The NFL’s best quarterback matchup of the month — and maybe the season — is coming to Baltimore.
The Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and Buffalo BIlls’ Josh Allen, the early favorites for league Most Valuable Player honors, will meet for the third time as starters Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium. The 2018 first-round picks split their first two meetings, with the Ravens (2-1) winning in Buffalo in 2019 before losing on the road in an AFC divisional-round playoff game the following season.
The Bills (2-1) are considered Super Bowl favorites despite losing Sunday to a Miami Dolphins team that also won in Baltimore in Week 2. The Ravens are looking to remain atop the AFC North and end a four-game home losing streak. Here’s what to watch in the teams’ Week 4 matchup.
1. On offense, the Ravens want to line up their way — with more size than speed. On defense, the Bills want to line up their way, too — with more speed than size. That means Sunday’s game, at least in terms of personnel, could become a staring contest between Greg Roman and Leslie Frazier.
In Roman’s offense, the Ravens are comfortable being unconventional. In a league where “11″ personnel groupings (one running back, one tight end and three wider receivers) dominate, the Ravens have lined up with at least three wide receivers on just 15 of Jackson’s 99 drop-backs this season, according to Sports Info Solutions. Tight ends and fullback Patrick Ricard get the snaps that complementary wide receivers otherwise would.
In Frazier’s defense, meanwhile, the Bills are comfortable lining up with five defensive backs almost exclusively. Opposing quarterbacks have dropped back against Buffalo’s “nickel” looks 97 times this season. Only the Tennessee Titans’ Ryan Tannehill has faced a Bills pass defense in a “base” look (four defensive backs), and he saw it on just two plays.
So far, Buffalo’s run defense hasn’t suffered: The Bills are No. 5 in the NFL in efficiency there, according to Football Outsiders, despite injuries to defensive linemen Ed Oliver (questionable for Sunday) and Jordan Phillips (ruled out). Roman on Thursday praised Bills slot cornerback Taron Johnson’s ability to execute the Bills’ run fits.
“I’ll tell you what, it’s pretty remarkable what No. 7 [Johnson] can do,” Roman said. “Seen him taking on offensive linemen in the ‘B’ gap and kind of holding his ground, he’s doing a really nice job. I don’t see a problem there at all for them; he’s doing really well. You don’t often see that to that extent. So you can tell they really like him and trust him, and his play has been outstanding.”
If the Ravens struggle to run the ball against Buffalo’s smaller personnel, their passing game could be challenged. Jackson has fared better against base defense (124.2 passer rating, 74.1% accuracy) than nickel defense (111.5 passer rating, 60% accuracy) this season.
2. One year after struggling mightily against the blitz, Jackson is back to punishing aggressive defenses. He’s 23-for-31 for 349 yards and six touchdowns (150.4 passer rating) against five or more pass rushers, according to SIS, and has taken just one sack against the blitz.
That shouldn’t affect Buffalo’s game plan much. The Bills have blitzed just four times in three games — twice against the Titans’ Tannehill and twice against the Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa, both of whom were sacked once and missed on their one attempt.
With a wealth of pass-rush weapons and an organized defense, the Bills have been largely content to send four rushers after the quarterback, drop seven defenders into coverage and take their chances. Even as far back as its 2020 playoff win over the Ravens, Buffalo essentially ditched man-to-man coverage, never calling a “Cover 0″ (all-out blitz with no deep safeties), “Cover 1″ (one deep safety) or “Cover 2 man” (two deep safeties) look, according to SIS.
3. Mark Andrews has faced the Bills three times in his career. Somehow, Hayden Hurst has been the more productive Ravens tight end against Buffalo in that span.
In his NFL debut, in 2018, Andrews had three catches for 31 yards. In 2019, he had one catch for 14 yards. In a divisional-round playoff loss a year later, he had four catches on 11 targets for 28 yards. Hurst, who faced the Bengals just once in his two years as a Raven, had three catches on three targets for 73 yards — equaling Andrews’ combined yardage — and a touchdown in their 2019 meeting.
Even with a season-ending neck injury sidelining starting safety Micah Hyde, the Bills won’t be easy for Andrews to solve. Safety Jordan Poyer, an All-Pro like Hyde, could play despite a foot injury that limited him in practice this week, and Matt Milano is one of the NFL’s best off-ball linebackers in coverage. According to Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics, no team is better at defending tight ends this season than the Bills.
4. With Patrick Mekari (ankle) doubtful and Ronnie Stanley (ankle) questionable for Sunday’s game, Daniel Faalele’s first career start could deliver a test that most left tackles would struggle with.
The fourth-round pick, who lined up exclusively at right tackle at Minnesota, could face three defensive ends ranked among the seven highest-graded pass rushers at the position: Boogie Basham (No. 1), Gregory Rousseau (No. 6) and Von Miller (No. 7). The Ravens helped Faalele at times Sunday with play-action calls, double teams and chip blocks, but whatever they’ll devote to pass protection, they’ll lose as a receiving option.
“There are different ways to go with it,” Roman said. “You can kind of say, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s in the game; we’re just going to get inside a little tent, and we’re not going to do much and just hope for the best,’ ” Roman said. “Or you can see how he’s doing … and assess, ‘OK, we’re going to need to do this, that and the other.’ And there is kind of a middle ground there, too, where you might call certain things to help him out, but still try to be aggressive with your plan.”
5. Weighed down by an unremarkable running back group and an inconsistent offensive line, the Bills have one of the NFL’s worst rushing attacks. Despite averaging a respectable 4.3 yards per carry on designed runs, Buffalo is 30th in the NFL in “success rate” on designed running plays. (A play is considered successful when it gains at least 40% of the yards to go on first down, 60% of the yards to go on second down and 100% of the yards to go on third or fourth down.)
The Bills’ best runs so far have been improvised. Allen has scrambled 11 times this season for 93 yards and a touchdown, according to SIS. All but one of his scrambles has produced a first down.
Like Jackson, Allen’s athleticism poses matchup nightmares. He has the speed to run by linebackers and the strength to shake off defensive backs. Almost two-thirds of his scrambling yards this season have come after contact.
6. The Ravens will need not only a more effective pass rush Sunday but also a more disciplined one. New England quarterback Mac Jones, not typically a scrambling threat, had five carries for 31 yards and his first career rushing touchdown in the Patriots’ Week 3 loss. Disorganized defensive fronts gave Jones the kind of running lanes that Allen can turn into launching pads.
“When you’re playing your zones, you can gain some defenders,” defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said Thursday. “When you’re going to play ‘man,’ you have to start tweaking your pass-rush plan and how you’re going to play those certain situations. Then, if [Allen] rears his head in certain critical situations, just keeping the ball in designed runs, then it’s a different animal, just because it’s a numbers issue, plus his skill as a runner and just being so big and being able to get on the edge.”
7. The Ravens’ third-down defense has been hit-or-miss this season. In Week 1, the New York Jets didn’t convert until midway through the fourth quarter. In Week 3, the New England Patriots were 2-for-9, with one would-be first-down catch ruined by rookie safety Kyle Hamilton’s forced fumble. In between was the Ravens’ Week 2 collapse against the Miami Dolphins, who converted seven of their 11 third downs and scored three touchdowns on third-and-6 or longer.
The Bills are one of the NFL’s most efficient teams on third down (NFL-best 61% conversion rate) and fourth down (66.7% conversion rate, tied for fourth overall), partly because seemingly no distance is too far to cover. Buffalo has converted nine of its 17 third-down plays with at least 7 yards to go (52.9%) — not far behind its rate on third down when needing 3 or fewer yards (61.8%). According to Sharp Football Analysis, 65.5% of Allen’s pass attempts on third down have resulted in a first down or touchdown, the highest rate in the league.
8. Sunday’s game is close to a homecoming for Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs, a five-star recruit at Good Counsel in Olney who later played three injury-marred years at Maryland. Diggs slipped to the fifth round of the 2015 NFL draft, and Harbaugh acknowledged before the teams’ playoff meeting in January 2021 that “unfortunately, that’s one that got away.” Entering Week 4, Diggs led the NFL with 344 receiving yards.
A Week 3 injury ruined a more natural homecoming for Bills rookie cornerback Christian Benford, who was born in Baltimore and played at Randallstown. Benford, a sixth-round pick from Villanova, started the first three games for the Bills’ injury-depleted secondary, earning more playing time than first-round pick Kaiir Elam over the first two weeks. But Benford broke his hand Sunday against the Dolphins and will miss a couple of weeks after undergoing surgery.
9. Jackson is 84 rushing yards shy of 4,000 over his career, a mark only five quarterbacks in NFL history have reached. Michael Vick is the fastest quarterback in NFL history to reach 4,000 rushing yards, doing so in 87 career games. Jackson has played in only 61.
Andrews needs 100 receiving yards to tie wide receiver Mark Clayton’s record for the most 100-yard receiving games (nine) in Ravens history.
10. The Ravens will wear their all-purple “Color Rush” uniforms Sunday. Until their 31-30 loss last season to the eventual NFC champion Green Bay Packers, the Ravens had won their first four games while wearing Color Rush uniforms by an average margin of 29.3 points.
11. Two seasons after dealing with near-freezing temperatures and whipping winds in their playoff meeting, the Ravens and Bills could get more unpleasant weather Sunday. Rain in Baltimore is expected to fall through the morning and afternoon as the remnants of Hurricane Ian move north from Florida.
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Bills by 3