The 2019-20 NFL regular season is merely a few snooze button presses away. Everyone knows who the Ravens lost on the defensive side of the football. Regardless, defense is a given. Marvin Lewis, Dean Pees, Chuck Pagano, Mike Nolan, Rex Ryan and Greg Mattison among others have come and gone. Not to mention Mike Singletary, Jack Del Rio and other positional coaches who have taken promotions with other teams.
I won’t list the names of former defensive standouts, as that would consume the better part of my Sunday evening. The point is that defense is ingrained in the DNA of the Ravens as a franchise. Don’t believe me?
Defensive DVOA, Points Allowed, Yards Allowed by Year
|Year||DVOA||Points Allowed||Yards Allowed|
|Year||DVOA||Points Allowed||Yards Allowed|
Since 1999, the Ravens have finished in the bottom half of the league only seven times between the three metrics (out of a possible 57). They have finished inside the top-10 44/57 times.
The age of analytics values DVOA over points and yards, although the two factor in heavily, as well as turnovers and strength of schedule. The Ravens have finished outside of the top eight in defensive DVOA only twice since the millennium. Long story short, defense is in the crab-cakes. Turnover has never impacted the Ravens defense significantly. Don’t expect that to change.
When examining the defensive personnel, there’s a theme that’s particularly evident theme going into this year. They’re thick through the belly and have killer speed everywhere else.
Michael Pierce, Brandon Williams, Willie Henry, Chris Wormley, Daylon Mack and Pernell McPhee are large individuals. They’re run stuffers by nature. They require double teams from offensive lineman (particularly Williams and Pierce). If teams want to run between the B-gaps, Wink Martindale is grinning. On the perimeter and second level, there’s nothing but speed and aggression.
Kenny Young, Patrick Onwuasor, and Chris Board are ‘new-age linebackers’. They want to hide behind Pierce, Williams and company. The big men commanding double teams allows the backers to fly downhill or sideline to sideline unscathed, then crash into ball-carriers.
Onwuasor is nothing short of a gentleman off the field, but is an absolute thug between the white lines. He’s taken on the mentality of a true enforcer in 2019, although he already had that mentality to begin with. Young has shown deadly pop in his pads as well. He’s put this on display throughout the preseason, and was the Ravens highest-graded defender in the Week 3 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Matthew Judon’s speed and range are grossly overlooked. He can chase ball-carriers and drop into coverage at an elite level for his position and skill-set. Tim Williams has outstanding range, and so does Tyus Bowser. Running directly at Williams and Bowser may be the only slight chink in the Ravens defensive armor against the run, but I wouldn’t count on doing so consistently.
Tony Jefferson figures to ‘play in the box more’ this year, so everyone thinks. I would still expect Thomas and Jefferson to alternate deep third and single-high assignments, as Wink is a master of disguise. Jefferson is a ‘+’ run defender, and expect to see combinations of DeShon Elliott, Anthony Levine, Jefferson and Earl Thomas on the field in third-and-medium situations. Elliott has been a human hit-stick this offseason, and prides himself on doing so.
Jimmy Smith has always been strong against the run. Marlon Humphrey is perhaps the best cornerback in the NFL at holding the perimeter and attacking downhill. He’s produced several jaw dropping hits dating back to his days at Alabama and is only getting stronger with age.
The Ravens face several teams that run the ball in heavy dosage (or figure to in 2019).
Expect the Steelers, Seahawks, Patriots, Jets, Bills, and potentially the Rams to test the Ravens ability to defend the run. The Patriots, Seahawks, Bills and the Steelers will run power schemes to try and attack linebackers, so Onwuasor and company will need to be on their A-game reading their keys and filling holes.
The Rams use outside zone more so, which shouldn’t find much success against this unit. The Steelers mix and match their run concept, similarly to the Ravens. The Jets figure to utilize a combination as well, although Le’Veon Bell’s trademark patience is best suited for an inside zone scheme.
The Ravens run defense will be a top five unit in efficiency and yardage in 2019.
Players, coaches and media members alike know that the Ravens secondary is special. The Ravens run a ton of press-man and match cover-3, which looks like man. The Ravens cornerbacks don’t yield high interceptions numbers because they don’t typically drop into zones with their eyes on the cornerback. They force quarterbacks to make difficult throws into tight windows, then focus on breaking the ball up.
In 2018 and during the Dean Pees regime, covering tight ends and RB’s has been the Ravens achilles heel at times. Fans have groaned and moaned watching C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson get beat up the seams and on crossing routes. The Browns also found a ton of success in week 17 of 2018 attacking the seams. Jarvis Landry dropped what should’ve been a 75-yard touchdown pass right up the seam. With Earl Thomas patrolling, this shouldn’t be exposed as in years past.
What I’ve seen from the Ravens defense in joint practices and during the preseason is some miscommunications in the flat, leading to wide open tight ends and backs outside the hashes. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this theme continue, as the linebackers and safeties aren’t experienced playing together yet.
Patrick Onwuasor is strong in hook-curl zones, and will present an upgrade in that department. Kenny Young showed the ability to match up with slot receivers in 2018, particularly from disguised blitzes that force the ball out quickly. Anthony Levine is essentially classified as a linebacker as well. This group, paired with DeShon Elliott, should improve slightly against TE’s and backs. Elliott has length and range coupled with good closing speed, and might be an upgrade from Tony Jefferson in coverage.
The Ravens face a mixed bag of quarterbacks in 2019. To open the season, they play quarterbacks with new offensive systems, facing Ryan Fitzpatrick/Josh Rosen and Kyler Murray. I expect the unit to hold its weight against these teams, before going to Kansas City to face Patrick Mahomes.
Mahomes certainly has been studying what the Ravens showed him last year, as they confused Mahomes at times, who had to improvise outside of play designs in order to be successful. The Ravens hit Mahomes 18 times last year.
Baltimore will then face Baker Mayfield, Ben Roethlisberger, Andy Dalton, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, and Deshaun Watson. This might sound intimidating, but it shouldn’t be. The Seahawks are riddled with injuries, and Wilson is going to have to pull a rabbit out of his hat if the Seahawks can’t stop the run. The Ravens know what to expect from Roethlisberger, who hasn’t necessarily fared well against them recently. Mayfield is a gunslinger who can put up huge yardage totals, but also will throw passes into the arms of robber defenders.
Brady is a different animal, and that game should be quite interesting. Wrapping up the schedule year against Sam Darnold, Roethlisberger, Mayfield, Josh Allen, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jared Goff isn’t a cake-walk, but shouldn’t overwhelm a unit that has already faced Brady, Wilson, Mahomes and Watson. Pass rush will be key over the final six games, which has been dismal in December typically over the past few years.
The Ravens pass defense will finish in the top-10 of passing yardage and efficiency, finishing in the top-three in interceptions forced.
There’s been much debate in recent years about which is more important— strong pass rush or strong coverage.
Pro Football Focus has created a hellfire debate between opposing sides in this argument. What they found, essentially, is that pass-rush is more dependent upon the quality of the opponents pass blockers, as opposed to the quality of pass rushers.
Conversely, scheme can create pressure. The quality of cover-defenders are more dependent on talent and IQ when compared to pass rush. This essentially would profess that an elite secondary`will fare better against an elite passing attack as opposed to an elite pass rush against an elite offensive line.
Analytics are a slippery slope, but the one part I agree with in this messy debate is that scheme is the most important factor on both sides. The Ravens buy into this philosophy as well.
When the Ravens pass rush has been at it’s worst, they send four down lineman after the quarterback. Dean Pees defenses notoriously failed to create pressure with four pass rushers. Wink Martindale completely flipped that on it’s head in 2018.
Football Outsiders wrote an interesting article charting frequency and success of defenses when blitzing (five or more pass rushers) vs. not blitzing (four pass rushers or less).
The Ravens blitzed more frequently than any team last season, and I wouldn’t expect that to change. They created pressure on 41% of their blitzes, which was right around middle of the pack. This isn’t surprising, as offensive coordinators and quarterbacks both know they need to get the ball out quickly when Baltimore comes to town. If they don’t they look like the Titans did, allowing 11 sacks. Andy Dalton has typically given the Ravens fits, firing the ball before the pressure can get home.
The Ravens led the NFL in success when sending four pass rushers or less, creating pressure on over half of such occasions. This number is more complicated than meets the eye, however.
When Martindale sends four pass rushers, it’s not four down lineman lined up in traditional formation with two defensive tackles over the guards and two defensive ends over the tackles. Linebackers will creep over the A-gaps, corners and safeties sneak into the box, and only four pass rushers might attack the pocket, but it’s rarely the four who are expected.
The Ravens in 2019 will exemplify that defensive scheme and the quality of their opponent’s offensive line are major factors. If a QB gets the ball out quickly, there’s not much anyone not named Aaron Donald can do.
I’ll guarantee that Wink is a huge fan of Dick LeBeau, as he often uses “fire-zone” zone-blitzes, where five pass rushers attack the passer, while there are three deep defenders and three underneath defenders leveled throughout the back end. In other words, Martindale is the key to the Ravens pass rush, and is more important than who the pass rushers are.
The players are still of extreme importance, of course. A healthy Willie Henry should be deployed on nearly every passing down. He looks to be in the best shape of his life, and can generate pressure from all spots. Matthew Judon worked on boxing in the offseason, similarly to what Za’Darius Smith did a year ago. This should translate into better hand usage and strikes. Judon is no slouch, accumulating 39 QB hits and 15 sacks over the past two seasons.
Tim Williams is extremely disruptive and I believe could be the most improved player on the roster this season. Eight Sacks and 18 QB hits wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest.
One change that I would like to see is less Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce on passing downs. Allow Willie Henry, Pernell McPhee, Jaylon Ferguson and Patrick Ricard to take more snaps inside. They will shed blocks more quickly, and if quarterbacks hold the ball and escape the pocket, that crew will be able to hunt them down.
The Ravens pass rush will produce similar to last year.. As previously stated, teams know that they need to get the ball out quickly against such a blitz-happy scheme, which hurts sack and pressure numbers. This unit doesn’t need a 10-sack player to be successful, it just needs to consistently push the pocket and force quick throws into an elite secondary.
As a whole, I would be a moron to wager against the Ravens finishing outside of the top-10 (and really the top six) in DVOA. Considering that has only happened twice over the past two decades, I predict continued success from a unit that gained arguably the best cover safety in the NFL and is under the direction a man being hailed as the best defensive coordinator in football. Their opponents are no cake walk, but not a murderer’s row either.
According to PFF’s predictions, the Ravens face quarterbacks ranked as follows:
- Tom Brady (1)
- Patrick Mahomes (3)
- Russell Wilson (6)
- Ben Roethlisberger twice (8)
- Baker Mayfield twice (10)
- Deshaun Watson (12)
- Jared Goff (13)
- Jimmy Garoppolo (18)
- Andy Dalton twice (20)
- Kyler Murray (23)
- Sam Darnold (25)
- Josh Rosen (31)
- Josh Allen (32)
The Ravens play nine games against quarterbacks ranked in the top half of the league, but face the two worst quarterbacks by PFF’s standards. Yet, they also face four young quarterbacks that aren’t projected to be world-beaters at this point, and play the bengals twice.
If you were to ask the Ravens 2019 opponents to rank the defenses that they will face in 2019, the Ravens will surely be near the top of the list.
Where will the Ravens defense rank in 2019?
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