quickly into a deep third, in favor of moving forward quickly to read the QB or insert against the run. Williams is plenty smart enough and tough enough to take on this role.
The Bills will quickly turn to Running Back and Wide Receiver screens too, in an effort to get outside the structure of the defense. Raven defenders should be on alert for these early if Buffalo needs to change it up. But they mostly need to be mindful of Dawson Knox. The phrase Swiss-army knife feels like it is applied to too many players, but Knox is worthy of the tag in his do-it-all role for the Bills. He allows them to be versatile out of 11 personnel but he is to be particularly watched out for in the screen game, where they will use him from his wing alignment.
The Bills are more like Greg Roman than you think
With multiple TEs & FBs, that is.
It hasn’t yet permeated the collective fan-brain of the NFL yet, but the Buffalo Bills are committed to running the football. They did so at the end of last season and have done at the start of this season. They do this mainly because they know the value it can bring to the rest of their offense. There have been many studies that debunk the myth that you need an effective running game for an effective play-action passing game, but the Bills are the second most effective play-action team in the NFL.
They are also an efficient running team when they get outside. I haven’t covered how the Ravens need to bring pressure yet this week but their likely approach to defending the run will dovetail well with the needed approach to pressuring Allen. The Ravens will need to get pressure mostly with their front four; this is certainly a week to be a little more selective with those blitz packages, as Allen can carve up a heavy blitz approach (though I wouldn’t be abandoning it entirely if the man coverage is holding up.)
Allen has one of the quickest average times from snap to throw in the NFL so far this season and the Ravens should not be taking defenders out of coverage on fruitless pass-rushing assignments too often. They will only get pressure if they force Allen to hold the ball more, which I’ve asked them to try and do with their coverage in the first two sections of this Battle Plan. I would not ask them to try and do this with fewer than seven defenders in coverage.
Running out of a traditional 4-3 over front more, to facilitate a four-man pass rush, helps with the run defense this week. The Ravens should run with some wider alignments from their Defensive Ends to set a more physical edge and keep everything inside. This takes away the strength of the Bills rushing offense that looks to spread you out.
The Ravens then, would be daring the Bills to run into the B gaps, which they are just not as adept at doing. They should also change up gap responsibilities in case of any option runs from Allen. This continues the variations on a theme in this plan of picking the least effective of the Bills’ array of poisons that they can put to work.
As always with Battle Plans, I’m suggesting some flavors of approach that could work, but even more so than normal, given the talent level on the other side, this Battle Plan could very quickly be lit ablaze in the trash can. There are a multitude of ways that the Bills can beat you that I haven’t covered. The Bills have so many break-glass-in-case-of-emergency tactics, and Allen can very quickly turn the tide of games and through force of sheer talent, can render a coach’s gameplan utterly useless.
The Ravens defense will need a lot more than a couple of thousand overly-engineered words can muster if they are to overcome this behemoth of a challenge this week.
Offensive Keys to the Game
A tale of two experienced play-callers
I’ve had some fun exploring coaching tree connections in previous iterations of Battle Plans, and while the Shanahan coaching tree has some fun networks of coaches to explore, it pales in comparison to the coaching tree to end all coaching trees: Andy Reid in Philadelphia.
The Ravens of course, owe their own head man to the fruits of this tree, in John Harbaugh, but Reid’s influence spawned a great many Head Coaches, which you can find through exploring one of the finest examples of an Andy-Reid-coach descendant in Sean McDermott.
McDermott was an Eagles Assistant for a decade with Reid and clearly gobbled up as much Head Coaching acumen as Reid was willing to help him acquire. In fact McDermott only left Reid’s side to take up a Defensive Coordinator role with Ron Rivera, another Reid disciple, in Carolina.
This was at the same time as the Bills now Defensive Coordinator, Leslie Frazier, was becoming a Head Coach for the first time in Minnesota, some four years after he joined the Vikings under Brad Childress, also a one-time Reid Assistant in Philadelphia. Frazier himself spent three years in, you guessed it, Philadelphia, under Reid, where he and McDermott served on the same staff.
That complicated web is only matched in it’s consistency of connection back to Reid by the consistency of Frazier and McDermott in putting together outstanding defenses in Buffalo since the moment they first linked up there, on McDermott’s appointment in 2017.
A top five defense in yards per game for three of the last four seasons, Frazier’s unit are off to hot start in 2021 ranking 1st in DVOA. There are very little discernible weaknesses on this defense when healthy, to exploit. Much of the Ravens focus should be protecting Lamar Jackson as efficiently as possible against a formidable defensive front ranking first in the league in adjusted sack rate with one of the lowest blitz rates in the league.
The Ravens have been giving their Offensive Line plenty of help to protect Jackson, as they know how much damage he can do when he has a clean pocket from which to orchestrate the offense. Frazier though has the luxury that every Defensive Coordinator strives for: the ability to get sacks while only rushing four guys.
Von Miller has added considerably to this defense since the Bills paid out what looked like a market-shattering contract to the 33-year-old.
The Ravens do have Miller Kryptonite Pat Mekari, but he may not make it back for this game, especially as Miller has lined up on the left side of the defense more often than not this season, as he usually does. You can bet that Miller will take full advantage of Daniel Faalele’s inexperience.
They’ll need to deploy lots of help to their Offensive Line again this week because it isn’t just Miller to be fearful of. Greg Rousseau has started to live up to expectations this season after the Bills took him from under the Ravens’ noses in the 2021 NFL Draft. And Boogie Basham, also selected in that draft, has become a third weapon on passing downs.
Expect to see lots of chips, and max protection to keep Jackson in with a chance of playing his best ball.
Less disguise from the Bills, more play-action from the Ravens
Many Ravens fans will remember back to a time when Joe Flacco needed the safest of protection against pressure packages and gameplans were adjusted accordingly – Cam Cameron often sending out two receivers against a sea of coverage, just to keep Flacco clean.
The Ravens are far from that these days, but the numbers game needs to be paid attention to. The pressure that Frazier can exert with his stable of pass-rushers allows him to blitz at a low rate, meaning many defenders are out in coverage. The Ravens Offensive Line, while keeping Jackson relatively clean so far this season, will likely need six or at times, seven guys to keep Bills jerseys out of his pocket this week.
The Ravens simply lose the numbers game with far more defenders out in coverage than they have receiving weapons. Happily though, the only possible weakness of this Bills defense is in the secondary. Earlier, I mentioned there was no discernible weakness to this defense, when healthy. The phrase “when healthy” is crucial. When healthy, this Bills secondary has the best Safety tandem in football, in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, patrolling their back line.
Combine Hyde and Poyer, and all of the things it allows Frazier to do creatively in coverage, with a lockdown Corner in Tre’davious White and the Bills secondary is a impenetrable fortress. With White on PUP and Hyde on IR, this defense is an entirely different proposition.
Frazier has at his disposal some outstanding other pieces on this defense, including the defensive front, already covered, and Matt Milano, who is a very good coverage Linebacker, having a very good early season run.
But he now has a pair of rookie Cornerbacks in Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford, who is also struggling with an injury as well as fourth year pro Jaquon Johnson now at Safety. Poyer missed that last game too. This is a significant talent drop-off in the secondary and one the Ravens have to take advantage of.
It starts with how Frazier will need to adapt to personnel and the loss of Hyde for the season. It’s unlikely that he will use as much deception in his coverage scheme as usual, with some young players working together for the first time. Frazier is an experienced DC and outstanding former player and he knows he will need to adapt to this new reality, not dogmatically stick to previous approaches. Hyde allowed him to be very creative with the disguise on his coverage; this will have to be somewhat limited.
This disguise has meant that teams haven’t been able to run as much play-action as they would like to against the Bills, especially to start manipulating Milano in coverage underneath. With less disguise, play-action is on the table so lots of the under-Center offense that the Ravens have instituted this season should be back in this one, as Jackson should be able to use play-action much more than previously against the Bills.
Unfortunately for the Ravens, one of the strengths of the team that matches up well with the Bills, the Gap scheme heavy running offense, has not been working as well in the opening gambit of the season. The Ravens no longer have the bully of years gone by, but it returned somewhat in Week 3 against the Patriots.
The Offensive Linemen on this team are a mismatch of good Zone run blockers stuck in a predominantly Gap scheme and just plain bad run blockers. It’s a recipe for disaster in the run game as they don’t have the athleticism or indeed the history at the OC position to turn their rushing offense full-tilt Zone, nor do they have the power to keep running their Gap-based offense.
But this is a new combination of Offensive Linemen and time may help this unit get back to the bullying ways of the past – the Week 3 return looked better on this front. Though the running offense should continue to evolve, mixing in some more Zone concepts than they have previously to take advantage of Tyler Linderbaum’s athleticism in space, while sticking to some of the old favorites.
But this is undoubtedly a week for the old favorites and if there was ever a time to see if Nick Boyle still has it, it would be this week. He was active last week, but limited. His presence has been sorely missed, and even Pat Ricard hasn’t looked his old self until he locked horns with Matt Judon against the Patriots. If the Ravens can get some semblance of the once feared running game going in this game, it should help Lamar both as a runner and a passer.
The Bills are vulnerable to heavy dose of the power run game and getting pulling Offensive Linemen onto Milano can be a way to move the ball consistently against this Buffalo defense, and is something that hasn’t been exploited to it’s fullest yet this season. Frazier might need more pass rush with his secondary further depleted and that might lead to more holes to exploit in the running game.
Matchup of the Week
Daniel Faalele vs Von Miller
As already mentioned, the Bills move Miller around a lot and he rushes the passer from both sides, and perhaps Mekari returns from his low ankle sprain quickly. But it’s more likely that Faalele starts and that he faces Miller on the majority of snaps. Faalele has had most trouble with vertical sets when he doesn’t have help, but he began to neutralize that weakness in his first real NFL action last week by setting much quicker and deeper in the second half against the Patriots.
You can bet your life that Miller will have seen that and will be ready to set him up with some inside moves to slow his set quickness, before getting him back outside again. Then, the Bills can bring Rousseau over to run through Faalele. Deatrich Wise and Judon were a stiff test, but Faalele has some NFL tape now, that Miller will undoubtedly be watching over and over again. Faalele has to be studying his own tape and come in with a more sophisticated gameplan to negate the gaps in his armor.