OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A meeting between the NFL’s top scoring offense and best scoring defense feels like a heavyweight fight, but Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs didn’t offer the anticipated bravado.
Not when you’re facing a quarterback who just broke the career passing yardage record and is still going strong at age 39 in an offense averaging 36.0 points per game.
“They’re the kind of explosive offense that gives you nightmares,” said Suggs about Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. “It’s going to be a good, fun game. We get to play football against one of the premier quarterbacks, the premier offenses with explosive pieces.”
At the same time, Brees spent his bye week watching the Ravens defense collect a franchise-record 11 sacks in a 21-0 road shutout against Tennessee. Baltimore’s 12.8 points per game allowed this season looks like something out of 1978 rather than in 2018 when offense reigns supreme.
He’s faced them only four times, but Brees is fully aware the Ravens are the only team he’s never defeated in his 18-year career. Suggs — a rookie when Baltimore beat Brees for the first time when he was the quarterback of the San Diego Chargers in 2003 — tried to chalk up that past success to “luck” on Wednesday, but the future Hall of Fame quarterback has fallen prey to an abundance of defensive standouts from Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to Haloti Ngata and Elvis Dumervil over the years.
Now Brees will meet a deep and unpredictable defense that leads the league in sacks and has allowed only eight touchdowns in six games — none after halftime.
“They’re all over the place, and I think that’s just something we have to be aware of,” Brees said in a conference call with Baltimore media. “Making sure that we’re spot-on with our scheme and what we’re doing, making sure that the ball gets out on time, making sure we’re doing good things in the back end in regards to getting open. But yes, it’s a formidable defense. It’s a formidable pass rush.”
“All over the place” is an appropriate description as new defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has employed extensive depth and more pre- and in-snap flexibility to keep opposing offenses guessing as to what the Ravens are doing. Whether disguising coverage and blitzes or even using “amoeba” looks (see below) with upwards of seven or eight players at the line of scrimmage before the snap, the Ravens have confused quarterbacks, forcing them into mistakes or holding the ball too long as the pass rush gets home.
(Screen shot courtesy of NFL Game Pass)
Of course, the Ravens are unlikely to confuse the veteran Brees to the same degree they baffled Nathan Peterman, Case Keenum, or Marcus Mariota, but their style of play is already the blueprint for trying to slow down a quarterback who processes information quickly and makes plenty of pre-snap adjustments. The concern is Brees and Saints head coach Sean Payton have had an extra week to study the Baltimore defense, adding another layer to an already-intriguing chess match.
“If he knows what you’re doing or what you’re going to do, you’re going to have a long day,” said Ravens slot receiver Willie Snead, who spent the last three seasons with the Saints. “I think disguise is going to be huge with the [defense] because they do have a great offense. Drew Brees is one of the best. You guys know that.
“But I think the way you get him off his game is you have to bring pressure. You have to mix it up, and you have to make sure that he doesn’t know what you’re doing. I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Knowing you have to pressure Brees and doing it are two different things as he’s been sacked just eight times in five games this season and has been dropped just 28 times since the start of 2017. The New Orleans offensive line ranks fifth in Pro Football Focus’ most recent rankings with offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk grading particularly well.
The challenge of pressuring Brees is compounded by how quickly he gets rid of the football, another obstacle for rushers trying to come off the edge. According to Next Gen Stats, Brees’ average time to throw of 2.52 seconds from snap to release is tied for second fastest in the league and is 0.04 seconds quicker than Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, whose quick throws frustrated the Ravens in a Week 2 loss in which they didn’t record a single sack.
Those variables are why it’s critical for the inside pass rush to get Brees off his spot and keep him out of rhythm. That effort will be led by the surging Za’Darius Smith, who is coming off a career-best three-sack performance against the Titans. Smith estimated Wednesday that the coverage in the Ravens secondary just needs to give the front “three to four seconds” to get after Brees.
Easier said than done, but the Ravens don’t have to try to be something they’re not, which is good news when playing such an explosive offense. Ultimately, they’re hoping to give Brees some nightmares of his own while continuing their undefeated streak against one of the best quarterbacks of all time.
“We’ve got to do our best to not let him know what we’re in before the snap because we’re going to be dead if he does know,” safety Eric Weddle said. “It’s a fun challenge. The great ones always bring out the best in you, and they can bring out the worst in you too. If you make a mistake, it’s a touchdown. That’s the pressure you like.”