The Baltimore Ravens reversed course on Sunday by defeating the Cleveland Browns to secure a playoff spot for the first time since 2014. The Ravens lost in win-or-go-home situations in 2016 and 2017. To prevent the trifecta of divisional opponents knocking the Ravens out of the playoffs, Baltimore had no other option but to win. The game went down to the wire, as is the new norm for the Ravens. The game ended in dramatic fashion as the team gave members of the flock everywhere a mini-heart attack. Cleveland threatened to score and end Baltimore’s playoff hopes late in the game. But as Tony Romo said, the Ravens defense stood up, put the city of Baltimore on its back and won the game.
Baltimore’s final stand was engineered by defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. After he inherited the job from Dean Pees, he vowed to play a more aggressive style of defense than Baltimore was accustomed to under his predecessor. Martindale decided to gamble it all on the final four plays of the game. He sent out a cover zero blitz and decided that the Ravens would force the Browns to make a play or lose. The Browns consistently made plays by sending out spread formations with one tight end and/or one running back personnel. Martindale knew that he would likely see this mode of attack as the game neared its end.
On 1st and 10 with 1:20 left to play, the Browns sent out a one running back no tight end set. Cleveland started with this group in the hopes of catching the Ravens off guard, as it was their least effective personnel package. Cleveland only gained three passing yards on five prior attempts. The result of the play was an incompletion. Cleveland would try the same formula again on third down, but again the ball landed uncached. On second down, the Browns sent out a one running back no tight end look. This was one of their more effective groupings, as Cleveland passed for 62 total yards from this personnel group, but only averaged 3.444 yards per attempt. Cleveland could not muster a single yard on third down, though, as Baker Mayfield’s pass fell incomplete again.
On 4th and 10, with the game on the line, the Cleveland Browns went to their most successful personnel package, the no running back, one tight end group. This specific group accounted for 181 yards of passing offense, and an average of 20.111 yards at the end of the game. Cleveland was confident that on 4th and long, this group would be able to put them in position to win. Martindale responded with the same cover zero defense he called for the previous three plays. This allowed for inside linebacker CJ Mosley to rush the quarterback. Mosley tipped one of Mayfield’s passes earlier, which resulted in Jimmy Smith’s first interception. When Mosley found himself in the same position, he made the same play, but this time he came down with the pick.
The defense’s ability to adapt ultimately gave them the win. On plays with no running back and one tight end in formation, the Browns gained 38, 28, 19, 40, 7, 33, and 16 yards through the air, with just one incompletion. Baltimore saw an increase in play calls out of the personnel with under six minutes left in the game. In fact of the nine attempts to pass out of this personnel, four came with under six minutes remaining in the second half. The Browns were playing aggressive to win, and it was working. The only way for Baltimore to counter it was to be aggressive as well. On 4th and 10, the Ravens defense saw the personnel group once again and knew what was coming. Mosley hesitated to rush (either by design or by accident) and found himself in place to make a play. He stood in the middle of the pass rush and stared down Mayfield the entire time. As soon as the ball left the quarterback’s hands, Mosley went up and brought it down.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Baltimore Ravens continued to dominate on the ground. Despite Baltimore’s prowess in the ground game, the Ravens only succeeded with specific packages on the field. In the first two drives, the Baltimore Ravens experimented running the ball with five different packages on the field. These included a one running back and two tight end look, a two running back and two tight end look, a three running back and one tight end look, a one running back and no tight end look, and a one running back and one tight end look. Baltimore quickly learned what worked and what did not. In the one running back, one tight end and one running back, two tight end personnel groups, the Ravens ran for 51 yards on three attempts. Two runs by Lamar Jackson went for 24 and 25 yards each. On the other runs in different formations, the Ravens ran the ball four times for just six yards. Gus Edwards, Kenneth Dixon, and Lamar Jackson each got a chance to run, and none succeeded.
Throughout the game, Ravens stuck with the two personnel groupings that initially worked. The results were nothing short of magnificent. The Ravens ran the majority of their offensive plays out of the one running back and tight end personnel. The ratio was 40:69. 57% of Baltimore’s plays were run out of the grouping. There was even a period in the third quarter where the Ravens ran 15 straight offensive plays in this personnel grouping. The Ravens had no reason to stop sending out this group of positions, as the results were extremely successful. Baltimore rushed for 214 yards on 25 attempts in this personnel. The Ravens averaged 8.56 yards per attempt with this lineup on the field. Baltimore also passed 15 times with this personnel set on the field. Jackson moved the Ravens 107 yards in this instance but averaged only 4.28 yards per pass attempt. The Ravens also continued to run out of the one running back, two tight end set. Baltimore ran the ball nine times with this personnel on the field and gained 61 yards on the ground. The runners averaged 6.778 yards per attempt with this personnel on the field.
By dominating on the ground (again) the Ravens dominated in the time of possession. Baltimore won this category 38:30 to 21:30. This kept Baker Mayfield and the explosive Browns offense off the field. It also made the two interceptions by Jimmy Smith all the more impactful, as those two drives were forced to end in catastrophic failure for the Browns. Cleveland’s limited time on the field gave them limited opportunities to answer the Ravens and give themselves a chance to win. The gameplan meshed the roles of the offense and defense together to function almost like one unit. The defense put the offense on the field, which would drain the clock, allow for the defense to rest. Once the ball was back in the hands of the Cleveland Browns, the defense would again try to force them off the field and repeat the same strategy. The Ravens won by adapting to situations while carrying out this overarching strategy.