Joe Flacco was sacked four times in Week 2, and Von Miller of the Denver Broncos comes to town in Week 3. To say Miller could be a problem is an understatement.
Two weeks into the season, the Broncos’ relentless edge rusher leads the NFL in sacks with four. Miller’s play has not dropped off one iota since he dominated Super Bowl 50 in 2016 and was named the game’s MVP.
Clearly, the Ravens’ offensive line needs to perform better than it did in Cincinnati, when the Bengals defense put consistent pressure on Flacco with eight quarterback hits. A good day for Miller could mean a very long day for the Ravens.
“He’s the straw that stirs the drink, no doubt,” Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said. “One of the very best in the league at what he does. We will have to have him accounted for at all times, on every play. If we don’t do that, he’ll wreck the game.”
It would be tough enough to contain the Broncos’ pass rush if they only had one elite edge rusher. But they also have Bradley Chubb, the fifth-overall pick in the draft, rushing from the other side. Chubb only has a half sack in two games, but he figures to become a bigger impact player as he gains experience.
Those bookend pass rushers present a difficult assignment for the Ravens, particularly for left tackle Ronnie Stanley and right tackle James Hurst. But the Ravens’ entire offensive line will be tested. Allowing Flacco to be pressured like he was in Cincinnati was not a recipe for success.
“I think they won some one-on-one battles at times,” Harbaugh said of the Bengals. “We’ve all seen that. We’ve got to work really hard (this week) to protect our quarterback. When we did, I think we had a lot of success throwing the ball. Joe made some really good plays, too, creating some things under duress. When we didn’t, that makes it tougher.”
Harbaugh and his staff will consider a variety of ways to protect Flacco, including double-teaming Miller and using running backs and tight ends for extra pass protection. Yet, game-planning for Miller doesn’t guarantee you control him. Miller has recorded at least 10 sacks in six of his first seven NFL seasons. That’s what makes him special.
Meanwhile, Stanley’s health remains a question mark after he missed the final 12 offensive snaps of Thursday night’s game in Cincinnati for undisclosed reasons. Rookie Orlando Brown Jr. entered the game at right tackle, while Hurst shifted to left tackle.
Stanley said he was “fine” after the game, then told reporters to ask Harbaugh for further comment. Asked about Stanley on Monday, Harbaugh smiled and said, “He said he’s fine – he’s fine. I think he’s OK. We’ll see.”
How well the offensive line protects Flacco this season will have a major bearing on the team’s success. Since 2013, the Ravens are 4-10 when Flacco is sacked four times or more. Flacco’s ability to move in the pocket and to avoid pass rushers is underrated. As Harbaugh pointed out, Flacco used his feet to extend several plays in Cincinnati, or he would have been hit more than he was.
However, Flacco is at his best when he has a clean pocket to throw from. He tossed a career-high 27 touchdown passes in 2014 when he was sacked just 19 times in 16 games. Right guard Marshal Yanda is the only holdover from that unit, and the current starting offensive line of Stanley, left guard Alex Lewis, center Matt Skura, Yanda, and Hurst is playing its first full season together.
The Broncos are not afraid to move Miller around defensively, probing until he finds a weakness he can exploit. And because Miller draws so much attention, it creates opportunities for his teammates to make plays.
“They have a very good defense,” Harbaugh said. “I go to (safety) Darian Stewart, who was here – he’s playing very well and been playing well for them there. Two really good corners, inside ‘backers that fly around – very strong, solid defensive front.”
But as Harbaugh said, moving the ball against the Broncos begins with finding a way to block Miller. When he gets near quarterbacks, Miller is not just looking for sacks. He is looking for turnovers. Late in the Bengals game, Flacco lost the ball on a strip sack by safety Shawn Williams. Flacco never saw Williams coming from the blind side. The Ravens only trailed by eight points at the time, and with two minutes, 52 seconds left to play, they still had a chance to win.
That strip sack by Williams was a game-changer. Those are the kind of plays that the Ravens offensive line needs to prevent Miller from making Sunday.