There’s been a lot of talk about defensive linemen in reference to the Ravens' draft needs, and it is well deserved. Last season, the Raven’s defense was still very good, but the pass rush was lacking to say the least. That leads many draft experts and fans screaming for the Ravens to draft an elite pass rusher in the upcoming draft.
I do not believe that the Ravens problem is due to a lack of pass rushers. In fact, I believe that the Ravens have some of the league's best every-down and situational pass rushers already on the team. So, what is the problem then? I believe that the problem started in the 2008 season and only became more obvious as last season progressed. The problem is with the personnel that the Ravens have playing in their front three. In this article, we will look at how the Ravens current players along the defensive line are affecting the pass rush and why the Ravens really need an elite nose tackle.
This article is basically a spin-off of my last article, Football 101: The Ravens Hybrid Defense. I suggest that you read that article before you read this because it will give you a better understanding of this topic.
Last season the Ravens defense could never seem to get pressure when rushing four defenders. It was very frustrating because Ravens fans are accustom to the Ravens consistently dominating games with their defense. When the Ravens would rush three or four defenders, opposing quarterbacks could seemingly take all day to survey the field and find and open receiver. In order to get pressure, the defense needed to send five or more blitzers at the quarterback, and especially versus good quarterbacks, this proved to be the Ravens weakness all season long. If they didn’t blitz enough, the opposing quarterback had all day to find a receiver, but if they blitzed too much, there was such a huge hole in coverage that the quarterback could find the open receiver immediately. They found balance later in the season, but anyone could see that good quaterbacks were nearly impossible for the Ravens to defend against.
The Ravens problem wasn’t with any individual player or defensive scheme; the problem started with their defensive line personnel. Last season, the Ravens starting defensive linemen wereHaloti Ngata and a heavy rotation of Kelly Gregg, Trevor Pryce, Justin Bannan and Dwan Edwards. Gregg typically rotated in at nose tackle with Ngata. Pryce, Bannan and Edwards rotated in at defensive end on both sides. Ngata and Terrell Suggs also played defensive end occasionally, and Ngata often played entire games at end with the other linemen filling in at the other positions. Just to be clear, there were no other players starting in the front three besides the players I just mentioned.
Can you guess the problem with those defensive linemen? Most people probably would say that they’re not pass rushers and that’s the problem. That was part of the problem but is not the heart of the matter. No matter which way you stack them, the only defensive lineman that consistently required a double team was Haloti Ngata. That's the real issue and is totally unacceptable for a 3-4 defensive line. Kelly Gregg use to be one of the best nose tackles in the league, but he's no longer able to consistently demand a double team. The same can be said of Trevor Pryce, one of the premier five technique defensive ends in his prime. Luckily the Ravens linebackers were good enough to mask this weakness for much of the season. Since all of the linemen were run-stuffers, the Ravens could still stop the run better than most teams. That added some flexibility, but the underlying problem remained.
The Ravens front three only required four offensive linemen to block them on any given play. The fifth offensive lineman would then be free to pick up any extra linebackers that would be blitzing. Therefore, blitzing four defenders simply would not generate pressure on a regular basis. Sure, they could try over-load blitzes to even the numbers, but those are trick plays that are easily countered. The law of averages will come into play when you’re defending hundreds of plays over the course of a season.
Therefore, the Ravens really need to even out the numbers on defense, and the only way to do that is to eat up blocks along the offensive line. This allows the power of the 3-4 and hybrid defense, the edge rush, to be most effective. The Ravens already have two of the best hybrid outside linebackers in the league in Terrell Suggs andJarret Johnson, and drafting more edge rushers will just take playing time away from those guys. The Ravens need to put a huge nose tackle next to Ngata. As I explained in my last article, Ngata is a great hybrid 3-4 defensive end since he’s athletic enough to defend the outside run and strong enough to play inside. With Ngata and an elite nose tackle, the entire offensive line would be needed to contain the interior defensive linemen. On the average play, four offensive lineman would need to block the nose tackle and Ngata, and if you add another average player like Kruger or Pryce, the entire offensive line would be sweating over three guys.
This would add extreme flexibility to the defense. In the 4-3 look, Ngata would shift to play nose tackle, and the nose tackle would shift between the guard and tackle on the strong side, where teams like to run the ball. In this alignment, the nose tackle and Ngata could easily shut down the inside running game. The defensive end on the strong side would effectively become an edge rusher along with the hybrid outside linebacker on the weak side of the formation. Basically, the defense would have two guys playing the three man front effectively and two edge rushers on every play. This lineup would shred offensive lines from the inside out. The offensive line would be collapsed from the middle and harassed from the outside. Furthermore, there is no way that they could run the ball with two huge tackles in the middle like a 4-3 defense and two inside linebackers like a 3-4 defense.All of this would be accomplished without sacrificing anything in coverage. On most plays in fact, they should be able to drop an extra man into coverage with no loss in pressure.
The title of this article may be a little misleading because adding an excellent five technique defensive lineman, that could also demand a double team, would basically yield the same results. However, I believe that adding an excellent nose tackle would be more effective since it could also maximize Ngata's athleticism at defensive end. Adding a new player that increases a current player's effectiveness is one of the best ways for a team to build and improve itself. Therefore, I stand by my original assertion that the Ravens need a nose tackle even more than a defensive end or edge rusher.