In 2021, the Baltimore Ravens’ pass defense finished No. 30 in DVOA for the first time since their inaugural season in 1996. They allowed a 128.4 passer rating on 10+ air yards passes in the middle third (No. 32). The Ravens allowed a franchise-worst 10 touchdown passes of 40 or more yards. Divisional rival Cincinnati Bengals’ quarterback Joe Burrow torched the Ravens to the tune of 907 yards in two games, as the Bengals swept the season series.
In summary, the Ravens’ pass defense stunk. All-pro cornerback Marcus Peters missed the season after tearing his ACL the week of the regular season opener. Blown assignments and disappointing efforts plagued a Ravens’ defense that struggled to find a single key stop down the stretch. This was a key factor in a six-game losing streak that cost the Ravens the playoffs, their dignity and lead into an offseason full of question marks.
Fast forward to today. Former defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale is out, former Ravens’ assistant coach and Michigan Wolverines’ defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald is in. On Tuesday, around 12:45 p.m. EST, they took drastic measures to ensure a season like 2021 doesn’t happen again for the foreseeable future in terms of defending the pass.
Safety Marcus Williams is agreeing to terms with the Baltimore Ravens on a five-year deal worth $70 million, per source. Big market-shifting deal in AFC North.— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) March 15, 2022
Baltimore dished out $37 million guaranteed over five years to former Saints’ free safety Marcus Williams to patrol the airways between the numbers and make quarterbacks respect what lurks downfield. Williams, one of the most avoided men in football, has made a name for himself by making plays on the football downfield — on the rare occasions that the ball is thrown within his grasp.
The Ravens are signing safety Marcus Williams to a five-year deal (via @TomPelissero).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) March 15, 2022
Williams has been targeted on just 5.1% of his coverage snaps since entering the league in 2017, the 3rd-lowest rate in the NFL (min. 1,500 coverage snaps). pic.twitter.com/mSxjvXTRbw
When Marcus Williams has been targeted since 2017, he has been dangerous to opposing offenses, making a play on the football (PD or INT) on a league-high 27.6% of his targets. pic.twitter.com/MV3uzKTG9K— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) March 15, 2022
When watching Williams patrol the Saints’ deep middle or deep halves, there’s a beautiful marriage of patience and decisiveness. In the post, there’s an overwhelming calmness to his game. He belongs downfield. Williams lives there and likes it. It’s familiar. There’s no panic. There’s no missteps or confusion, just calmness as he scans through route combinations to follow the quarterback’s eyes. When running the alley in the run game, there’s the same combination of repose and decision. Williams feels the concept, then attacks it with no wasted motion or indecision, while also rarely out of control.
At 6-foot-1 and a little over 200 pounds, with nearly 33-inch arms that comprise a 78-inch wingspan, he has enough size and length to erase throwing windows. Pair that with a 43-inch vertical jump (99th percentile at the NFL combine all-time) and you see a calm, cool, collected free safety who erases throws within his orbit.
Smooth transition on a quick, deep throw to open up and run 30 yards downfield to pick the ball off.— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) March 16, 2022
This one got called back, but you just see the combination of quick decision making and the clean path he takes to the ball. pic.twitter.com/6WU4LmJcLz
There’s a clean rhythm to the way Williams drives on the football. He times his arrival to the catch point and use of “long arm” undercuts consistently well. The same approach is evident in his run fits. Although he’s not what many would categorize as a “hitter”, the former Utah Ute is a balanced and effective tackler who rarely misses in the open field. In true single-high alignments, he’s patient enough to force backs to “make their move” while he keeps his hips open until they reveal their path, then end the play. When the 25-year-old sees the hole develop, he fills it, arrives balanced with momentum and wraps up.
Bringing in a proven safety that plays with clarity and comfort deep will allow the team’s physical bump-and-run corners, Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, to deploy more similar strategies to what we saw in 2019 when Earl Thomas played in the post.
Cornerbacks will be able to dictate leverage and funnel towards Williams on one side, while underneath defenders drop to eliminate throwing windows. Reliable veteran safety Chuck Clark will be able to do what he does best. That is, align in the slot/box while communicating with the front-seven to eliminate blown assignments and switches when deciphering trips. While he does this, Williams lurks overtop menacingly waiting to erase deep threats.
This marks the second time in four years that the Ravens have allocated significant resources to finding a premier post player. The two biggest outside contracts that Ravens’ General Manager Eric DeCosta has splurged on (Earl Thomas and Marcus Williams) have totaled $69 million in guaranteed money. Combining those with the contract extensions of Humphrey ($39 million guaranteed), Peters ($21 million guaranteed) and Clark ($10 million) totals $139 million in guaranteed money to their secondary. The Ravens haven’t deviated from their philosophy to build their defense from the back forward since DeCosta took the reigns as general manager in 2019. The funny part? They still need additions to their cornerback room.
While the allocation to the secondary sounds extreme, Williams’ deal — considering his age, durability and consistent level of play — is quite reasonable for Baltimore. Despite hitting the open market at 25-years-old and possessing rare deep range and ball skills, he only became the seventh highest-paid safety in terms of average annual value. His deal mirrors Tennessee Titans’ safety Kevin Byard, who signed a five-year, $70 million extension in 2019. While Byard has less guaranteed money, the cap has increased since 2019 and will potentially continue to rise exponentially over the next two years.
All in all, Baltimore brings in a smart, confident, decisive free safety that will bring a presence back to the post that the franchise has only seen three times previously with Thomas, Ed Reed and Rod Woodson. While comparing Williams to that group can be a bit lofty, he possesses the sought after skillset to be a premier post defender in the NFL. He unlocks the ability to confidently play coverages with the middle of the field open or closed, and will encourage Macdonald to use his press-savvy cornerbacks to the best of their ability.
Baltimore hit a home-run on Tuesday by bringing in a young, durable and consistent player to a reasonable contract. Let’s see where they mold their defense from here.