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Organized Chaos: How “The Blitzing Mullet” has reloaded the Ravens defensive philosophy

The Ravens defense is built to defend in the modern game

In Don ‘Wink’ Martindale’s first season as the Ravens defensive coordinator, there were names like Suggs, Mosley, Smith and Weddle. The Ravens finished the year allowing only 17.9 points per game, good for second fewest in the NFL. With a stout veteran defense, the Ravens were able to make a playoff push that saw them win six of seven, earning themselves an AFC North title and a home playoff game alongside a completely revamped offense led by the league’s top rushing attack.

Looking back on what this defense has shaped into, personnel wise, there are a few words that come to mind. The two that do the most justice are organized chaos. Similar to Martindale’s luxurious mullet, which is much more manicured than meets the eye, the Ravens defense is precisely detailed. Other buzzwords to activate the essence of the unit are versatile, fast and aggressive. “The Blitzing Mullet” has consistently dialed up five and six man pressures at over a 40% rate since taking over the Ravens defense, the highest mark in the league.

Of the 11 starters from 2018, only two remain: Brandon Williams and Marlon Humphrey. Since the end of that season, C.J. Mosley, Za’Darius Smith, Matthew Judon, Michael Pierce and Yannick Ngakoue have gone on to sign with other teams, totaling up to $260M in potential earnings. That doesn’t include the one major added piece of 2019, Earl Thomas, playing one season of excellent football and being cut for a litany of reasons, either.

One of the biggest changes that comes to mind is what the 2021 Ravens defensive interior line looks like in contrast to the 2018 group. The Ravens deployed two nose tackle bodies in Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams, using Williams primarily as a three-technique. They also used Chris Wormley and Brent Urban, who both excel more as run defenders who have failed to consistently generate any substantial pressure as pass rushers from the 3-5 techniques, even after leaving Baltimore.

Heading into this season, defensive line coach Anthony Weaver’s room consists Calais Campbell (92 career sacks), Derek Wolfe (34 career sacks) and Justin Madubuike as the interior line, with Brandon Williams manning the 0/1 technique primarily. To put perspective on the transition, according to Pro Football Focus, Wolfe alone has generated more pressures (286) and sacks (46) in less pass rushes (3,815) than Williams, Wormley, Urban and Pierce have combined (283 pressures and 24 sacks and 4,673 rushes).

The Ravens line has transformed from one-dimensional run stuffers into versatile defensive lineman that remain a threat in passing situations. In 2018 Baltimore also deployed a future Hall of Fame outside linebacker in Terrell Suggs while Za’Darius Smith and Matthew Judon rotated in heavy usage as well. Smith and Suggs possessed the ability to walk tackles back with bull rushes and were effective against the run, while Judon was a bit more versatile. Now, the Ravens are investing in two much quicker players (Bowser and Oweh) who possess more speed than any other OLB on the 2018 roster. While Pernell McPhee and Justin Houston are more in the mold of Ravens past, Bowser and Oweh figure to utilize speed and quickness to match up in coverage as well as hunt quarterbacks to the sideline. Outside linebackers are also used in coverage nearly as much as pass rushers.

In the same vein, Wink Martindale blitzes his DB’s as if they’re linebackers. Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott both ranked in the top 10 among all safeties in pass rushes, pressures and sacks in 2020. Marlon Humphrey’s three sacks tied for the most in the NFL among cornerbacks. The irony is that these defensive backs, as well as Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith, have been among the league’s top cover defenders, and by no mistake. In a conference call with Ravens PSL holders, When asked about a lack of sacks, Martindale explained—

“It’s one of those things that, if you were asking me, if you’re the owner of a team and I’m your head coach and it comes down to what do you want, I want as many cover corners as you can have,” he said. “Because the game is the passing game now. And I think sacks — we’re talking philosophical now; this is my opinion on it — I think sacks are one of the most superficial rankings there is. Because you look at guys that have a bunch of sacks, OK? There’s a lot of things that go into that.”

Martindale noted that Matthew Judon, who along with fellow edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue left Baltimore for free-agent paydays this offseason, was not only a “smart, good football player” but also someone who benefited from schemed-up quarterback pressures. Martindale said that was partly “a credit to the system of how we play,” an aggressive, blitz-heavy philosophy.

“My philosophy is, personally, I’d rather have a corner that can cover than a guy that can rush,” he said, “because I’ll get guys to hit quarterbacks.”

Martindale explained, in summary, that he would rather invest in top shelf coverage because he feels confident in his ability to manufacture pressure. The fourth-year defensive coordinator has talked about wanting to play “position-less defense” as well as wanting “all 11 players to blitz from the time we get off the bus.” ‘Wink’ has also stated his desire to get “free rushers” as well as the fact that “sacks are superficial.” He’s also led a blitzing revolution that has taken the league by storm. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Ravens led the NFL in the percentage of defensive plays with five or more pass rushers (32%) and ranked 10th in percentage using six or more rushers (7%).

With players like Patrick Queen, DeShon Elliott, Chuck Clark, Odafe Oweh, Tyus Bowser, L.J. Fort, Malik Harrison, Tavon Young and Marlon Humphrey, who possess the skillsets to blitz and cover, Martindale will trend even closer to the “position-less football” he desires to achieve. With a success utilizing both man (5th in EPA allowed per play in 2020) and zone coverage (7th in EPA allowed/play) the Ravens defense is permeable between blitzing, rushing four, playing man or playing zone while also stunting pressures up front regularly. In other words, Wink can call anything at any time. Four man rushes consisting of Bowser, Houston, Campbell and Madubuike can create mismatches, or overloading one side with a nickel blitz and sending four rushers to three gaps can be just as devastating.

The speed that will be present in certain packages, such as ones that feature Odafe Oweh, Justin Madubuike, Tyus Bowser, Patrick Queen, while considering DB’s entering the equation, is downright thrilling. The NFL quarterback is now more mobile than ever; the Ravens will see Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Baker Mayfield, Justin Herbert, Carson Wentz (perhaps), Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Fields and Aaron Rodgers in 2021. Each of those quarterbacks has demonstrated the capacity to extend plays and hurt defenses with their legs. Having such speed that can create harsh angles when escaping the pocket bodes well for a team that has struggled to defend more mobile quarterbacks at times.

Long gone are the days of 2018 when Michael Pierce, Chris Wormley and Brandon Williams were simply holding their ground without forcing quarterbacks outside of the pocket. With Bowser, Oweh and now Houston set to take significant snaps on the edges, quarterbacks will be hard pressed to hurt the Ravens with their legs to the perimeter. Patrick Mahomes has particularly damaged the Ravens outside the pocket, completing 9/13 passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions in their past two matchups.

The Ravens pass rush has done a complete 180 personnel wise over the last two seasons. In 2019 Calais Campbell was in Jacksonville, Houston was in Indianapolis, Wolfe was in Denver, Madubuike was playing college ball at Texas A&M, Bowser was a backup and Oweh was getting his first college reps at Penn State. This unit has been entirely rebuilt to generate pressure in a variety of ways. Justin Houston feels like the final piece of the defensive masterpiece that Wink Martindale has put together, rounding out a defense that boasts depth, talent and experience at all three levels and in each position room.

Houston is by far the most polished pass rusher, skill-wise, that the Ravens have in the outside linebackers room. Only 2.5 sacks away from the glorious 100-sack milestone, Houston has made a living using his stab/swipe as well as the good ‘ole bull rush. He also brings experience and leadership to the locker room, which can’t be calculated but is most certainly impactful.

With Houston joining forces in Charm City, it feels like Wink Martindale has a full tool belt at his disposal ahead of the 2021 season. Baltimore has finished 4th, 5th and 9th in defensive DVOA each of the past three seasons. They feel primed for another season atop the league’s best with the Blitzing Mullet’s organized chaos.