The Ravens defense was up to its old tricks in the season-opening 38-6 victory over Cleveland.
After leading the NFL in blitz rate at 54.9 percent of opposing dropbacks last season, Baltimore sent at least one extra rusher against Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield 54.8 percent of the time last Sunday, according to Pro Football Reference. It was how defensive coordinator Wink Martindale generated a pass rush in 2019, relying on numbers and superb coverage in the secondary to finish a respectable 16th in pressure rate and second in quarterback knockdowns despite ranking 21st in sacks with just 37. The difference Sunday was less efficiency in that department as the Ravens applied pressure just 11.9 percent of the time despite Mayfield’s inability to take advantage, a testament to the play on the back end.
What that means this week as the Ravens travel to Houston to take on two-time Pro Bowl quarterback Deshaun Watson remains to be seen, but last November’s 41-7 demolition of the Texans at M&T Bank Stadium doesn’t guarantee a similar result for Week 2. Watson played arguably the worst game of his 2019 season that day, registering just 169 passing yards, 12 rushing yards, an interception, and no touchdowns while the Ravens registered a season-high seven sacks.
The 25-year-old Clemson product lacks the consistency of Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson — the last two league MVPs — at this point in their respective careers, but he’s every bit as dangerous when playing at his best, meaning the Ravens can’t rest on their laurels.
“We’re not overconfident — trust me,” Martindale said. “He gets better every year. He’s a Pro Bowl quarterback for a reason. It was just one of those days last year. He is like a LeBron James-type player in the NFL instead of the NBA. He’s a general; he’s a point guard out there. We all respect his game.”
Watson’s style of play presents an interesting challenge as Pro Football Focus ranked his time to throw the second longest in the league behind only Jackson last season, which can lead to similarly spectacular throws and scrambles. But his style also leads to more sacks for which the Texans offensive line aren’t always to blame.
That was evident on the opening drive against the Ravens last year when he held the ball and scrambled in the pocket for a full 10 seconds before being stripped of the ball from behind for a turnover. That improvisation and patience are a double-edged sword, however, as Baltimore can’t ask its secondary to cover quite that long and expect similar results in the first road game of the season.
The pass rush needs the proper balance of discipline and explosiveness to contain a quarterback who so often goes against the grain.
“That’s what he does. He actually holds the ball longer than anybody in the league,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “I think their offensive line does a good job — the scheme is part of that — but it’s really mainly him. And he does it to create opportunities for the pass game. He’ll throw it. He’ll throw it to anybody. He’ll throw it deep. He’ll throw it short. He’ll throw it to every different receiver — you saw that last week — and he’ll run.”
“Different receiver” is a sore subject in Houston these days after Texans coach Bill O’Brien’s decision to trade four-time Pro Bowl selection DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona, leaving Watson without an elite No. 1 target. Despite a couple uncharacteristic drops in that loss against the Ravens, Hopkins was still Houston’s best player, catching seven passes for 80 yards.
Now, Watson is leaning on the oft-injured Will Fuller and the oft-traded Brandin Cooks as his top wide receivers while hoping former Pro Bowl selection David Johnson — acquired from the Cardinals in the Hopkins deal — brings some juice to the running back position. The results were mixed in the Texans’ 34-20 loss to the Super Bowl champion Chiefs in the season-opening game.
Of course, the Ravens aren’t the same on defense as that day they clobbered the Texans with changes at all three levels of their defense. Watson would be wise to test rookie inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison with underneath and intermediate throws to his tight ends and running backs. Third-year safety DeShon Elliott held up well in his first NFL start replacing Earl Thomas, but he’ll need to show strong discipline on the back end of the defense, especially when Watson improvises.
“With Watson running around and the things he can do and extend plays and the throws he makes on the run, it’s going to be very, very important,” Harbaugh said. “It’s going to be a big part of the game.”
Ultimately, the biggest challenge for the Ravens could be following the mantra uttered throughout the spring and summer — one week and one game at a time.
They know the Chiefs come to town next week in a Monday night game already being labeled an AFC Championship game preview, but the Hopkins-less Texans — who will have five-time Pro Bowl defensive end J.J. Watt on the other side of the ball this time — are still talented enough to give them problems, especially if the Ravens get caught “peeking ahead” as Jackson suggested they did against Tennessee last January. Watson’s also going to want some revenge as Houston tries to avoid an 0-2 start.
“They have a great quarterback — one of the best in the NFL — and he has a good supporting cast,” said outside linebacker Matthew Judon, who collected two sacks and forced a fumble in last year’s victory. “We just can’t sleep on them. We’ve got to go out there and be us, be who we are. But we cannot think that they can’t make plays because they definitely can.”