Analyzing the Flexibility of the Baltimore Ravens’ Re-Tooled Defense
Nothing ever stays the same. Nothing in life or in football. The Baltimore Ravens learned that the hard way this off-season.
After figuring out the formula to winning a Super Bowl with Joe Flacco as his quarterback, Ravens’ general manager Ozzie Newsome was pushed into rebuilding his roster this off-season. Immediately after he lifted his second Super Bowl, Ray Lewis’ career came to a close. Lewis’ long-time partner in leading the Ravens’ defense, Ed Reed, followed his inside linebacker out the door in free agency.
Lewis and Reed were the two most recognizable names leaving the roster, but joining them were key pieces such of the Super Bowl run such as Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, Cary Williams and Bernard Pollard. Not to mention Matt Birk, Bryant McKinnie and Anquan Boldin on the offensive side of the ball. Each of those losses were compounded by the losses of key members of the roster in 2012, Ben Grubbs, Cory Redding, Jarrett Johnson, Lee Evans and Ricky Williams.
In just two years, the Ravens’ roster has gone through some serious surgical subtractions.
Of course, Newsome would never accept those subtractions without making significant moves to fill them in with quality replacements. The offensive side of the ball brought in younger, unproven players to replace the departed veterans, but on the defensive side is where Newsome showed off his creativity.
Change is an apt word for the 2013 Ravens. Not only because of the new faces on the roster and the altering leadership structures within the locker-room, but also because the team’s defense will have more flexibility than any other unit of it’s kind this year. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees flirted with a variety of formations last season, but this year he has new new players who bring different aspects to their respective positions.
Since the Super Bowl, the Ravens lost Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Ray Lewis from their defense. Kruger was a specialist pass-rusher who could play both defensive end and outside linebacker. Ellerbe was a linebacker who could play inside or as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 formation. Lewis was at the point of his career where he was exposed in passing situations and could only line up on the inside of either formation. To replace those players, Newsome replenished his defense with players who could fit in a variety of formations and play a variety of positions.
Marcus Spears arrived as a free agent from the Dallas Cowboys. He was soon followed by Chris Canty from the New York Giants. Both Canty and Spears can play 3-4 defensive end or 4-3 defensive tackle. Following those veterans was prized free agent pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil, a player who has excelled playing both 3-4 outside linebacker and 4-3 defensive end.
Combining those veterans with Arthur Jones, Terrance Cody, Haloti Ngata, Pernell McPhee, Terrell Suggs and Courtney Upshaw makes for a very flexible defensive line. Having Jameel McClain behind them, meant that the Ravens were missing just one piece from their front seven personnel package. A weak-side linebacker in a 4-3 who can also play inside linebacker in a 3-4. That player arrived in the second round of the NFL draft when Ozzie Newsome traded up for Arthur Brown out of Kansas State.
Brown is a very athletic and technically talented linebacker who should become an immediate starter and upgrade over Ray Lewis. That is not to say that he will have the same career as Lewis, but from a sheer flexibility and ability on the field perspective, Brown should be able to do more on the field this year than Lewis could last year.
The Ravens’ starting group in a 3-4 front is most likely going to be:
DE: Arthur Jones.
NT: Haloti Ngata.
DE: Chris Canty.
OLB: Terrell Suggs
ILB: Jameel McClain
ILB: Arthur Brown
OLB: Elvis Dumervil
That same unit can seamlessly transition to a 4-3 look without creating any weaknesses or moving anyone out of position:
DE: Arthur Jones
DT: Haloti Ngata
DT: Chris Canty
DE: Elvis Dumervil
SLB: Terrell Suggs
MLB: Jameel McClain
WLB: Arthur Brown
When you combine that front with the Ravens’ versatile cornerbacks, they have limitations in what kind of formations they can use. Each of Corey Graham, Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb have the skill-sets to cover slot receivers or play on the perimeter. That is not something every cornerback in the league can boast about.
The benefit of all that is that it allows the Ravens’ defense to dictate how it lines up against any kind of offensive formation and it allows them to alter their formation after the snap with greater ease. This is a typical example to show off the variety in how the Ravens can line up in 2013:
The offense lines up in a heavy formation with a tight end and fullback to the left side, one receiver split wide to either side and a running back straight behind center. The Ravens are showing a 4-3 front with both their cornerbacks in press coverage outside and their linebackers playing under, the strong-side linebacker is lined up directly over the tight end.
The quarterback motions his receiver from the left across the formation before he settles into a slot position inside the receiver to the wide right.
This is done in order to try and gain a hint as to what kind of coverage the defense is going to play or to knock the defense off balance. If the defense doesn’t or isn’t able to adjust, a quick pass to the slot receiver could give up easy yards or a crack could form in the front seven as the weakside linebacker is distracted by the uncovered receiver outside of him.
In order to deal with this situation, the Ravens will have a number of options :
In this solution, the cornerback follows the receiver across the field. That either tips the man coverage to the quarterback or adjusts the team’s zone coverage dramatically to cover the field. It also creates a wide open space outside left tackle putting more pressure on the strong-side linebacker to contain the edge and the deep safety to come up to the line.
The free safety on the tight end’s side of the field will often drop into the box after this motion, but not always.
Again, not every team in the league has two starting cornerbacks who can move inside comfortably. If another defense with either of those cornerbacks were in this position, the offense would immediately have a matchup advantage that they could look to exploit.
Another typical response from the defense in this situation is to either shift their cornerback deep, or keep him where he was lined up initially, and dropping the safety from that side to the inside shoulder of the strong-side linebacker. This pushes the middle linebacker(ILB) over the center as the weak-side linebacker is forced to move over the slot receiver.
Here the defense could be showing either zone or man coverage. If it is zone coverage, then there is no obvious matchup, except that they have two receivers to one side of the field looking for space between a safety, cornerback and linebacker. If it’s man coverage, the linebacker in the slot is instantly a target.
However, against this defensive front, the offense immediately has an advantage running the ball. By motioning the receiver across the formation, the offense has essentially swapped out a linebacker for a cornerback and safety. Running off left guard or left tackle here should be an advantageous avenue for the defense to explore against a typical defense. At that point, it’s a matter of a defensive player in that crowd making a play to turn the situation in their favour.
Of the two above reactions from the defense, the Ravens are much more likely going to choose the first option and move the receiver across the formation. But even if they don’t, they can still feel comfortable in the fact that few offensive lines will want be able to take advantage of the supposed personnel running off of the left side of the offensive line. Having Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, Matt Elam and Jameel McClain to that side would mean that you were running into those player’s strengths regardless.
Where the Ravens defense will take this to a new level is when they flip to formations.
Take the same personnel and scenario on the below diagram. But this time, alter the approach from the defense.
This time the Ravens completely alter their formation to immediately shift into a 3-4 look. The defensive line motions to the side of the field the receiver runs to, while Elvis Dumervil stands up from his defensive end position to cover him in the slot. Chris Canty is the DT, who has moved into a defensive end position just inside where Dumervil has left. Haloti Ngata moves over the center to be the nose tackle and Arthur Jones slides inside slightly to cover the B gap between the guard and tackle.
WLB Arthur Brown is able to hold his original position, a position that allows him to immediately react to any run or drop back in coverage if there is play-action or a straight passing play. SLB Terrell Suggs holds his position on the outside shoulder of the tight end, with Matt Elam dropping into the space between he and Jameel McCLain(ILB) who has also held his position. Corey Graham, the cornerback to the tight-end’s side of the field, has dropped into a position that is coverage but also somewhere he can close on the edge with ease.
So while the pieces have completely shifted, the personnel means that nobody is actually out of position. The above diagram has different labels to the one immediately before it, but the same players are in the same positions. Not only are players in natural, comfortable positions, the formation is balanced enough to handle either run or pass without feeling over exposed.
Furthermore, the quarterback who motioned the receiver to get a better look at what the defense would do, has been offered up a completely new proposition with the Ravens playing a 3-4 now rather than a 4-3.
Of course this is only a minor piece of Dean Pees arsenal, but it is a small aspect that can aid a defense in creating the pressure or hesitation that knocks an offense off rhythm.
A key to the potential of the Ravens’ defensive flexibility is going to be Lardarius Webb’s healthy. Webb is superstar cornerback even though he doesn’t receive the same praise as players such as Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman or even Joe Haden. Webb’s greatest strength is his versatility and ability to take away any numbers game that teams try to run. Having previously explained how specific offenses look to knock their opposition off balance, this is how defenses can counter.
In successive games last year, the Ravens used Webb in a variety of ways from the same formation. With the league evolving to put more and more receivers on the field, defenses are being forced to play more nickel packages than ever before. The more balanced, intelligent offenses in the league will then look to establish the run against units that play sacrifice a linebacker or defensive lineman for a cornerback. Yet, when you have Webb playing the slot, you may as well have another linebacker on the field.
Against the New England Patriots during the 2012 regular season, Webb lined up in the slot on 55 plays. His primarily responsibility was to cover Wes Welker or Julian Edelman and take away that part of the Patriots’ passing attack. Had the Patriots not specifically gameplanned their running game to go away from Webb, he would also have been tested in run support.
Why did the Patriots handicap their running game to avoid Webb? Well, they had watched him the previous week against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Webb is the inside cornerback circled, with Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith lined up outside of him(the Xs). The Eagles have LeSean McCoy lined up to the left of Michael Vick in the backfield, with stacked receivers to the side of Webb.
What is often referred to as an instinctive play is born out of Webb’s intelligence. He was watching the offensive line before the snap and as soon as the ball was snapped and the left guard turned his shoulders to his side of the field, Webb sprang forward towards the quarterback. LeSean McCoy had faked a run to the other side of the field, which caused the lienbackers to freeze, but Webb was already coming across the line of scrimmage past the stacked receivers who were still stuck in their stance.
The Eagles’ blocking scheme dictates that the right tackle and right guard block down on the interior defensive linemen, while the two pulling players are responsible for the cleaning out whatever defenders are on the edge.
Because of his athleticism, intelligence and aggression, Webb has beaten the blockers to the point of attack and is already diving at LeSean McCoy before they can even make it outside the right tackle. King Dunlap takes away any cutback for McCoy and Webb has him trapped.
Your typical nickel cornerback is still going to have trouble bringing down McCoy in this instance, because of the all-pro talent’s understated power. However, Webb doesn’t just tackle him, but he hits him as hard as any linebacker would to force the ball away from the back. It wasn’t just his force, because Webb located the ball before smacking against it with his helmet to knock it loose.
McCoy has fumbled just nine times in his career. For a defensive back to force one of those fumbles, that is definitely an achievement.
It was that play that scared the Patriots into running away from Webb as much as possible. When Webb lined up in the slot in press coverage, the Patriots ran counters and hand-offs to the other side of the field, where they were stopped for minimal gain. Webb lined up in the slot in press coverage on 26 occasions. His ability to make plays consistently as he did against the Eagles, allowed the Ravens to trust him in that role.
Even though he is asked to be very aggressive against the run, Webb is also handed the responsibility of covering very talented receivers. Of the 55 plays when Webb was in the slot, he covered Wes Welker 39 times, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman and Brandon Lloyd twice, while lining up over nobody on one occasion.
Webb’s intelligence is what allows this staple of the Ravens’ defense to succeed, while he relies on his athleticism to then make those plays.
Whenever you can limit the offense’s approach and dictate to them what they can do from play to play, you are in a good position to succeed as a defense. This isn’t something that generally comes up against lesser offenses, because the defense can then simply rely on it’s greater collection of talent, but it matters in the smaller moments of games against bigger teams.
Presuming that Webb is healthy, and their new additions to the front seven will take during their first season, then there is no reason not to think that this is going to be one of, if not the, most flexible defense in the NFL this year.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf