Saturday afternoon the crowd at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore was loud, but also nervous.
This was a script they had seen before. Their beloved Ravens were the top seed in the AFC and were coming off a bye week. Lamar Jackson was playing at an MVP level, but an upstart team from the AFC South was in town, and ready to break their hearts.
That was the scenario a few years ago when the 14-2 Ravens were bounced out of the playoffs in the Divisional Round by the Tennessee Titans, and at halftime of Saturday’s game against the Houston. Texans, the score was knotted at 10-10, and the visitors seemed to have a bit of momentum going into the break. Houston tied the game on an explosive punt return touchdown from Steven Sims, and while Baltimore had a chance at a final drive before the break, a pair of sacks ended any scoring threat, and helped tell the story of the first half.
Both of those sacks came on blitzes, which was something that was against form from Houston and head coach DeMeco Ryans. The Texans blitzed on just 21% of their defensive snaps in the regular season, fifth-lowest among NFL teams.
But in the first half Saturday, Houston brought pressure, and a lot of it:
The Texans blitzed on 13 of 18 dropbacks in the first half (72.2%), generating 10 pressures and 3 sacks on blitzes.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 20, 2024
Jackson finished the first half with just 7 completions on 11 attempts, for 52 yards and a touchdown. He was also sacked three times, all of which came on blitzes as noted above.
The pressure packages were a big adjustment for Ryans, but in a game filled with adjustments Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Monken had the last laugh. The Ravens pulled away in the second half, as Jackson completed 9 of 11 passes for 100 yards and a touchdown in the second half.
Their adjustments came to fruition on the opening drive of the second half, when the Ravens went right down the field and scored on a Jackson touchdown run, turning the tide of the game. Monken looked to get the ball out of Jackson’s hands quickly, and the move paid off almost immediately. On the very first play of the second half the Texans brought pressure again, sending safety Jalen Pitre off the right side of the offense, but Jackson threw quickly to Nelson Agholor on the left side for a gain of nine:
Then on the very next snap, the Texans blitz again, and you see another quick throw from Jackson, this time to tight end Isaiah Likely on a route to the left flat:
Two plays, two big gains, and suddenly the Ravens are deep in Houston territory.
What stands out about the second play is the job Jackson does pre-snap, from his cadence to the adjustments. Jackson uses a hard count, which helps to identify the second-level blitz that is coming from Houston. He then bumps running back Gus Edwards from a pistol alignment to a traditional alignment next to him in the shotgun, which gives Edwards a better angle at picking up the blitz from linebacker Christian Harris.
After a designed run from Jackson picked up another three yards, the Ravens faced a 2nd and 7 at the Houston 24-yard line. Monken called another pass, and Ryans called for another blitz, with Pitre again coming from depth.
Once more you see a quick throw from Jackson, as he replaces Pitre’s blitz with the football, targeting Rashod Bateman on a slant route:
Three plays. Three blitzes from the Texans, three completions from the Ravens for 37 yards and three first downs.
Still, the Ravens needed to get the ball into the end zone, and Monken had one more trick up his sleeve, to deal with another schematic element the Texans threw at him in the first half. In addition to blitzing Jackson, the Texans often used a spy on him, usually in the form of Harris. The linebacker would keep his eyes on Jackson and look to limit the damage if the shift quarterback tried to escape the pocket.
Monken had an answer for that on the Ravens’ first touchdown of the second half.
On this designed run for Jackson, the play calls for Edwards to lead the quarterback upfield, with an aiming point of Blake Cashman, the linebacker entrusted with spying Jackson on this play. The result? A clear path for Jackson and a 17-10 lead for Baltimore:
The rout was on.
The schematic tweak from Monken on this opening drive of the second half helped tell the story of the game. Jackson finished with these numbers when blitzed on Saturday:
Lamar Jackson faced a career-high 75.0% blitz rate, completing 13 of 18 passes against the blitz for 120 yards & 2 TD.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 21, 2024
There are a number of reasons why the Ravens look like the most dangerous team left standing in the NFL. Mike Macdonald and that Baltimore defense was impressive as well on Saturday, as they have been all season long. That unit held Houston to just 38 rushing yards, and pressured C.J. Stroud all afternoon long. The Ravens’ running game was also stout, as Baltimore racked up 229 rushing yards — on 5.5 yards per carry — and picked up 12 first downs via the ground game.
But these little tweaks and adjustment to open the second half helped break this game wide open.
And calm some nervous fans at M&T Bank Stadium.