How the Dolphins upended the Ravens with Cover-0 (and other things)

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Every upset has its own anatomy. In the case of the Dolphins’ 22-10 win over the Ravens on Thursday night, the defense was the thing, and it allowed the now 3-7 Dolphins to look far superior to the 6-3 Ravens on that side of the ball. Specifically, it was a series of Cover-0 concepts — no deep safeties, man coverage, and blitz looks that not only kept Lamar Jackson tied to the pocket, but often turned into coverage drops that Jackson found tough to anticipate.

Jackson finished the game with 26 completions on 43 attempts for 238 yards, one touchdown, one interception, and a passer rating of 73.8. He was sacked four times, and was pressured on 19 of his 53 dropbacks. When under pressure, per Pro Football Focus, Jackson completed five of 13 passes for 50 yards, one touchdown, one late desperation interception (the first regular-season pick he’s thrown in the red zone in his career), and a passer rating of 45.4. Through the first nine weeks of the season, Jackson had completed 36 of 75 passes under pressure for 517 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 77.5, so it wasn’t just pressuring Lamar. There were other things afoot.

How different was the game plan put together by Miami defensive coordinator Josh Boyer? Per Next Gen Stats, safeties Jevon Holland and Brandon Jones were all over the field, and they blitzed at a rate Next Gen Stats had never seen before.

So, this wasn’t just about the usual Cover-0 “blitz or die” plan — there was a lot more going on. And it wasn’t the first time the Dolphins under Boyer and head coach Brian Flores had upended a dynamic offense with a young quarterback with a ton of Cover-0 looks that morphed into other things. Ask the Rams of Sean McVay and Jared Goff about that.

In this game, Jackson was pressured on 20 of his dropbacks, the most he’s faced in his career. And the Dolphins sent defensive back blitzes on 24 of Jackson’s dropbacks, which was also the most he’s faced in his career. When Jackson is pressured 15 or more times this season, the 6-3 Ravens are 0-3. The Ravens had two plays of 20 or more yards in this game — they had averaged 5.5 per game before. Per NFL research, the Ravens scored fewer than 14 points for the first time in their last 53 games. Their 52-game streak with 14 or more points was the second-longest such streak since 1940.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was not amused.

“That’s something they’ve done all year,” Harbaugh said of the safety blitzes. “We worked on it all week. We didn’t have a good enough plan for it, you know, as a group, and we didn’t execute well with the plan we had.”

Well, yeah, but this was a case of the Dolphins throwing the ice cream factory at the Ravens from a DB blitz perspective.

If you’re wondering why Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman didn’t have a plan to attack Miami’s Cover-0 stuff when it started, one reason could be that the Dolphins, with all the talk about zero blitzes, didn’t show one defined defensive profile in this game. They weren’t playing zero all the time, and when they did, they threw all kinds of stuff at Jackson with it. They had either a single high safety, or a two-safety look spun to single-high, on their first seven defensive snaps.

The Ravens caught a delay of game penalty on the first Cover-0 look. The next play, third-and-9 from the Miami 28-yard line, had Jackson overthrowing receiver Sammy Watkins in the end zone. Watkins had defensive back Justin Coleman beaten downfield for the touchdown, but because Miami brought three defensive backs on the backside blitz, and safety Jevon Holland was the free blitzer, Jackson couldn’t make the connection. You could easily argue that this was a touchdown if Watkins reached for the ball, but the effect on Jackson and the offense was obvious.

“Actually, you know, I was hot [blitzed],” Jackson said of this playa, nd whether Watkins could and should have brought it in. “I was hot. And I had to throw the ball in the air and give him a chance. But, you know, if he’s not sitting with the back in the backfield, it would probably be hard to try to track the ball, if I’m just throwing it up trying to make something happen. So, nah, I didn’t talk to him about it.”

The Dolphins played Cover-3 on the first play of Baltimore’s next drive, a quick screen to receiver Devin Duvernay for 11 yards, and they stayed with that strategy for the next few plays. The next time we saw Cover-0 in an aggressive fashion (Miami played some of what I would call “soft” Cover-0 with four defenders across 7-10 yards off the ball in man/match coverage) was the last play of the first quarter. It was third-and-5 from the the Baltimore 28-yard line, Holland followed from defensive right to left, lined up as a blitzer again, and did a great job of tying pressure to coverage. Once again, Jackson wasn’t sure what was going on, and the result was a sack split by Jaelan Phillips and Andrew Van Ginkel.

From there, as ESPN’s Matt Bowen pointed out, the Dolphins were able to be creative with their blitzes and coverages because they were so good at showing one thing and moving to another. The match element was crucial to the success of the overall plan.

The obvious question, and it was extended to Jackson after the game, was whether this provided any sort of “blueprint” for defenses down the road to shut the Ravens down, and how the Ravens should counter that.

“Play our game. You know, do us. Do our thing. We’ll be good. There were some plays we left on the field, some things we left on the field. Little mishaps. Just be us. That’s it.”

Per Sports Info Solutions, Jackson faced more Cover-0 than any other quarterback in Weeks 1-9, and he wasn’t great against it — five completions in 15 attempts on 16 dropbacks for 28 yards, 12 air yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions, and a sack. The Dolphins were tied with the Chiefs in Weeks 1-9 with a league-high 20 snaps of Cover-0 in pass defense, allowing 11 completions for 150 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.

No matter how you run it, Cover-0 is a boom-or-bust defense by its very nature. It’s an adjunct concept, not a staple. There are other teams that play it well in small spurts, but I don’t think there’s a message around the league now that you can negate Lamar Jackson by running a ton of Cover-0. This was just as much or more about the Ravens facing a defense that is used to throwing different things at an offense out of it, and succeeding far past its season-long rate in this particular game.