The Ravens went all in with Lamar Jackson after his rookie year. They got him the receiver he asked for, signed Mark Ingram and kept Gus Edwards. They had three tight ends that were effective. They signed Earl Thomas and eventually traded for Marcus Peters to ensure that teams wouldn’t be able to throw themselves to early two score leads and force the Ravens away from the ground game.
The 2019-2020 season got underway, and the Ravens took a few weeks to get all their new toys equipped and properly fitted. Then, they rattled off 12 straight wins. They impressed in tough wins over the Seahawks, Patriots (who were undefeated mid way though the season), 49ers (the eventual NFC champion) and the Bills. All of those teams made the playoffs and were postseason forces. The Ravens somewhat coasted to the best record in franchise history, the first No. 1 seed in franchise history and a home playoff game in the divisional round for the first time in nearly a decade.
Then, the Titans came to town and whooped the Ravens. The Titans offensive line handled business against a Ravens defense that was built to protect leads, rather than dominate the line of scrimmage. They deployed nickel and dime looks, while the Titans dominated the line of scrimmage and ran the ball with little resistance through the heart of the Ravens defense. Derrick Henry stiff armed, trucked and picked up first down after first down. The flaw in the Ravens roster configuration was exposed. They could be beaten at their own game. The Ravens suffered the worst playoff loss, in terms of total domination, arguably in team history. Their Super Bowl aspirations were crushed. They didn’t have a complete enough team.
The team licked their wounds, while second-year General Manager Eric DeCosta went to work. The mission was clear. Make sure that no team ever dominates the Ravens defense at the line of scrimmage again. DeCosta allocated nearly every resource to fortifying the front seven. The Ravens lacked interior pass rush and their personnel didn’t get penetration into opposing backfields. They had two true two-gap run defenders in Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams. Williams, one of the more dominant nose tackles in recent history, was moved off of his natural spot to play 3-technique, which didn’t produce glowing results. They let Pierce walk in free agency.
DeCosta went out and traded for one of the most dominant defensive linemen of the past decade, Calais Campbell. Campbell was arguably the best run defender in football the season prior, while also producing more total pressures than the Ravens top three defensive linemen combined on over 200 less pass rushes. Campbell, a player who can play any spot across the defensive front, was the centerpiece of the Ravens movement. After getting cold feet with Michael Brockers, DeCosta signed longtime Broncos stalwart Derek Wolfe. Wolfe, a 3-tech, provided an immediate upgrade to Brandon Williams with more length and mobility, also being a notable upgrade in terms of beating guards in pass rushing situations. Wolfe was arguably the best value of any free agent signing this year, costing only $3 million for a one-year deal. Wolfe ended up playing an integral role late in the season when Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams were unable to play, and has been borderline elite against the run at times, while being able to effectively crash two blockers for teammates to loop and get pressure.
More in house decisions flew under the radar. The Ravens brought back Jimmy Smith, Pernell McPhee, extended L.J. Fort and placed the franchise tag on Matthew Judon. Fort has been nothing short of consistent and effective throughout 2020 and into 2021. The Ravens also kept Matt Judon around, placing the franchise tag on him for the 2020-2021 season.
April rolled around, and the Ravens reconstruction of their front seven continued en mass, drafting Patrick Queen, Malik Harrison and Justin Madubuike in the first three rounds. Queen can run, Harrison can hit, and Madubuike has started to look like one of the steals of the draft.
The retooling didn’t end there, as the Ravens traded for Yannick Ngakoue before the trade deadline, who ranks in the top 10 in both sacks and tackles for loss since entering the league.
The new acquisitions, Campbell, Wolfe, Queen, Harrison, Madubuike and Ngakoue, played a cumulative 2,935 snaps. However, the Ravens didn’t have their big ticket acquisition, Calais Campbell, or their top dollar nose tackle, Brandon Williams, when the Ravens had their first opportunity to test their offseason plan. In the regular season, the Titans ran on the Ravens late, they weren’t deep enough across the defensive front and Henry ran away with the game while play action gashed the back end. The loss was devastating to the Ravens, who took a tough loss against the Patriots in heavy rain, then faced the Steelers without nearly half of their starters due to COVID-19 protocol.
The Ravens got their rematch Sunday. The long awaited application of the formula that the Ravens invested nearly all of their capital. The results were outstanding. Time and time again, Campbell, Williams and Wolfe dominated the Titans zone blocking scheme. Malik Harrison came downhill and finished plays. Patrick Queen’s quickness forced Henry off his path. Madubuike spelled the veterans and showed explosion and smarts.
17-10.— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) January 12, 2021
Campbell, Williams and Wolfe were NOT going to lose the LOS. Williams and Wolfe both square up and meet Henry through their blocks.
EDC brought them in and they got the job done. pic.twitter.com/D1SGTGZTqq
Haha poor Swaim...— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) January 12, 2021
A tight end can’t even get in Campbell’s way. It’s as if there’s no one there. Barrels through him and Henry. Titans just couldn’t run zone. pic.twitter.com/dD6y4fOWYb
Madubuike WISELY attacking the blocker in his path to prevent him from reaching, while maintaining explosiveness. RT tries to cut him. Nope. Run stuff. Tank. pic.twitter.com/lB4ZCzhHrA— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) January 12, 2021
2 high run fit— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) January 12, 2021
Titans finally get a light box. Of course they wanna run! Judon matadors the TE while Humphrey blitzes. Fort shed his blocker and forces Henry inside, Queen calmly cleans it up.
Ravens knew Titans would run out of this look and anticipated it. pic.twitter.com/YA045u57Gb
Titans ace right opens the Ravens front up to the counter.— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) January 11, 2021
Queen gets under the reach and shoots the gap, forcing Henry to jump cut outside, then caroms right off of Malik Harrison.
One of Henry’s longest runs on the day and he had to make two linebackers miss haha pic.twitter.com/wyEUv9CeYX
The Titans, time and time again, invited defenders into the box with 12, 21 and 22 personnel. Their arrogance in imposing their will through the run game proved largely futile. The Titans simply didn’t register that Campbell, Wolfe, Williams, McPhee, Judon and Madubuike had declared the line of scrimmage purple and black.
The Titans had previously found success running into heavy boxes. In the previous playoff matchup, the Titans scorned the Ravens when they loaded the box.
The Ravens failed to slow down Derrick Henry despite stacking the box (8+ defenders) on 63% of Henry's rush attempts (Henry Avg: 37%).@KingHenry_2 finished with 124 yards (19 attempts) vs 8+ defenders in the box, most in a game by any player this season.#TENvsBAL | #Titans pic.twitter.com/LZJUtR73cY— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 12, 2020
Their thought process was to test the Ravens mettle again. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Oh, how the tables turn. . .
Derrick Henry had no room to run against at a Ravens defense that stacked 8+ defenders in the box on 72% of Henry's runs, the 4th-highest rate any RB has faced in a game this season (min. 10 carries).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 10, 2021
Henry vs Stacked Box: 13 carries, 24 yards (1.8 YPC) #BALvsTEN | #Titans pic.twitter.com/mDcvWFA4PA
The Ravens also used over-fronts, getting a frontside 3-tech to thwart the Titans running to the strong side. They did that quite a bit in November, but didn’t have Campbell and Williams to win.
The blitz dawg himself, Rex Ryan, highlighting the Ravens using over fronts. Here’s a good example of the Ravens aligning to the strong side of the formation then bringing heat from the backside. All out warfare on the Titans run game. pic.twitter.com/1gbUdgEb6y— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) January 13, 2021
Eric DeCosta’s plan worked. The Ravens held the Titans out of the end zone in the final three quarters of the game and made a massive red zone stand to keep the lead. If the Ravens faltered to contain the Titans offense, hindsight would be brutal. Investing essentially all of their offseason assets into rebuilding the front seven would’ve proven useless, as the Ravens would have suffered at the hands of the same matchup that they focused on fortifying. It would speak negatively to player evaluation, philosophy, and use of cap space. Instead, they advanced past an opponent in the postseason for the first time since 2015.
One step forward. . . The next step, however, is quite different.
The Ravens face a Bills team that doesn’t care for running the ball out of heavier personnel. The Buffalo Bills rely on play action at a similar rate to the Titans, but they use 11 personnel to spread the field out and attack nickel and dime defenses. The Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll loves to dial up RPO passes, which Arthur Smith doesn’t incorporate much for the Titans. However, the Ravens built their back end to play man coverage and lock down the quick passing game. Josh Allen plays Jekyll (the quick passing game) and Hyde (extending plays) which puts a strain on defenses. To date, Allen has the slowest average time to get the ball out (2.85s) in the NFL (per Pro Football Focus). This is deceiving, however. Allen has thrown 14 TD to 1 int when getting the ball out in under 2.5s (114.4 QB rating), while he’s thrown 23 TD to 9 INT when getting the ball out over 2.5s (97.8 QB rating).
While Allen has had an incredible year, the Bills are one dimensional. With the Ravens defense healthy, their ability to play man or zone, and their defensive front dominating the point of attack, the Ravens will give the Bills offense quite a test. I will examine the Bills offense in greater detail later in the week, but the Ravens essentially built themselves from the ground up to defend the pass and run the football.
After shutting down Henry, Tannehill and eventually A.J. Brown, the Ravens now turn their attention to the Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs show.