Josh Allen was a different quarterback the last time the Ravens saw him and Buffalo in Week 13 of the 2019 season.
To that point in his career, he’d thrown just 26 touchdowns compared to 20 interceptions and completed just 57.8 percent of his passes over 23 NFL starts. The 6-foot-5, 237-pound quarterback had a strong arm lacking accuracy and relied heavily on his legs, rushing for 1,061 yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging 5.8 yards per carry in his young career.
Allen’s performance against a relentless, blitz-heavy Ravens defense was forgettable as he completed just 17 of 39 passes for 146 yards and a touchdown while being sacked six times and fumbling twice. Though the Bills hung tough in Baltimore’s 24-17 win, Allen wasn’t the reason why as fellow 2018 first-round pick and eventual NFL MVP Lamar Jackson easily outplayed him.
At the time, there was no questioning which quarterback was better as Allen was closer to being labeled a bust than being considered a future MVP candidate.
“It’s a tough watch. I didn’t play particularly well last year in that game — just a couple boneheaded mistakes,” said Allen about reviewing that game this week. “They got after us, and this is a team that if they get momentum on their side, they’re scary. Obviously, they’ve got quite a few big-name players over there, and they play their scheme extremely well.”
Thirteen months later, Allen is a different quarterback and would have a strong argument as the league’s MVP if not for Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes leading their teams to the top seed in each conference. Though the University of Wyoming product blossomed later than Jackson, Allen – who’s 7 1/2 months older — has taken a similar leap to what we saw from the Ravens quarterback in his surprising 2019 MVP campaign. The 37 touchdown passes and 4,544 yards in the regular season were impressive enough, but Allen completed 69.2 percent of his attempts, a dramatic increase from his 58.8 percent in his first full year as a starter.
Allen has led the Bills to seven straight wins — six by double digits — with only a Hail Mary in Arizona keeping Buffalo from an 11-game winning streak.
He followed that regular season by going 26-for-35 for 324 yards and two touchdowns in Buffalo’s wild-card playoff win over Indianapolis last Saturday, the franchise’s first postseason victory in a quarter-century. And Allen still uses his legs, rushing for 54 yards and another touchdown in that 27-24 final.
“Everything that he’s done, he’s become more accurate with it,” Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “To paint a picture for you all, it’s young Ben Roethlisberger because of his size and how he extends plays with like [Dan] Marino’s arm. That’s what I told the secondary coaches and the defensive staff.”
Of course, Allen hasn’t done it alone as the Bills acquired former University of Maryland standout Stefon Diggs, who exploded into an All-Pro wide receiver after a rocky end to his run with Minnesota. Diggs led the NFL with 127 catches and 1,535 receiving yards while becoming one of the best receivers in football in 2020.
With Diggs, 967-yard slot receiver Cole Beasley, and speedy receivers John Brown and Gabriel Davis making plays, Allen has no shortage of weapons in a passing game that transformed from an afterthought to one of the league’s best in 2020. The big quarterback’s mobility makes the Bills that much more difficult to defend, reminding veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith of his days facing a younger Roethlisberger with Pro Bowl receivers like Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace wreaking havoc in scramble-drill situations for Pittsburgh.
“He has receivers that can get open. After that first 2 1/2 seconds, three seconds, boom. He went through his couple reads, it’s not there, and he breaks that pocket,” said Smith about preparing for Allen. “That’s something that you kind of have to practice in practice a little bit, just ‘plastering’ [receivers] and making sure that he doesn’t have anywhere to throw it. Try to force him to throw it out of bounds.
“As far as up front, you don’t want to give him lanes to go run because he’ll crease you, and he’s a big dude to take down in the middle of the field. Preparation for that is just trying to keep him corralled. You don’t want to let him get out.”
Of course, the Ravens are coming off a dominant playoff performance against a Tennessee offense very good in its own right despite its heavy reliance on 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry and heavier formations that allowed Baltimore to largely remain in its base defense. According to SharpFootballStats.com, the Bills use three or four wide receivers roughly 90 percent of the time, which will test a Ravens defense that abandoned its dime package due to injuries over the course of the season.
Baltimore’s aggressive style will also be challenged by a quarterback ranking first in the league in touchdowns (19) and passing yards (1,850) against the blitz, according to Pro Football Focus. The Ravens led the NFL in blitz rate, but PFF ranked their pressure rate at 29.3 percent, good for just 18th in the league. Not getting home with those blitzes against Allen is a dangerous proposition with his ability to escape the pocket and the Bills’ weapons in the passing game, which would put great stress on the cornerback trio of Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, and Smith. Of course, they were up to the task against the Titans, but the Bills have scored 26 or more points in their last nine games and totaled at least 34 in five of those contests.
Regardless of Allen’s success handling the blitz this season, Martindale says the Ravens won’t deviate from their aggressive and deceptive ways of harassing the quarterback, a strategy that’s hurt them in recent battles against Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. The test of wills should be fascinating to watch with the winner advancing to the AFC Championship game.
“I always look forward to these types of games,” Martindale said. “It’ll be interesting to see. But he knows that there’s going to be pressure — that’s for sure. That’s who we are. That’s what we’ve done.”
Below is Wednesday’s injury report:
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DE Calais Campbell (non-injury), RB Mark Ingram (non-injury), OLB Matthew Judon (illness), CB Marcus Peters (back)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OT D.J. Fluker (knee)
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DE Darryl Johnson (knee)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: WR Cole Beasley (knee), WR Stefon Diggs (oblique), LB Tremaine Edmunds (hamstring), QB Jake Fromm (non-injury), DT Ed Oliver (ankle), DT Justin Zimmer (groin)
FULL PARTICIPATION: K Tyler Bass (hand)