The 2-0 Baltimore Ravens have become one of the most fun teams in the NFL. Led by Lamar Jackson, the offense has been one of the league’s most explosive and highest-scoring units. Through two weeks, the defense has been just as impressive.
While there was mystery surrounding the Baltimore offense for much of the offseason and even through the preseason, there were legitimate questions about the defense. Baltimore lost a number of defensive contributors in free agency including Za’Darius Smith, C.J. Mosely, Eric Weddle, and Terrell Suggs, who each played at least two-thirds of the Ravens’ defensive snaps in 2018. (Weddle barely came off the field at 98.2%).
Baltimore replaced that group by signing Earl Thomas, bringing in Pernell McPhee on a one-year deal, and hoping those already on the roster could step up into bigger roles. It’s worked so far. The Ravens are seventh in yards allowed per drive, eighth in points allowed per drive, and fifth in touchdowns allowed per drive.
This performance has come against the Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals but in Week 3 the Ravens face Kansas City Chiefs, a team that will be the biggest test, possibly of the entire season, for this defense.
Bringing the pressure
With Smith and Suggs gone, a duo that accounted for 38.5% of the team’s quarterback hits last season and 36% of the team’s sacks, there was a question if the Ravens could generate enough pass rush. That hasn’t been a problem so far. The Ravens are first in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate and third in pressure rate, per Sports Info Solutions.
A big part of that has been Matt Judon, the player Baltimore believed could step in for the departed Za’Darius Smith. So far Judon is tied for third in quarterback hits, second among edge rushers in Pass Rush Win Rate, and fifth in pressure rate among 102 defensive players with at least 40 pass rushes through two weeks.
Last year, Judon played on 65% of Baltimore’s defensive snaps and that has bumped up to 79.3% so far in 2019. He’s been a terror off the edge for opposing offensive tackles, mostly on the right side, but that won’t be quite as easy against Mitchell Schwartz on Sunday, as it was against Arizona right tackle Justin Murray in Week 2.
The Ravens have also figured out the way to get Pernell McPhee involved after ineffectively bouncing around a few teams following injury issues. McPhee has played just under 60% of the snaps for Baltimore and has been used as a situational pass rusher. It just so happens with the leads the Ravens have created on offense, about 60% of snaps call for a situational pass rush.
Baltimore isn’t just getting McPhee on the edge, either. He’s been moved around to take advantage of mismatches in obvious passing situations. On a two-minute drill to end the first half against the Cardinals, the Ravens came out with a four-man front that included Judon and Tim Williams on the ends with McPhee and linebacker/fullback Patrick Ricard inside. Baltimore then ran an interior stunt with McPhee and Ricard, who met at the quarterback and split a sack.
Last year the Ravens were one of the heaviest blitzing teams in the league. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale brought five rushers on 28.2% of pass plays and six or more rushers on 10.2%, both rates were the second-most in the league per Football Outsiders. This year the Ravens are still finding ways to create pressure with extra rushers.
There are two key players for this strategy — linebacker Patrick Onwuasor and safety Anthony Levine. In 2018, Onwuasor played behind C.J. Mosely and was on the field for just 41.9% of Baltimore’s defensive snaps. This season Onwuasor has fully taken over the inside linebacker position with 99% of the defensive snaps played. And while his role has changed with playing time, it hasn’t really with what he’s been asked to do.
Per Sports Info Solutions, Onwuasor rushed the passer on 23% of his pass snaps last season and created pressure on 23% of those rushes. His rates have barely changed this season — a rush on 22% of his pass snaps and a pressure on 23.3% of those rushes — but because he’s on the field more often, the volume of those pass rushes has increased. Through two games, he already has matched 33% of his total pass rush snaps from 2018. That can go even higher if he fully fills in Mosely’s role, who rushed 29.4% of the time.
While Onwuasor’s rates haven’t changed much, Levine’s have. Last season Levine rushed the quarterback on 25.6% of his pass snaps, one of the highest rates in the league for a safety, but only created pressure on 7.1% of those rush attempts. Over the first two weeks of the season, Levine has rushed on 44.4% of his pass snaps and created pressure 37.5% of those rushes.
On a dime
All of that blitzing can be accomplished because of how confident the Ravens feel in the secondary. Even with all the defensive turnover, the was little doubt the Ravens’ secondary could be one of the most dangerous units in the league. That has been the case, despite losing slot corner Tavon Young in the preseason and cornerback Jimmy Smith having only played six snaps so far this season.
Still, Baltimore gets to roll out a secondary that includes Earl Thomas, Tony Jefferson, Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr, and Anthony Averett. Those five defensive backs have typically been joined by a sixth, whether it be Levine, safety Chuck Clark, or a number of other cornerbacks. So far in 2019, Baltimore has defended 44.4% of opposing pass attempts with a dime defense.
Some of that was out of necessity with so much of a small sample coming against an Arizona offense that was mostly in 10 personnel with four wide receivers. But the Ravens used dime or more on 26% of their defensive snaps last season, the sixth-highest rate in the league, and were primed to use more in 2019.
Defensive personnel is typically controlled by the personnel grouping put onto the field by the offense, but the Ravens might be one of the few teams in the league that can trot out what they do best and know it can be good enough to stop the opposing offense.
The Chiefs, despite being one the most explosive and pass-heavy offenses in the league have not had a passing attempt against a dime defense this season, per SIS. Kansas City runs mostly 11 personnel with three wide receivers, which has kept opposing defenses in nickel with just five defensive backs. The Chiefs also use 12 personnel (two tight ends) often enough (19% so far this season) that defenses won’t go smaller than nickel with the fear of being overmatched either by bigger tight ends or on the ground.
Considering Travis Kelce is one of the best receivers in the league, Kansas City’s 11 personnel can work as 10 personnel, which makes it extremely dangerous against nickel and could be a reason for the Ravens to stick with the dime package and keep their best players on the field.
On the outside, Humphrey and Carr present one of the better corner duos in the NFL. Humphrey has quickly turned himself into one of the league’s rare shutdown corners and he is currently one of five cornerbacks to allow negative Adjusted Yards (weighted for touchdowns and interceptions) per coverage snap this season.
— Dan Pizzuta (@DanPizzuta) September 19, 2019
Carr has settled into a reliable No. 2 opposite Humphrey and has allowed a respectable 0.68 Adjusted Yards per coverage snap through two weeks.
If there is a current weakness in the secondary it’s Averett, who played under 7% of the defensive snaps last season but has been pushed into a starting role with the injury to Young. Averett has already been charged with a touchdown allowed, which can skew numbers this early in the season, but he’s also been targeted more often than Humphrey and Carr.
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Of course, this secondary now has the ultimate security blanket behind them in Earl Thomas. Thomas missed most of last season with an injury but was Baltimore’s one big splash in free agency. It took barely any time for Thomas to look like the vintage version of himself with a rangey interception just over five minutes into Week 1.
With Thomas in the secondary, the Ravens have used coverages that rely on a single-high safety (Cover 1 and 3) on 61% of passing attempts this season, slightly up from the 57% rate they used with Eric Weddle last season.
Baltimore is going get a big test against Kansas City in Week 3. The Chiefs present a huge challenge for any opposing defense, but the Ravens might have the personnel and the scheme to pull it off. Even if it’s not quite enough to pull out a win, especially one on the road, the unit has shown just enough to answer the many questions that were presented throughout the offseason.
This defense has the ability to both rush the passer and play good coverage and combined with Baltimore’s offense should easily make them one of the toughest contenders in the NFL for 2019.