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Matthew Judon is a good, versatile player judged under an unfair microscope

Judon is versatile and productive, but misunderstood

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NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Washington Football Team Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s a list of edge defenders with 25+ sacks and 50 or more QB hits since the start of 2017 (according to Pro Football Focus):

  1. Matthew Judon
  2. Za’Darius Smith
  3. Trey Flowers
  4. Yannick Ngakoue

That’s it. While this article isn’t out to prove that Judon is a better pass rusher than Joey Bosa, Cameron Jordan or Danielle Hunter (he’s not), let’s examine why there seems to be so much criticism of Judon among Ravens fans, and whether or not it’s warranted.

First, Judon isn’t a defensive end or traditional pass rusher. He doesn’t rush the passer as much as premier edge rushers, either. According to Sports Info Solutions, Judon has rushed the passer 94 times through the first four games, good for 52nd-most rushes among all defenders. Over 16 games, that would be 376 pass rushes, which would’ve been good for the 46th most among edge rushers in 2019.

Last year, Judon rushed the passer 439 times (29th among edge defenders.) No player generated more pressures (Judon had 62) on less pass rushes. Only five players (Mario Addison, Preson Smith, Robert Quinn, Josh Allen and Carlos Dunlap) had as many, or more sacks on less pass rushes. Judon rushed the passer much less frequently than guys like Khalil Mack or Chandler Jones. The Top-10 pass rushers all saw at least 531 opportunities, which is nearly 100 more than Judon.

That’s because Judon is a true SAM linebacker. One who is asked to rush the passer, as well as cover (quite a bit) and make plays against the run (Judon’s 36 stops ranked ninth among edges in 2019.) Judon, who stands at 6-foot-3, dropped into coverage 109 times in 2019, which was good for fifth-most among all edge players. Only Preston Smith (133 coverage snaps) had anywhere close to the level of pass rushing production, while no player with 65 or more coverage snaps generated within 10 of Judon’s 62 pressures.

While leading the league in QB hits (25) in 2019, Judon didn’t allow a touchdown in his coverage, and hasn’t throughout his 448 career coverage snaps, despite being targeted 49 times. Opposing passers have found only 283 yards and an 87 passer rating when targeting Judon, despite him checking in at over 260 pounds.

I’ve thrown a lot of numbers at you. The moral is that Judon is a versatile and unique defensive piece who does what defensive coordinator “Wink” Martindale likes best — cover, blitz, and rally to the football. While many have criticized Judon for “unblocked” pressure, the entire philosophy of Martindale’s defense is to manipulate blocking schemes to get those free rushers. Martindale spoke on the topic in 2019.

The fact that Judon is able to cover, and asked to, contributes to his ability to confuse offensive line protection and generate those quick pressures. Judon can line up anywhere across the Ravens defensive front, including slot cornerback — where he spent multiple snaps against the Cleveland Browns in Week 1.

So why is it that a simple twitter search of “Judon sucks” generates a laundry list of fans that are so unhappy with his play? The only logical explanation is because they aren’t sure what they’re watching, as well as expecting . . . more sacks for the money?

Judon is a unique player with his combination of coverage and pass rushing responsibilities, clearly. When the Ravens franchise tagged Judon, they made him the highest-paid player on the team in 2020. Judon’s $16 million dollar cap hit must’ve caused fans to expect gaudy sack numbers and more game changing plays. However, Martindale’s blitz schemes are focused on creating mismatches and being multiple.

USA Today writer Steven Ruiz examined the Ravens 2019 pass rush and summarized their philosophy well.

That same philosophy seems to have encouraged the Ravens front office spend a lot more on coverage (Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters’ total contracts are worth more than $140 million) than pass rush, which speaks to how the Ravens feel about Martindale’s ability to manufacture pressure with versatile pieces, who are capable of dropping into coverage competently as well as rushing the passer. I would highly recommend reading Ruiz’s series, which pontificates how the Ravens manipulate offense’s own protection calls against them. Judon is the Ravens best pass rusher, who has generated 18 pressures so far in 2020, good for seventh in the NFL according to Sports Info Solutions.

Overall, Judon is a strong, while not elite pass rusher and his versatility allows him to be used in countless ways that benefit the Ravens defense as a whole. While he’s paid the 11th- most money in 2020 of any edge rusher, he simply doesn’t play the same position as guys like T.J. Watt or Joey Bosa, who are $100 million dollar pass rushers. If Judon made slightly less, I believe fans would criticize him much less, although, as I’ve investigated, fans don’t seem to have quite a strong grasp on what Judon’s role in the defense truly is.

After watching Terrell Suggs for years, who routinely rushed the passer over 500 times, as well as peaking around the box scores of similar volume pass rushers, fans seem to grow frustrated and disappointed with Judon. I believe this scrutiny is unjust, as it’s extremely rare for a player to generate significantly higher pass rushing production on the volume Judon is given. With only 94 pass rushes through the first quarter of the season, Judon is on pace for 376 pass rushes in 2020, even less than in 2019. With no player in the NFL registering 60 pressures or 10 sacks on 376 pass rushes or less in 2019, Judon is on pace for 68 pressures and eight sacks, which is strong production despite modest volume.

Similarly, would you expect a receiver who ranks 29th in targets to rank first in receptions? Certainly not. Dede Westbrook (29th in targets in 2019) produced 66 receptions. He’s never going to outproduce Michael Thomas, who had 180 opportunities for a reception, just like Judon will never outproduce Chandler Jones on 160 less pass rushes.

It’s time to step out from the microscope which we judge the former fifth-round pick and appreciate his versatility, rather than scrutinizing him for being unable to achieve outlier level production on below average pass rushing volume. The fact of the matter is that Judon does produce at a high level for his volume, where his 20.6% pressure rate ranks 9th among all players with at least seven recorded pressures in 2020. Also, as previously mentioned, Judon led the NFL in QB hits (25) last year.

Ruiz explained the value of QB hits in his pressure series.

Ruiz then quotes PFF to examine how detrimental QB hits are before the ball is thrown.

There’s certainly a reason the Ravens decided to extend the costly franchise tag to Judon. Let’s also ask, where would the Ravens pass rush be without Judon? Now that’s a scary thought . . .

While the former Grand Valley State standout has disappeared at times (the Ravens could’ve used a standout performance against the Titans in the playoffs, but that goes for the entire defense), Judon has been a key chess piece.

No. 99 been a factor in derailing opposing offenses, despite not putting together a dominant stretch of football that makes fans want to give him a massive contract. Regardless, Judon has been a productive impact player that fans should appreciate for what he brings to a complicated defensive scheme.