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Film Review: What’s Broken Defensively? And How to Fix it

Death by a million paper cuts... but the paper was a chainsaw

NFL: SEP 29 Browns at Ravens Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Browns exposed four fundamental weaknesses in the current Ravens defense. The Ravens were embarrassed so badly that they have signed two defenders to their active roster since being dismantled in the second half against the Browns.

The four fundamental issues are (in order of cause and effect):

  • Forcing aggression.
    The Ravens “culture” of rallying to the football, gang tackling etc. has been emphasized to the point of vulnerability. Defenders are quick to leave their assignment. They’re frantic, jumpy and out of control, seemingly wanting the make the play instead of just making the play. Harbaugh has been wearing a t-shirt that says “Life is Short, Run to the Ball.” The shirt he should be wearing would read “Do Your Job.”
  • Biting on ball fakes.
    Play actions, misdirections and screens are examples of how teams have used the Ravens forced aggression against them. Neither Baker Mayfield nor Patrick Mahomes needed to throw the ball deep to hurt the Ravens. That’s because screens, rub routes, delayed routes and outside zone gave the Ravens a chance to run themselves out of the play, which they’ve done consistently over the last two weeks.
  • Poor tackling.
    The tackling miscues are often a result of over pursuit, which ties back into forced aggression. The Ravens are flying to the ball out of control and allowing runners to use their momentum against them. Simple side steps and putting a foot in the ground sends defenders flying. Tony Jefferson, Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young have been the major culprits. They’re playing too fast and allowing cutback lanes.
  • Not passing off zone coverage properly.
    If you’ve noticed, teams are lining up in trips and bunch sets more often than not. That’s because the Ravens aren’t able to communicate or understand which defender is responsible for which receiver. The principle is the same as in basketball when defending a pick and roll. Defenders need to be able to pass off assignments and switch in a traffic jam.

In the film review there’s an instance where Anthony Averett and Kenny Young are the outside and inside man against trips. Averett should’ve taken whatever happened outside and trusted Young and company to take whatever happened inside. That wasn’t the case, Averett bit inside and allowed a pass to the flats to go for 18 yards into the red zone for no good reason other than not understanding his responsibility. This has happened to Ravens linebackers routinely, and was on display when the Browns scored on 3rd and 3 from the eight yard line.

These four fundamental miscues have contributed to the “death by a thousand paper cuts” losses the Ravens have suffered. However, their lapses have been so great against outside zone runs and basic coverage assignments, it’s like the paper is actually a chainsaw. That chainsaw has contributed to the Ravens leading the NFL in plays over 50 yards allowed, which reached its boiling point with the Browns having three 50+ yard gains.

How to fix what’s broken. . .

As with anything couch quarterbacks like myself profess, it’s easier said than done, although in this case it really shouldn’t be that hard. Ask yourself, what is the Ravens strength defensively? It has to be Marlon Humphrey and Earl Thomas. The weak spot has been the inside linebackers, as indicated by the signings of L.J. Fort and Josh Bynes. In order for the Ravens to improve defensively, they need to rely on Humphrey and Thomas.

Earl Thomas has only seen five deep attempts in his coverage, which has yielded only one catch. Marlon Humphrey is playing shut down football, allowing only nine catches for 80 yards on 22 targets. Humphrey has also registered two pass break ups, one interception, one forced fumble and been arguably the Ravens best tackler. His coverage rating, catch rate allowed and passer rate allowed all rank in the top four of qualifying defenders according to Although, Humphrey is only the 44th rated cornerback by Pro Football Focus. I believe that is attributed to poor decisions in zone coverage. Humphrey is at his best as a press man corner. Martindale and company need to realize that.

Putting more defenders in the box and around the line of scrimmage with a more read and react attitude will shore up the problems the Ravens have been having underneath. Defenders need to let the offense reveal their true hand, even if it opens up some modest gains on the ground. That means not flying downhill immediately on play action, which opens up the intermediate part of the field past the linebackers. Read then react. It feels like the Ravens have been doing the opposite.

Humphrey needs to be left on an island to work. Thomas has been moving all around, which is fine and he’s done a solid job as whole, but he needs to end up bailing into deep coverage more. If the game can slow down a tick for Jefferson, Young, Onwuasor and company, then they will make plays underneath.

The Ravens also started to use three outside linebackers in passing downs, kicking Pernell McPhee inside. That’s going to be a combination that generates more pressure than using two defensive lineman. Tyus Bowser needs to see more snaps. Not only because he has played relatively well in his limited action (despite a mistake or two) but also because McPhee and Judon are completely gassed by the fourth quarter.

McPhee isn’t going to be able to sustain this level of usage. The Ravens only have four outside linebackers following the release of Tim Williams, which is quite alarming. The backups, Ferguson and Bowser, need to see at least 25 snaps per game each to keep a fresh rotation. The experience that Bowser and Ferguson accumulate in October will pay dividends in November and December.

Finally, from a schematic perspective, the Ravens need to play press man and run less zone coverage. Press man will force quarterbacks to hold the ball and take away some of the underneath options. Receivers won’t find soft spots quickly, they will have to out work and beat tight coverage, which forces quarterbacks to hold the ball and go through multiple reads.

Obviously the Ravens need to mix in zone, man blitzes, zone blitzes, etc. However, they should rely primarily on Humphrey, Carr and Maurice Canady (who has been a pleasant surprise over the last few weeks) to jam their man or soft shoe them, then funnel them towards Thomas in the middle of the field.

Again, all of this is easier said than done, but opposing offenses have found their game plan’s easier done than said over the last two weeks, where the Ravens have allowed over 1,000 yards and 71 points.

I would also like to point out that since the beginning of 2018 the Ravens have only beaten one strong team. That was the Chargers in LA, who they then lost to in the wildcard round . The Ravens used to be known for playing up or down to their level of competition. However, it now appears they only pick on bottom feeders and can’t finish in dire situations against more formidable teams. That trend needs to change quickly. It boils down to coaching when two better teams face off, and the entire Ravens coaching staff needs to have better game plans, understanding of their players strengths and weaknesses, and to stop trying to force the proverbial square peg into a round hole.

With the next two games against poor offenses that are limited as a whole, the Ravens need to utilize the potential spring board before the schedule becomes tougher. Following two more divisional games against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the Ravens will venture to Seattle, then host New England and Houston with the Bengals wedged in between. If the coaching staff doesn’t tighten up and the defense doesn’t learn from watching their endless miscues on film, then the Ravens are going to be in the middle of the pack yet again.