Reports from Owings Mills indicate Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees is subtly changing his strategy to counter modern passing attacks.
Last season, the defense allowed too many long, methodical scoring drives. Covering the middle of the field was a struggle. So far in training camp, Pees and the coaching staff are showing a two-pronged solution, centered around the positions most responsible for coverage between the hashes.
At safety, Eric Weddle and Lardarius Webb will be interchangeable, providing more flexibility than the Ravens have had with thumping strong safety types. Each are able to play as a traditional free safety, covering the deep middle, or come down in the box to cover in the slot or support against the run. Weddle relies on his instincts to make up for a lack of top end speed in coverage, and to make plays closer to the line of scrimmage. He can also line up at various depths and is a master of pre-snap movement, going forward or backwards. But his most important role will be communicating with his teammates on the back end.
The biggest question with Webb is his durability. Never the biggest player, Webb has always been a sure tackler with sticky hands when an interception is near. Webb’s experience as a cornerback lends itself to many opportunities for deception. Webb can blitz from the slot, line up as a deep safety before breaking outside towards the flat to cover for a blitzing cornerback, or simply drop into off-man coverage on slot receivers.
Weddle, a player know for his leadership, appears to have already taken the reins in the Ravens secondary. Webb has been the recipient of several tipped ball interceptions and reportedly had a strong camp. Encouraging signs.
Kamalei Correa has Owings Mills buzzing early in training camp. Receiving snaps at inside linebacker and outside linebacker as a rookie screams versatility. Apparently, Pees is still experimenting with where to line him up. No matter where he lines up, Correa has the skill set to shoot the gap and drops into intermediate coverage adeptly, enabling Pees to keep the offense off balance by using Correa unexpectedly from either linebacker spot.
Pees has also experimented with rookie Patrick Onwuasor at inside linebacker. He is listed at 6’1" 225, nearly identical to Deone Bucannon, another former college safety from the Northwest who the Arizona Cardinals use at "Joker" linebacker in their forward thinking scheme. The Ravens objective is clear, find a way to put more players who can play well in space on the field together.
Stricter pass interference and targeting rules have left defensive coordinators with few options. Without press man personnel, and an officiating crew that let’s the defense play, heavy doses of deceptive zone coverages with a solid pass rush is their best bet. The key is confusing quarterbacks to disrupt their timing.
The Ravens now have the personnel with the intelligence and athleticism to disguise their coverages. They can get back to the pre-snap movements that aided their best defenses under Rex Ryan. New secondary coach Leslie Frazier, experienced as a defensive coordinator too, will also surely supply some coverage wrinkles and new defensive line coach Joe Cullen may signal an uptick in stunting up front.
By all appearances, Dean Pees has been instructed to be more creative with his play calling. Could Pees surprise us all?