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Ravens defense needs to get their mojo back in Detroit

After facing two high flying offenses, the Ravens defense can apply what they’ve learned

Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison chest bump against the Las Vegas Raiders

For the first time in John Harbaugh’s tenure as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, they’ve allowed 30-plus points in each of their first two games. Their first two opponents, the Kansas City Chiefs and Las Vegas Raiders, look like they have bona fide potent passing attacks. Ravens Defensive Coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale spoke about how he enjoys playing the Chiefs early in the season at a presser Thursday.

“. . . when you play a team like that, it’s like a self scout for yourself because he’s going to attack who he thinks is weak in the system and that helps you make corrections afterwards,” Martindale said.

The Ravens defense surely embraced trial by fire over the first two games. Their first two opponents ranked No. 1 and No. 1 in pass DVOA. That has left the Ravens pass defense ranked No. 24 against the pass. The unit has missed cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith, while struggling to generate consistent pass rush. Per Sports Info Solutions, Baltimore has generated pressure on only 30.1% of opponent drop backs (eighth lowest) and 3.5% of opponents have resulted in a sack (fifth lowest).

Baltimore travels to face a Detroit offense that has allowed pressure on 33.3% of their drop backs and is without franchise left tackle Taylor Decker. Baltimore is also tied for the third most missed tackles in the NFL in run defense (5) and will face two capable running backs in D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams. The duo has generated runs of 20, 17, 16, 12, 10, eight and seven yards on zone concepts through two games. Detroit’s offense runs through them and tight end T.J. Hockenson. With Ravens defensive players Justin Houston, Brandon Williams, Justin Madubuike and Jaylon Ferguson ruled out Sunday, along with Derek Wolfe unlikely to play, Detroit will likely attack the Ravens defensive front on early downs and test their backups mettle.

The Lions offense is quite vanilla by NFL standards. They haven’t utilized play action (17.3% of drop backs, fifth lowest in the NFL), RPO’s (only run 1 RPO through two games) or motion at a high rate (29/93 drop backs with motion). In other words, they run the ball and use straight drop backs without much motion. That doesn’t put defenses in much conflict pre or post snap. They run zone concepts and straight drop backs.

After facing teams in Kansas City and Las Vegas that like to push the ball downfield, Jared Goff is averaging an ADOT of only 7.3 yards per attempt, which ranks 26th in terms of average depth. The Lions receiving corps, by Quintez Cephus, blank and blank hasn’t been productive nor efficient so far, averaging -0.07 points per target in terms of EPA. In other words, they’re costing the Lions points with low quality play. The Lions offense has struggled when facing seven or more defenders in coverage, throwing two touchdowns and two interceptions, taking four sacks and generating the fifth worst EPA (-11.67), while finding moderate success when the opposition has blitzed.

Jared Goff spray chart vs. SF via Next Gen Stats
Jared Goff spray chart vs. GB via Next Gen Stats

As the spray charts above show, the Lions have stuck to working the perimeter underneath and utilizing a quick passing game to make hay. Goff has also struggled when pressured, which has been an issue for him throughout his career. When pressured, Goff is a paltry 13/28 on 33 drop backs, throwing for only 156 yards and two touchdowns. Only 75% of his passes have been catchable when pressured, ranking No. 23 in the NFL, while only 58.3% of his passes have been deemed “on target” by Sports Info Solutions (defined as: “The number of times a quarterback’s throw hits the receiver in-stride, regardless of whether the pass is completed.”) which ranks 27th currently. Goff has been pressured on 32.4% of his drop backs, ranking 13th highest in the NFL.

Considering Goff’s lack of mobility and Martindale’s philosophies, I would expect a heavy dose of man coverage from Baltimore.

Goff hasn’t made defenses pay when facing cover-0, cover-1 or man-2 coverage, going 6/16 for for 54 yards. Considering T.J. Hockenson’s prowess against zone coverage (10 catches on 11 targets for 127 yards) in contrast to what he’s done against man coverage (3 catches on 5 targets for 22 yards),

I would expect the Ravens to utilize rat or robber defenders in hooks to shade Hockenson, while forcing Goff to be accurate to his receivers on the perimeter. Baltimore will potentially have Jimmy Smith for the first time this season, who has allowed only two receptions when lined up in man coverage against tight ends in his career. Smith is a strong matchup against athletic tight ends considering his size and skillset. Chuck Clark will also be asked to matchup against Hockenson. Clark has allowed 14 receptions on 24 targets for 177 yards when covering tight ends in man coverage since 2018, intercepting one pass and allowing two touchdowns with three pass breakups. In 2020, Clark allowed only seven completions on 15 targets to tight ends when in man coverage and had three pass breakups with a dropped interception.

Hockenson is Goff’s favorite target and for good reason.

Taking Hockenson away is easier said than done, especially when defenses play zone. By playing man and having a rat or robber inside, defenses can funnel him and force Goff to go elsewhere. If the Ravens choose to do so, the Lions will likely utilize Williams and Swift in the passing game. Keeping plays in front of them, tackling in the open field and pressuring Goff are three ways this Baltimore defense can get their mojo back in Detroit before heading to play a competent Denver offense the following week.

After a subpar performance against Kansas City, the Ravens young linebackers, Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison could use a redemption game against a less complex offense. They missed tackles and got torn up in coverage underneath. Baltimore played conservatively on the back end and asked the duo to end plays underneath. They failed quite a bit. Queen and Harrison need to confidently shoot gaps against zone rushing concepts and chase down the Lions back duo in the open field in both aspects of the game. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Malik Harrison take snaps as an outside linebacker considering the Ravens could be without four of their outside linebackers due to injury and COVID. Chris Smith will likely also be a practice squad call up who has some interesting potential as a 5-tech and 3-tech in sub packages on third down. Baltimore could also elevate linebacker Josh Bynes from the practice squad if they’re not confident in Chris Board to play significant snaps. It will be interesting to see if that sequence occurs, as well as if Kristian Welch gets snaps defensively.

The Ravens are without some of their key players in their defensive front and will need to mix and match a game plan that neutralizes Detroit’s zone run scheme while preventing Hockenson from keeping them in the game.