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What releasing Earl Thomas means for Ravens defensive scheme

Baltimore’s defense will need to make some changes.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Following the news that the Ravens have released Earl Thomas III, it’s necessary to examine what Thomas’ role was on the field.

Thomas played a true middle third or single high for the most part during his time in Seattle. His duty was to patrol deep between the numbers and prevent plays from getting over his head. While the Ravens and Seahawks run quite different defensive concepts, Baltimore asked Thomas to play a similar role on over half of his defensive snaps in 2019. Thomas logged nearly 600 snaps as a free safety. He was tasked with more duty in the box, in the slot, off the edge and at cornerback than he was ever asked in Seattle, which resulted in Thomas notching the first sacks of his career in Baltimore.

Thomas was largely avoided by opposing passers in 2019, only being thrown at 14 times in 547 coverage snaps according to Pro Football Focus. Thomas allowed a mere six receptions and zero touchdown passes into his coverage. That type of avoidance in the deep middle is a result of the respect that opposing teams had for Thomas’ range, instincts and ball skills. By no coincidence, opposing passers and play-callers decided to avoid Thomas intentionally. He was targeted three times in coverage only once in 2019, when Josh Allen threw three passes into Thomas’ coverage, which resulted in one completion for four yards.

With Thomas gone, Ravens veterans have reportedly lobbied for third year safety DeShon Elliott to start in his place. Elliott, a fellow Texas Longhorn alum, has showed range, length, ball skills and a physical downhill nature. His frame and aggressive ball skills have been impressive in his limited action. What Elliott possesses in potential, he equally has lacked in durability. Elliott has missed 26 of his first 32 possible games. In Elliott’s rookie season, a forearm injury forced him to miss the entire regular season. Elliott then came to camp in 2019 ready to make an impact. After a solid camp, Elliott didn't see the field much in 2019 until injuries and disappointing play prompted Wink Martindale to trot Elliott out against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 6 of 2019. Elliott played 25 snaps, which brought his total on the season to 40, before tearing his ACL and missing the rest of the season. In summary, Elliott has shown flashes of potential but just can’t stay healthy.

It appears the Ravens veteran leadership has asked that Thomas be dismissed from the team. They were granted that plea. If they also want to see what Elliott can do with first team reps, it should be safe to assume that Elliott will get the reps. Elliott has shown enough range to possibly play single high and allow the Ravens to continue utilizing cover-1 and cover-3 concepts, which rely on a deep middle or deep third safety. With Thomas, these concepts allow cornerbacks like Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters to play outside leverage and funnel receivers toward the numbers and hashes if needed.

Having a safety that can truly play single high or middle third opens up a significant portion of the defensive playbook. We haven’t seen DeShon Elliott do that with any consistency in games, as he’s only taken 40 total defensive snaps, with 16 coming at free safety. Elliott’s ability on the field isn’t in question. However, as the old adage goes, “The best ability is availability.” The Ravens would be foolish to solely rely upon a player who has missed such significant time and is yet to endure the rigors of a full season.

Other in-house options include Jimmy Smith, who has taken a few reps at safety despite playing boundary corner his entire career, as well as rookie Geno Stone. Smith could certainly enjoy a Lardarius Webb like transition from corner to safety. Smith has the game experience and has shown strong instinctual capability in coverage throughout his career, although there will certainly still be a learning curve to playing safety. Stone was outstanding in coverage during his time at Iowa, especially when lined up at free safety. Stone is green, but can potentially provide some quality depth. Anthony Levine Sr. and Jordan Richards have experience as rotational players in the secondary over the past few years. Levine provides depth as a box safety, and could perhaps play rotationally in split safety looks such as cover-2, cover-4 and two-man under but his range isn't his greatest asset. Richards played over 400 defensive snaps for Atlanta in 2018, allowing 21 of 28 passes into his coverage to be completed for 191 yards and no touchdowns. He also played 245 snaps or more with the Patriots in 2015 and 2017. UDFA Nigel Warrior, who was a first-team All-SEC performer for the Tennessee Volunteers in 2019, will certainly get an even stronger opportunity to make the roster now. Anyone making plays in the safety room will certainly be noticed moving forward. Stone and Smith are the only players that could provide some depth behind Elliott in those single high and middle third looks.

The departure of Thomas really means three things for the Ravens defense—

  1. The Ravens will rely on DeShon Elliott for now, with Jimmy Smith taking as many reps as he can.
  2. Chuck Clark, who played 120 snaps at FS in 2019, will have to play more free safety in single high and two high looks in 2019. This has a ripple impact, as Clark blitzed more than any other safety in 2019 (104 blitzes.)
  3. Baltimore must bring in additional safety depth through trade or free agency. Brandon Carr, who took snaps at FS for Baltimore in training camp in 2019, before playing over 100 in the regular season, would make the most sense. Former Titan Logan Ryan has stated that he considers himself a safety and is an unrestricted free agent. Ryan played mainly in the slot for the Titans. Eric Reid is also available. Both are experienced options, while Reid’s expertise at safety is more notable than Ryan’s, Reid allowed seven touchdown receptions and missed 20 tackles in 2019 with the Panthers.

The Ravens will have some shuffling to do, both with their current personnel as well as weighing outside options. Whichever combination of current and outside options that allow the Ravens to maintain the ability to play single high looks is the path they must choose. Their decision to part ways with Thomas show that they value the sum of the team over individual talent, which has led to what’s been considered a healthy and productive locker room for the better part of two decades.

The benefit of having corners that can play man coverage can’t be overstated in this situation. Marlon Humphrey is one of the top corners in single coverage in the NFL, while Marcus Peters has picked off opposing passers more than any player in the NFL since he was drafted in 2015. The depth there is strong as well, with Smith, Tavon Young and Anthony Averrett. The Ravens figure to be tested deep by the Browns, Texans and Chiefs over the first three weeks of the season following Thomas’ release. DeShaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield attempted 70, 61 and 58 deep passes respectively in 2019, the 4th, 6th and 7th most attempts in the NFL last season. The Ravens also faced each in 2019, going 2-2 against them.

In those matchups, the passers didn’t have a ton of success down the field. Against Baltimore in 2019, their deep passing results (attempts 20+ yards downfield) according to Next Gen Stats—

Mayfield week 16: 1/5, one interception.

Watson week 11: 0/3.

Mayfield week 4: 0/1.

Mahomes week 3: 3/5, 2 TD.

I would expect to see each of those teams test the Ravens deep more than they did in last year’s matchups.

If there’s one silver lining to Earl Thomas being shipped off, it could be improved play against the run from the free safety position. Clark, Elliott, Smith and company could very well upgrade the quality of play that Thomas posed against the run. At times, Thomas seemed unwilling to participate, which might have been wise as a 30-something coming off of a broken leg. While I do believe the internet went a bit crazy with the famous Henry stiff-arm (Henry stepped out of bounds a few yards after), Thomas missed tackles and didn’t play with the same aggressive downhill tackling prowess he showed at Texas and in Seattle. At the end of the day, Thomas wasn’t brought to Baltimore to play against the run.

We won’t know how the Ravens will adjust their coverage tendencies until the Ravens square off with the Browns in Week 1. Baltimore needs to quickly figure out what players they have and/or need to bring in to allow them to play cover-1, cover-3 as well as two high looks. With Thomas gone, safety duties may look more similar to the days of Tony Jefferson and Eric Weddle being used similarly, both splitting time in the box and at free safety, with two high looks as well. In 2018, Eric Weddle played 577 snaps at FS, while Tony Jefferson also took 441. That could also mean using more cover-2, quarters and two man under, electing to put two safeties high at times, particularly early in the season. The Ravens relied more on cover-0, cover-1 and cover-3 than most teams in 2019. In all likelihood, those tendencies should regress towards league average to some degree. If Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison take to coverage early on, some combination coverages and cover-2/Tampa-2 could be on the table as well.

With an improved defensive front, the Ravens might be more confident to rely on their front seven to hold the fort against the run. Running more two-high looks will be necessary if Wink Martindale can’t find quality play from Clark, Elliott and company in single high. Bringing back Brandon Carr and possibly adding Logan Ryan seem to be the most logical moves. A platoon of such players might be best to ensure that the Ravens maintain both depth and quality of play that will allow them to reach their lofty 2020 expectations.