Andy Dalton got his first looks at the Ravens’ revamped pass rush early Monday night. They weren’t very long looks.
On New Orleans’ first play from scrimmage, against a simple four-man pressure, the Saints quarterback had to scramble away from a collapsing pocket to find wide receiver Chris Olave for a first-down catch.
On New Orleans’ first obvious passing down, a third-and-6 later in the drive, Dalton had even less time. The Ravens had lined up five pass rushers along the line of scrimmage: outside linebackers Odafe Oweh and Justin Houston over the outside shoulders of the offensive tackles; inside linebacker Roquan Smith and defensive lineman Calais Campbell standing up, over the interior linemen; and outside linebacker Tyus Bowser in the slot, next to Bowser. Inside linebacker Patrick Queen, always a blitzing threat, was off the ball.
At the snap, the Ravens sent four pass rushers after Dalton. The Saints’ line accounted for only three. As Smith backpedaled into coverage over the middle, Houston slanted inside, grabbing the attention of New Orleans right guard Cesar Ruiz and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk. That left the versatile Bowser, perhaps identified before the snap as another zone dropper, unmarked as he made a beeline for the backfield. By the time Dalton reached the end of his drop, Bowser was already in his face. All he could do was throw the ball away.
“That’s what we’ve been trying to do this whole year, man,” Oweh said after the Ravens sacked Dalton four times in a 27-13 win. “Just try to get the four-man rush going. Today, it looked really, really good.”
It was no coincidence that the Ravens’ best defensive performance of the season — 243 yards allowed, four three-and-outs forced, just three Saints drives across midfield — happened to feature their pass rush’s best showing of the season. And it was no coincidence that their pass rush’s best showing of the season featured Smith and Bowser for the first time all season.
With their defensive front’s speed and smarts upgraded, the Ravens set Houston up for an award-winning night and set themselves up for a potentially season-changing shift entering their bye week.
“They had some nice pressure packages, and they were able to get to the quarterback,” Saints coach Dennis Allen told reporters Monday night. “They did a lot of good things defensively that gave us a lot of challenges.”
Dalton was a worthy test case for Ravens coordinator Mike Macdonald. Over Dalton’s first five starts for New Orleans, he’d been pressured on just 24.3% of his drop-backs, according to Pro Football Focus, one of the NFL’s lowest rates in that span. (Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady was pressured the least, at 19.4%.) Dalton was sacked just four times over those five games, with opponents converting pressures into sacks 9.8% of the time.
On Monday, the Ravens turned up the heat without ever needing to go nuclear. They pressured Dalton on 15 of his 34 drop-backs (44.1%, seventh-highest rate in Week 9) and converted 26.7% of their pressures into sacks, the week’s eighth-best rate. Dalton finished 8-for-11 for 109 yards and a touchdown under pressure, but the bulk of that production came on wide receiver Juwan Johnson’s 41-yard catch-and-run score against a discombobulated secondary.
Even more impressive for the Ravens: They rarely had to blitz Dalton to bother him. Macdonald sent five or more pass rushers after Dalton just seven times Monday, posting two sacks and registering four pressures.
“We knew that everybody could get a one-on-one and just do their job, really,” Queen said Monday. “So that’s what we planned on. We blitzed here and there, but we didn’t blitz that much. And when we did blitz, we got home. And when we didn’t blitz, they’d still get home. Great coverage downfield from the [defensive backs] and the linebackers. Just all-around great defense.”
On all four sacks, the Ravens’ work started before the snap. Under former coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale and now Macdonald, the Ravens have leaned into the idea of “positionless” team-building, developing defenses in which, ideally, players can execute any assignment from any spot on the field. The more the Ravens can do, the more opponents have to account for them. That was a stressor for New Orleans.
On the Ravens’ first sack, they ran a simulated pressure, threatening with five pass rushers at the line of scrimmage to sway the Saints’ presnap protection before ultimately dropping two. As Queen zoomed in from the second level as the Ravens’ fourth pass rusher, he freed up Houston with one collision. His forceful bump into New Orleans left guard Andrus Peat freed Houston, who was waiting for the move, and drew running back Alvin Kamara away from Dalton. When Dalton stepped up to avoid a speed rush from Oweh, he walked right into the looping Houston.
The Ravens’ second sack came on a “creeper” call — no presnap window dressing, but a second-level defender (Queen) replacing a first-level defender (Bowser) at the snap as he dropped into coverage. Queen’s pass rush was again critical. He slipped past backup right guard Calvin Throckmorton, forcing Dalton off his spot. As Dalton stepped up and looked for a check-down, Houston converged on him again, separating himself from Ramczyk to nearly force a fumble.
Dalton was blitzed on his third sack, burned by a five-man pressure package that could’ve turned into anything. On third-and-4 at the Ravens’ 10, Macdonald had lined up nine players along the line of scrimmage — six over Saints blockers and three over the four Saints receivers lined up in condensed formations.
The Ravens’ eventual pass rushers were unexpected: not defensive linemen Justin Madubuike and Campbell, who briefly engaged New Orleans linemen before dropping into shallow zones to deter quick hitters, but safety Kyle Hamilton on one side and cornerback Marlon Humphrey on the other. Hamilton was picked up. Humphrey, blitzing from Dalton’s blind side, wasn’t. He quickly collected his first sack of the season.
Another simulated pressure delivered the Ravens their final sack. Smith would finish the night with eight pass-rush snaps out of 39 snaps total, according to PFF, the highest single-game share of pass-rush snaps (20.5%) in his career. Here, though, the All-Pro again bluffed a blitz before falling off the line of scrimmage and dropping into coverage.
With both Houston and Bowser attacking the right side of the Saints’ side from wide alignments, only one needed to win his one-on-one. Houston did, ripping past Throckmorton before smacking Dalton in the front as Campbell nailed him in the back. Houston finished the win with 2 1/2 sacks and an interception, more than enough to win AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors on Wednesday.
“We’re just going to keep on climbing, keep on improving,” Oweh said. “We’ve got a guy like Roquan. You can see already the difference that he made. And when we’re just lights out like that, it just inspires the offense as well to play even better. So our team just keeps on moving up.”
Panthers at Ravens
Sunday, Nov. 20, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 45
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM