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How the Ravens hope to ground the Air Raid offense on Sunday

How the Ravens hope to ground the Air Raid offense on Sunday

Robert Griffin III knows the Air Raid offense. He also knows not to call every version of it the “Air Raid.”

When Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury was hired in Arizona, team’s intention was clear: Bring the “Air Raid,” or at least its concepts, to the NFL full-time. The team picked quarterback Kyler Murray No. 1 overall to lead the offense, committing to the system full bore. 

Whatever you call it, the offense is going to test the Ravens defense — specifically the secondary — Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium. 

“Everybody has their own style,” Griffin said. “The foundation of the offense, of spreading people out, of trying to get easy completions, throwing the ball, it’s something that can translate to the NFL. I think our defense has a good grasp of what they’re going to be able to do, and what they can do.”

According to Sharpfootballstats.com, the Cardinals lined up with four wide receivers on 55 of their 82 offensive plays. They also lined up with three wide receivers on 15 plays and two wide receivers on nine plays. They never lined up with one or zero receivers. 

Murray threw the ball 54 times in the game, which went to overtime, as the Cardinals found their groove late in a 27-27 tie. 

But while the Cardinals are spreading things out, more so than any other NFL team, the concepts and route combinations aren’t foreign to the rest of the NFL.

“The thing of it is with Kliff’s offense, the offensive guys in this league have been stealing plays from him for years from Texas Tech,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale said. “We’re just getting the full monty, if you will, of the Air Raid offense. History has a way of repeating itself in this league.”

The opportunity exists, though, for the secondary to have a big day.

“But I love these type of games, as a DB you’ve got to love these type of games,” safety Earl Thomas said. “These are two-pick games right here. You’ve gotta love it.”

Anticipating many four-wide sets from the Cardinals, the Ravens already made a move by promoting cornerback Maurice Canady from the practice squad. With Jimmy Smith’s MCL sprain, the move will add some depth to the secondary on a day when they’ll need it most. 

The Ravens will have to dictate much of their defensive strategy to stopping the offensive attack, but they’re not trying to change their defense too much. 

“We have safeties that can cover receivers as well in zone and man coverage, so we’ll be in different kinds of personnel groups, just like we always are, just in terms of how we want to game-plan and match those guys,” coach John Harbaugh explained. “We have a plan for that, obviously...but it’s a challenge. They’re spread out way more than anybody else.”

While the Ravens try to slow down Kingsbury’s attack, the long term sustainability of the offense remains a question to the rest of the league. 

Griffin doesn’t have any concerns.

“Just look at it this way: Almost anything is sustainable, as long as you’re committed to it,” Griffin said. “I had a coach tell me one time, ‘If you believe in something, then you have to go forth and do that thing consistently.’ That’s what they’re doing. They’re not partially doing the Air Raid, they’re fully committed to it.”

A full commitment to the offense, however, still means pulling from the rest of the league. 

The Cardinals don’t have an offensive coordinator, but Tom Clements is the team’s quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator. He was with the Green Bay Packers from 2006-2016.

The concepts that the Cardinals are using have been around the NFL for years. Now it's being fully implemented, and it's just a matter of keeping opposing defenses on their toes.

“Well, that’s no different from any other offense in the NFL, you have to keep evolving,” Griffin said. “If you don’t evolve, yes, you can be extinguished. But if you keep evolving the offense and keep evolving how you run the offense, yeah, it’s sustainable.”

Long-term viability aside, the only evolution the Ravens are concerned with is how the Cardinals will change from week one to week two. And even that can be a mystery.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s four-wide or four tight ends,” Martindale began. “I have angst every Sunday. It’ll be interesting to see if they stay heavy with that (four wide receiver) package, because they have other packages as well, and they can still do all of the same things out of it. So, it’s going to be a great challenge for us.”

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A look back at the previous Lamar Jackson vs. Deshaun Watson matchup — in college

A look back at the previous Lamar Jackson vs. Deshaun Watson matchup — in college

Lamar Jackson still doesn’t want to talk about that extra yard Louisville never got in 2016. 

“Man, it is what it is,” Jackson said, with a bit of a grin. “It happened.”

In October 2016, Jackson took his No. 5 Louisville squad into Death Valley to face Deshaun Watson and the No. 3 Clemson Tigers. The result was a game that had impacts for both of their football careers still felt today. 

It was one of the best college games of the season, a game that featured eight total touchdowns between Watson and Jackson, 57 first downs, 1,075 yards of total offense — including one crucial yard left on the field in a 42-36 Clemson win.

And on the eve of a rematch between two of the best college quarterbacks of the decade, here’s a look back at one of the most entertaining football games in recent memory, told by three players who came up a yard short.

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Josh Harvey-Clemons knew the Cardinals had a shot to march into Death Valley and escape with a win. They had Lamar Jackson. 

In Jackson’s freshman year, the defense routinely complained to coach Bobby Petrino that Jackson needed different rules in practice, as quarterbacks aren’t to be touched. So one day, Petrino made Jackson live, like everyone else.

“He probably had three touchdowns that day,” said Geron Christian, a tackle for the Redskins and former Louisville player.

A year later, the Cardinals went into Memorial Stadium at Clemson with their sophomore quarterback, ready to knock off college football's second-place team a year prior. 

“That game was crazy, that was my only time playing at Clemson,” Christian said. “That fanbase and everything was crazy. I mean, shoot, it was a great game.”

On the opposite sideline, however, stood perhaps the best player in college football in Watson. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting a year prior, a year in which he combined for 5,214 yards. 

Clemson, a year after a five-point defeat to Alabama in the National Championship Game, had its sights set on winning the national title. And to many, it appeared they had the best quarterback in the country.

Louisville, however, remained confident. It had its own offensive weapon in Jackson. The venue didn’t faze them.

“That was a great game,” Harvey-Clemons, now a linebacker for the Redskins, said. “Being there, in Death Valley at a night game, is one of the loudest stadiums I’ve played in.”

And after a scoreless first quarter, things exploded.

Louisville got on the board first and took a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter. The game took a turn, however, led by Watson. 

Clemson outscored Louisville 28-3 the rest of the half and led 28-10 at halftime. Watson threw touchdown passes of 33, 37 and five yards to put Clemson ahead for what looked to be for good.

“He was just dicing us down the field,” Jackson said. “Our defense did great, don't get me wrong. Our defense played a great game, but he was just doing Deshaun Watson things.”

In the second half, however, Louisville jumped on Clemson and hung 26 unanswered points on the board. Jackson had two rushing touchdowns and a passing touchdown to put Louisville ahead. 

Watson came right back in the fourth quarter with two scoring drives of his own and threw touchdown passes of 20 and 31 yards to give the Tigers a six-point lead late in the game. He finished the night 20-of-31 passing for 306 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions. He also had 91 yards rushing on 14 carries.

But the game wasn’t over just yet. Jackson and the Cardinals had a chance, down six, to steal a game in Death Valley and put them on the fast track to the College Football Playoff. 

Faced with 4th and 12 at the Clemson 14-yard line, with 39 seconds left to play, Jackson fired a strike to wide receiver James Quick who caught the pass and raced toward the sideline. 

Quick thought he beat Clemson defender Marcus Edmond to the spot. Instead, he wound up a yard short.

“...we went out of bounds like right before...we thought we had the first down and went out of bounds right on the goal line,” Harvey-Clemons recalled.

Clemson took over on downs and held on for a 42-36 win. It later went on to a 14-1 season and beat Alabama to win the National Championship Game. 

Louisville finished 9-4 and Jackson won the Heisman that season — the youngest player to ever win the Heisman Trophy. He totaled 4,928 yards and 51 touchdowns. 

Still, it’s hard not to think about how both that season, and Jackson and Watson’s careers, could be different if Louisville had gotten that extra yard.

“We have to move on from that,” Jackson said this week. “I can't dwell on it. It is what it is.”

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Three years later, Jackson and Watson are leading their teams with title-aspirations into a matchup against one another, as the two are in contention for the league’s highest individual award. 

Jackson, the 32nd overall pick in 2018 NFL Draft, and Watson, the 12th pick in 2017, each had to face their fair share of doubters in the NFL. 

To those who played in that game, though, it’s not surprising the level of success they’re having at the NFL level. 15 players on that Clemson roster in 2016 were drafted in the NFL and six from Louisville were. 

Of all the draft picks, both Harvey-Clemons and Christian are convinced of who was the best player on the field the first time Watson and Jackson, biases inconsequential.

“You know who I’m gonna go with,” Harvey-Clemons said with a chuckle. “Deshaun is a great quarterback though, man. He’s doing great things this year too.”

The new era of NFL quarterbacks have arrived, and two of the best examples will square off on Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium.

“He’s surprising a lot of people, but I was telling these guys the other day that everything he’s doing, is the same thing he’s been doing,” Harvey-Clemons said. “It’s not surprising me, because I know what type of athlete he is, and what type of athlete he’s been since he got to college.”

The Ravens, at 7-2, and the Texans, at 6-3, have other matchups that will make Sunday intriguing. But just like that night in Death Valley, the story will be the quarterbacks.

“Both of those guys are great quarterbacks,” Harvey-Clemons said. “And seeing them play this week is going to be a show, just like it was back in college.”

JP Finlay contributed to this story.

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In a league of either ball control or quick scores, the Ravens’ offense can do both

In a league of either ball control or quick scores, the Ravens’ offense can do both

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Matt Skura had no idea the third quarter was over until he checked the clock for himself. 

Against the Patriots two weeks ago, the Ravens took over on offense up just a touchdown with eight minutes and three seconds left in the quarter. They ran out the entire quarter, including six seconds of the fourth quarter, and ended the drive with a touchdown. 

The next drive took nine minutes and 35 seconds off the clock, as the two Ravens drives of the half that didn’t end the game took 17 minutes and 44 seconds off the clock. 

In a league of big plays and passing, the Ravens are bucking the trend with long, sustained drives to take the life out of defenses.

“You can definitely tell in the second half when they start to get worn down, especially those extended drives that are like, seven or eight minutes long,” Skura said. “By the end of it, the pass rush slows down, the run stopping slows down as well. We know it’s giving our defense rest to come out and feel fresh.”

But the Ravens not only can score with long, soul-killing drives, they can score at will, too. 

Against the Bengals last Sunday, the Ravens had the ball for just 23 minutes and 49 seconds. They also scored more points (49) than they ran offensive plays (46). 

“At the end of the day, if they can’t have the ball and score, they can’t win,” Willie Snead said. “It’s all about ball control and how fast we can get in the end zone. Last week, the time of possession was flipped. But we were scoring, the defense was playing great and we were just moving the ball at will.”

Baltimore is currently second in the NFL in possession at 34:24, trailing only San Francisco by eight seconds on average. Before the Cincinnati game, Baltimore was first in the NFL in time of possession. Scoring quickly, and on defense, tends to skew those numbers. 

The most impressive drives, though, are the ones that control the clock and involve double-digit plays.

“It’s just incredible what we’re doing right now, with these 14, 15-play drives,” Hayden Hurst said. “Teams are having a tough time matching up against us. We’re just kind of grinding out drives and marching down the field on teams. It’s really fun right now, what G-Ro has schemed up.”

The opponent also plays a factor in how the Ravens game plan, as giving the ball back to a talented offense could end up biting them later in the game.

“Like a game in New England, we know who’s on the other side of it,” Snead continued. “We’ve got to take that into consideration. 12-play, 18-play drives, that just means less time for him. It’s all into the game plan. When we run the ball and get going it’s hard for anybody to stop.”

While there’s different ways score on offense, the Ravens have shown that they’ve got the speed and talent to score quickly over-the-top of defenses with Lamar Jackson and Hollywood Brown, amongst others. 

And even though those are the prettiest plays, the drives that truly take the life out of the defense are the ones that take significant time of the clock, slowly bleeding the game until the offense doesn’t even know they’ve ran down an entire quarter.

“You’ve got to get the first first down,” Bradley Bozeman said. “Once you get the first first down, you start marching, start pacing. It just depends how they’re playing us, determines what we do. It’s not rocket science.”

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