With the 2020 season officially in the rearview and the new league year right around the corner, let’s look back at the overall performance of the Baltimore Ravens’ safety position group before we turn the page to the 2021 season.
The Ravens entered training camp with plenty of talent and quality depth in their secondary at both safety and cornerback. However, that depth was put to the test after season-ending injuries Iman Marshall and Tavon Young, the termination of Pro Bowler Earl Thomas, and the failure of seventh-round rookie Geno Stone to seize an opportunity for more playing time.
Since both Anthony Levine and Jordan Richards primarily played special teams, the Ravens carried only two safeties that played extensively on defense for the vast majority of the year, outside of a short two-game stint from Marcus Gilchrist.
In his second season as a full-time starter, the cerebral fourth-year pro continued to be the glue that not only kept the backend together as the defensive signal-caller.
While some believed that rookie inside linebacker Patrick Queen would inherit the green dot on his helmet at some point during the season, there was no need because Clark executed the duties exceptionally well with his ability to communicate and get every player at every level in place.
As an individual, he had his best season to date, proving the front office right for signing him to a surprising early yet sensible extension last offseason. Clark started all 16 regular-season games and both playoff games, playing 99.8-percent of the team’s defensive snaps.
He recorded career-highs in total tackles (96, second most on the team), tackles for loss (three), quarterback hits (four), sacks (1.5), and fumble recoveries. Clark also tied a career-high in forced fumbles and scored his first career touchdown on a fumble recovery that he returned 65-yards against the Colts in Week 9.
While Clark only recorded one interception for the third year in a row, he came on strong as a playmaker in coverage as the season progressed and had several near-interceptions slip through or bounce off his hands before he notched his first in the regular-season finale.
In other instances, as he did against the Browns in Week 14 when he collided with the goalpost just before halftime, he simply ran out of real-estate to corral the pass in bounds.
Baker Mayfield's end of the half hail mary attempt last night was the longest NFL pass attempt PFF has ever charted pic.twitter.com/lsRWDiwCjT— PFF (@PFF) December 15, 2020
Clark isn’t the most gifted or physically imposing athlete but what he lacks in measurables and raw athletic ability, he more than makes up with his intellect and high football IQ.
He is regularly praised by his coaches and teammates for his knowledge of every role and position on the defense, as well as his deep understanding of Defensive Coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale’s dense and complex scheme.
Even Thomas raved about Clark shortly after coming to the team and wondered why they signed him to a market-setting deal at the time in the 2019 offseason if they had an ascending player of his caliber already on the roster.
Earl Thomas gave the best compliment of safety Chuck Clark, who is expected to replace Tony Jefferson. Thomas was impressed by Clark’s intelligence in his first offseason meetings with him. “I was, ‘Bro, why did they bring me here?’” Thomas said.— Jamison Hensley (@jamisonhensley) October 9, 2019
The former sixth-round pick proved to be well worth the investment. Along with the next player on the list, he is a testament to the Ravens’ ability to find talent in every round of the draft and develop them into starters and playmakers.
The termination of Thomas midway through training camp thrust another former sixth-round pick into a starting role heading into his third year after his first two were cut short by injury.
Elliott stepped up to the plate and even though he didn’t make the Pro Bowl or All-Pro team like the future Hall of Famer has so many times throughout his decorated career, the Ravens’ secondary didn’t miss a beat. By midseason, Thomas was an afterthought.
Before his ascension into full-time starter status, Elliott had shown flashes as a rotational piece on defense that came in sub-packages when healthy. As gifted as he was, staying on the field proved to be troublesome for the former Texas Longhorn after a broken forearm cost him his rookie campaign and a knee injury cut his sophomore season short after just 40 defensive snaps.
Elliott shook the injury bug in 2020 to start in all 16 regular-season games for the first time, as well as both playoff games. He became a force on the defensive side of the ball who became known for his clutch plays and bone-jarring hits.
His most impressive and memorable hit of the season was the one he made on league rushing champion Derrick Henry in the Ravens’ first meeting with the Tennessee Titans.
However, his most clutch bone-crushing blow came in the postseason rematch between the teams when Elliott brought the hammer down on Titans’ tight end Jonnu Smith to force a controversial punt on a key third-down early in the fourth quarter.
One of the most noticeable differences between Elliott and Thomas was simply the effort. Thomas was criticized during his first and only season with the team for his lack of effort at times on the field and not playing through the whistle on every play.
The 88-yard breakaway jaunt that Browns’ running back Nick Chubb ripped off in the Ravens Week 4 40-25 defeat is frequently referenced as the prime example. Thomas pulled up at midfield and opted not to attempt to run down the ball carrier.
Playing with all-out effort was never an issue for Elliott, he was full throttle every time he stepped on the field and never gave up on plays. The prime example of that came in his best game of the season in Week 6 when Eagles running back Miles Sander burst through the second and third level of the defense for what looked like a house-call.
Full-Effort Elliott refused to give up on the play and not only caught Sanders from behind after kicking it into high gear, but he dislodged the ball on the tackle and if it weren’t for a fortunate bounce, the Ravens would’ve come away with a turnover.
He was all over the field in that game and finished with three total tackles, a pass deflection, a quarterback hit, and forced another fumble when he stripped Carson Wentz of the ball while bringing him down for short gain.
Elliott was always around the ball and played with a lot of energy. As the season progressed, he also made significant improvements in coverage down the stretch. While he didn’t record a single interception and broke up just four passes, his ability to assist in bracketing downfield, as well as fly to the boundary, forced several throws out of bounds for fear of being picked off.
He was a tackling machine and very effective blitzer, recorded career highs across the board including total tackles (80, fourth most on the team), tackles for loss (three), sacks (2.5), and quarterback hits (five).
The nine-year veteran fondly referred to as ‘Co-Cap’ battled through a few different injuries throughout the season hardly played any defense when he was active. While he’s still a strong presence on special teams, his defensive snaps have been on a steep decline since their peak in 2018.
He appeared in 15 games in 2020 and logged seven tackles with a pair of fumble recoveries. Levine may have very well played his final year with the Ravens since he is no longer the go-to dime-linebacker. Inside linebacker Chris Board filled that role and assumed more responsibilities on special teams last season.
Like Levine, Richards is an almost strictly special teamer who sees next to no action on defense. While he was active for all 16 regular-season games and both playoffs games, he only played 15 snaps on defense compared to 334 on special teams. He was recently re-signed so his value to the third phase of the game is clear-cut.
Both Clark and Elliott possess the versatility to play in the box, cover the deep middle and assist on the boundary. Their interchangeability to play both the free and strong spots provide the Ravens with tremendous flexibility in the backend and helps Martindale disguise both coverages and pressures.
As versatile and dependable as they both proved to be in 2020, the Ravens were extremely fortunate that neither missed a single game or start, especially during a pandemic riddled season.
To allow even greater schematic flexibility to play dime more effectively, adding a viable insurance policy at the safety position should be on the Ravens’ offseason to-do list.