Takeaways From the Season-Ending Divisional Round Loss
The Ravens changed a lot of narratives in their wild-card win over the Tennessee Titans, but Saturday's 17-3 loss to the Buffalo Bills presented new challenges and some familiar storylines that Lamar Jackson and company will have to overcome.
"Jackson won't have to listen to the talk about not winning a playoff game anymore," Press Box’s Bo Smolka wrote. "But coming home from Buffalo and staring at the offseason, that will be a hollow victory.
"At this point, the Ravens know they need to put him, and them, in position to take the next step. Last year, the Ravens assessed themselves after their stunning loss to the Titans and knew they needed to upgrade their run defense. This time around, it's easy to look at a passing game that ranked last in the league and identify it as an area of concern."
On a night where the offense struggled to find consistency, the defensive performance was strong. Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale's unit held a high-powered Bills offense to just 220 yards. A Buffalo team that scored 20 points in 10 straight games coming into the divisional round was held to just 10 offensive points.
But it was the offense that struggled throughout much of the first half, just like the previous two playoff losses. The unit put together its best drive on its first attempt of the second half, but that's when Jackson threw his pick-six and he was knocked out of the game two offensive snaps later.
"Two straight years, we've seen the Ravens overwhelm defenses for much of the regular season and then look mistake-prone and punchless in the postseason," The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec wrote. "Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta and [John]Harbaugh need to figure out why that is and how they can help their 24-year-old quarterback."
"For two years now, they have built one of the most efficient, disaster-resistant systems in football for when common sense breaks down like it did on Saturday," Sports Illustrated’s Conor Orr wrote. "They were on a historic pace rushing the football. And for the second straight year, they have sustained a loss that is all parts inexplicable and heartbreaking in the playoffs."
It's fair to question some aspects, but you can make the argument that the Ravens already have the majority of the pieces for a Super Bowl-caliber offense. They have a franchise quarterback under center and the league's top rushing attack over the last two seasons.
Pundits believe the next step is finding an offensive balance.
"Baltimore must find a balance between being the team that can simply exhaust opponents into a team that can bludgeon them in multiple ways; to shapeshift like their opponents did and come out looking stronger," Orr wrote. "Jackson, clearly, is ready to explore those possibilities. After Saturday, Baltimore's front office will be too."
The Ravens ranked last during the regular season, averaging 171.2 passing yards per game, but still finished as one of the NFL's highest-scoring teams. Marquise 'Hollywood' Brown said the Ravens need to be able to throw and move the ball through the air.
"Whenever you're the No. 1 rushing [offense] and the 30-something passing [team], that's not right," Brown said on Sunday. "That's not balanced. We got to find a way to balance our game."
How can the Ravens do this? Penn Live’s Aaron Kasinitz says it could start with acquiring more receiving talent.
"With many pieces from a top defense likely to remain in place in 2021, the Ravens have the chance to consider how to score more points in the most important games," Kasinitz wrote. "More specifically, the objective should be to improve a passing game that ranked 21st in the NFL in yards per dropback.
"Acquiring a top-flight receiver could help, or maybe the Ravens will aim to invest in more offensive line muscle. Another pass-catching threat at tight end to pair with Mark Adrews might also aid Jackson."
How the Blitz-Heavy Bills Contained Jackson
How were the Bills able to contain Jackson and the Ravens offense? By employing a blitz-heavy scheme.
According to NFL's Next Gen Stats, the Bills blitzed six or more pass rushers on 55.6 percent of the Ravens' quarterback drop-backs. Buffalo racked up seven quarterback hits and four sacks, keeping Jackson and Tyler Huntley under constant pressure for most of the game.
"Jackson struggled in the pass game before leaving in the fourth quarter with a concussion, but Buffalo's defense deserves a bulk of the credit for making him uncomfortable," ForTheWin’s Charles McDonald and Steven Ruiz wrote. "Sean McDermott's plan was predictably smart. The Bills crowded the line of scrimmage and played quarters coverage on early downs and then blitzed the hell out of Lamar in obvious passing situations. Those pressures were getting home, too. The Bills blitzed on 48.1% of Jackson's dropbacks and pressured him on 40.7% of them."
Bills wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie played the role of Jackson as scout team quarterback for Buffalo. Linebacker Jerry Hughes said McKenzie gave the Bills an excellent look in their preparation.
"That gave us an excellent look, somebody with the right amount of speed because he's probably just as fast, if not faster, than Lamar," Hughes said. "I think Isaiah did a fantastic job of doing what he does best."
Jackson, who torched the Titans with 136 rushing yards, finished with just 34 before exiting the game late in the third quarter.
"Like the Titans the week before, the Bills came in with an astute plan to stifle Jackson," The Baltimore Sun’s Child’s Walker wrote. "They blitzed frequently (eight of Jackson's 18 first-half drop-backs), destroying his pocket on passing downs. But they also played with terrific discipline in sitting on his reads as a runner.
"Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier dared Jackson to beat him with quick, decisive passing, and he won the bet. Jackson completed just one of nine throws on pressured drop-backs, according to Pro Football Focus."
"This Ravens team has proved to be as dynamic a running team as there is in this league," Smolka wrote. "But in playoff losses in three consecutive years, teams have figured out a way to control that running game, daring Jackson and the Ravens to beat them through the air. The Ravens haven't yet shown they can do that consistently against playoff-caliber defenses."
Red-Zone Struggles Went Beyond Jackson's Pick-Six
Jackson’s first career red-zone interception was the turning point late in the third quarter, but the Ravens' struggles in the short field went beyond that.
"The Ravens outgained the Bills 340 to 220; they had more first downs and possessed the ball 10 ½ minutes longer," Russell Street Report’s Tony Lombardi wrote. "But their red zone failures were the difference in the game."
What made the Ravens so dangerous on offense was one of their downfalls against the Bills. They came into the postseason scoring touchdowns on 63.3 percent of their trips to the red zone, but finished 0-for-3 on Saturday against a defense that allowed opponents to score on 65.5 percent of red zone trips.
Even when the Ravens had to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns, it didn't go their way. Two of Justin Tucker's attempts from 41 yards and 46 yards doinked off the uprights as weather played a factor in the kicking game for both teams.
"Both defenses played at a consistently high level all night, and the wind wreaked some havoc on offense and special teams," Smolka wrote. "But the bottom line was when both teams got near the end zone, the Bills were able to convert, and the Ravens were not. At this time of year, that's usually enough to make the difference."
On the flip side, the Bills finished 1-for-2. Josh Allen found Stefon Diggs on a 3-yard pass for the game's only offensive touchdown as Buffalo took a 10-3 lead on the first drive out of halftime. What could have been a 10-9 game was 10-3 and quickly fell out of the Ravens' favor on the ensuing drive.
"The entire first half was ugly for both sides, but the Ravens finally appeared to be knocking on the door at the end of the third," CBS Sports wrote. "Chewing up nearly nine minutes of clock on a 15-play drive all the way to Buffalo's 9-yard line, Baltimore didn't just fail to convert a third-and-goal end-zone shot, which would've tied the game had it gone in for a TD. It also gave the Bills an unthinkable momentum swing."
The Ravens had a chance at a wide-open touchdown on the play before the pick-six, but a couple missed blocks and pressure caused Jackson's pass to Brown to fall short.
Ravens Rookie Class Earns High Marks
While Saturday's loss may have provided more questions than answers for the Ravens, there's still plenty of reason for optimism going forward. One source is the performance of the rookie class.
Bleacher Report’s Chris Roling graded every team's draft haul this season and gave the Ravens' rookies an "A."
"Talk about a rich-get-richer draft class," Roling wrote. "The Ravens, an established defensive powerhouse, almost predictably fell into LSU linebacker Patrick Queen at No. 28. He responded with 106 total tackles and three sacks and looks like their future at the position. Meanwhile, second-round running back J.K. Dobbins … [rushed] for 805 yards and nine scores on a 6.0 yards-per-carry average.
"Justin Madubuike, Devin Duvernay and Malik Harrison all played less than 35 percent of their respective unit's snaps by season's end, but they were long-term picks for a team with Super Bowl aspirations."
The Ravens' success in recent seasons has been rooted in their young talent, and the rookies played a big role down the stretch. It's even more impressive considering the COVID-19 pandemic limited the amount of time they had to prepare for their first season.
As Roling noted, the impact wasn't limited to Queen and Dobbins. Madubuike and Harrison showed flashes defensively. Tyre Phillips started eight games on the offensive line. Duvernay and James Proche II did a good job handling duties at returner, an area that was a question mark for the Ravens coming into the season.
The Ravens will also have an opportunity to add to a talented young core this offseason. They'll be picking at No. 27 in the first round, with five total selections, not including any additional compensatory picks.
"There is plenty to be excited about with this team," The Ringer’s Danny Heifetz wrote. "Jackson is the first quarterback to ever run for 1,000 yards in multiple seasons. Dobbins looks like a great runner, and Hollywood Brown showed glimpses of finally being an elite no. 2 receiver. The defense held the Bills' offense to just 10 points after Buffalo averaged more than 31 points per game in the regular season. Tucker might never have a night this bad for the rest of his career. Baltimore has the bones of a great team, and considering Jackson turned 24 two weeks ago and is still the youngest quarterback in the AFC North, which includes Baker Mayfield and Joe Burrow, this team's future is still bright."
- The Bills became the first team to win a playoff game by 14 points despite being outgained by 120 yards.
- "The lack of interest in Ravens' lieutenants is mind-boggling to me," Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer wrote. "Coordinators Wink Martindale and Greg Roman, and director of player personnel Joe Hortiz—the No. 2s to Harbaugh and DeCosta—wound up with a grand total of zero HC/GM requests. Wouldn't you at least want to info-gather from those guys?"