Shrewd Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta checked off another item from his offseason to-do list when he inked veteran sack artist Justin Houston to a bargain contract on Monday. DeCosta has diligently worked to bolster Baltimore’s ranks this offseason, adding multiple playmakers to the receiver department, completely remaking the offensive line and supplementing the pass rush. The Ravens are gearing up for a championship run in 2021 with a top-5 roster in the league. However, one potential vulnerability remains with preseason action on the immediate horizon.
A troublesome lack of depth at the safety position could derail Baltimore’s Super Bowl aspirations in 2021. Behind entrenched starters Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott on the depth chart lies third round rookie Brandon Stephens, who primarily played cornerback at SMU. Beyond Stephens, veterans Anthony Levine and Jordan Richards combined to earn 42 defensive snaps last season while 2020 7th round pick Geno Stone, undrafted free agent Nigel Warrior and 2021 undrafted free agent Ar’Darius Washington have two professional defensive snaps between them.
Defensive signal caller Clark has been a model of dependability, suiting up for the last 59 consecutive games. Conversely, his running mate Elliott, who plays a physical brand of football, missed his entire rookie season due to a broken forearm and the final ten games in 2019 season because of a knee injury. Even if the starting tandem manages to remain healthy throughout the 17-game regular season and postseason, a competent third safety is required to unlock the Ravens opportunistic dime defense.
Football Outsiders’ Defensive Personnel Analysis identified a stark contrast in dime package usage between 2019 to 2020. Martindale opted for dime personnel on a 3rd most 41% in 2019 compared to 13th most 16% in 2020. This considerable reduction in dime frequency may partially explain Baltimore’s decline from 5th in defensive DVOA in 2019 to 9th in 2020, including a regression from 4th to 10th in pass defense DVOA, despite adding impactful rookies Patrick Queen and Justin Madubuike, plus veterans Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe and Yannick Ngakoue to an intact core of returning defenders sans Earl Thomas III.
Sheil Kapadia noted the effect of Thomas’ absence in his 2021 NFL Playbook:
The Ravens’ most common coverages were Cover-1 (man coverage with a single high safety), Cover-3 (a three-deep zone with four underneath defenders) and a Cover-0 (an all-out blitz with man coverage and no deep safeties).
Overall, the Ravens used single-high coverages at the eight-highest rate. One thing to keep an eye on is whether they shift to more split-safety looks. Thomas’ release last summer left the Ravens without their first option at free safety and they felt the effect. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars saw a bigger dip in performance going from split safety coverages [1st in EPA/play] to single-high coverages [13th in EPA/play].
Some have speculated that underrated cover corner Jimmy Smith could serve as an emergency safety if injuries arise. Yet Smith has never shown the range or instincts to thrive as a deep safety during his injury marred 10-year career. While almost every position group on the team is loaded with experienced and pedigreed backups, the current safety depth chart represents and unequivocal gamble. And while all teams that avoid all-in spending sprees are forced to gamble with unproven depth somewhere on their roster, rolling the dice at safety for a defense predicated on coverage is quite risky.
Coordinator Martindale has emphasized his belief that coverage is the linchpin of defensive success and DeCosta has invested heavily into the league’s best cornerback corps. The corners allow Martindale to orchestrate an organized chaos scheme that elevates the talent across the defensive line, linebackers and safeties. Nonetheless, no amount of lockdown coverage on the outside, deceptive blitzing and position-less defense can overcome subpar safety play that enables quarterbacks to dissect the chaos by moving the chains with easy completions to uncovered outlet valves.
Competent safety play is a prerequisite for any defense, especially an aggressive scheme. Without that, creative play calls are dead on arrival in the ball-out-quick era. Matched up against top competition, particularly Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs, safety performance is often the difference between winning and losing.
DeCosta still has some options. Veteran Tre Boston remains unsigned at the beginning of August and has excelled as a high safety. Kenny Vacarro, Bradley McDougald and D.J. Swearinger are veteran box safeties who could boost the dime personnel. Perhaps the developmental in-house players show enough in the preseason that DeCosta circles back to evaluate the safety situation before the November 2nd in-season trade deadline.
Regardless, acquiring or developing a capable third safety is the final priority, the finishing touch, on DeCosta’s 2021 championship roster construction masterpiece.