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Sacks aren’t everything: Debunking the Ravens hold back edge rushers narrative

They prefer to spread the wealth and keep their guys fresh by rotating

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens have a strong and rich tradition of finding and cultivating defensive talent at every level, especially in the front seven where they’ve been arguably the best in the business at churning out perennial Pro Bowlers at defensive tackle, edge defender, and inside linebacker over the first 25 years in franchise history.

As exceptional as they are at eying defensive talent at outside linebacker, they’ve been catching some flack and criticism from their fan base and a handful of analysts for the way a pair of former day three picks have elevated their pass rush productivity in terms of sacks in particular since signing second contracts elsewhere.

The Ravens drafted Za’Darius Smith and Matt Judon in back-to-back years, with Smith being selected in the fourth round at No. 122 overall out of Kentucky in 2015 and Judon taken in the fourth round at No. 146 overall in 2016 out of Grand Valley State. Both players recorded over 18 sacks during their time in Baltimore but never eclipsed the double-digit mark in the superficial statistical category.

The closest Smith got to double figures in sacks was in his last season with the team in 2018 where he recorded a then career-high 8.5 sacks and Judon came up half a sack shy of 10 in his first Pro Bowl season in 2019 with 9.5. Both departed in free agency for greener pastures and have since enjoyed tremendous individual success.

Smith signed a four-year contract with the Green Bay Packers in the 2019 offseason worth $66 million and recorded 26 sacks in his first two seasons including back-to-back seasons of over 10 where earned his first career Pro Bowl bids as well. Judon signed a four-year deal with the New England Patriots worth $54.5 million this offseason and has already surpassed the double-digit threshold in his first 11 games of the season with 10.5 and is the heartbeat of his new team’s defense.

It’s understandable for some to wonder why both players are having greater success with their new teams than they had with the one that drafted them and also question whether it was a smart decision by the Ravens to let either walk in free agency. However, just because they are putting up better numbers in terms of volume, it doesn’t mean that they were any less effective or productive during their tenure as Ravens.

According to Pro Football Focus, both players’ pass rush win rate on true pass sets, which only take in straight dropbacks into account and exclude play action, RPO, and trick plays, marginally improved but didn’t dramatically increase since their respective last seasons in Baltimore.

Smith only saw an increase of 1.4 percent from 24.5 in 2018 to 25.9 in 2019 in his first year with the Packers and saw a 6.1 percent dip in 2020 to 19.8 yet still just recorded one less sack than the year before from 13.5 to 12.5. He has been limited to just one game this season by a back injury that landed him on injured reserve although he is expected to be back at some point this season. When he returns, Smith will be playing with the best secondary that Green Bay has had in over a decade and that’s been without their best corner in Jaire Alexander since Week 4.

Judon saw the most significant increase of the two in his first year with the Patriots compared to his last with the Ravens. He’s up six percent from 19.7 in 2020 to 25.7 thus far this year but he’s also playing with one of the best and most disciplined backends in the league on one of its top overall units.

In Defensive Coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale’s scheme, outside linebackers are required to do more than rush the passer and they also rotate regularly in an effort to both keep them fresh and opposing offenses in their toes. Martindale covets and utilizes versatile edge defenders who possess the skill set to drop into coverage and line up inside over guards and centers in sub-packages as well.

Neither Smith or Judon played even 70 percent of the total defensive snaps in their last years with the Ravens but both have played 84 percent of the defensive snaps in the first season with their new teams where they have been tasked with rushing the passer and playing the edge almost exclusively. While the Ravens tend to pull their starters late in games when they’re ahead by a wide margin, both the Patriots and Packers will leave their starters in deep into the fourth quarter even if they are leading by multiple scores.

Judon played SAM linebacker with the Ravens which required him to drop into underneath zone coverage and sometimes even down the field in man coverage. Smith played the RUSH spot and was part of a regular rotation with franchise legend Terrell Suggs for his entire time with Ravens, starting just 16 of a possible 58 games.

In his last season with the Ravens, Judon played the lowest percentage of total defensive snaps since his rookie year with 62 percent as he split time with Tyus Bowser but was still able to record six sacks and the second most quarterback hits of his career to that point with 21.

Smith played just 67 percent of the total defensive snaps in his last year with the Ravens, which was a career-high to that point and managed to record the second-most quarterback hits to date with 25.

Ravens outside linebackers are expected to play run first and foremost by setting a strong edge but they are also sometimes asked to do the grunt work to set up their teammates in the front seven and secondary for success. Martindale is a brilliant mastermind when it comes to designing and disguising creative twists, stunts, and blitzes off the ball as well as at the line of scrimmage. His edge defenders may be asked to occupy or draw the attention of multiple blockers but they are often the main benefactors in many of those pressure packages.

The Ravens 22 sacks currently rank in the bottom half the league. Even though their sack numbers are pedestrian, their defense is still pressuring opposing passers at a high rate. According to Pro Football Reference, the Ravens were tied for the fifth most pressures in the league with 111 through 11 weeks and rank third in pressure rate with 28 percent.

Breakdowns and lapses in coverage have consistently allowed opposing quarterbacks to get the ball out before the pass rush can take effect or just before they can get home for a takedown. The relationship between the front and backend needs to be harmonious in order for both units to execute and excel.

If the coverage doesn’t hold up long enough for the rush to get home, sack numbers are not going to be high. If the pass rush is ineffective then it leaves the secondary in coverage for too long and gives the opposing offense more time to get receivers open downfield.

One of the biggest issues for the Ravens defense this season and by far the most glaring since they addressed their tackling problem has been allowing big plays. The passing game, in particular, has been where they have allowed the most debilitating and game-breaking long gains and scores. While injuries at both corner and safety have certainly been a factor, the big plays have mainly been a result of miscommunication in the backend which has led to several blown coverages.

Suggs was the last Raven defender to reach double-digit sacks with 11 in his last season with the team in 2018. Just because they opt to spread the wealth amongst what is typically a deep and diverse depth chart on their roster at edge rusher, that doesn’t mean they are holding them back from being all they can be.

Martindale regularly puts his players in the best position to succeed whenever they are on the field to maximize their potential to make a play. Nobody currently on the Ravens roster is on pace eclipse double-digits sacks but that isn’t an indictment on their ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks and disrupt their offense’s game plans.