A Game Worth Rewatching
The Ravens 4 biggest defensive stars played their finest ever game as a group Sunday. Let’s recount:
Suggs: He is an obvious choice for defensive player of the week, even with all the competition on his own team. It was one of the 2 finest performances of his career with the other coming 12/5/10 in the game at Baltimore versus the Steelers. He had a career-high 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 3 other QHs (4 total, including 1 not recorded in the Gamebook), pushed Scott into Roethlisberger on an incomplete pass (Q1, 11:56), drew a holding penalty on Willie Colon that negated Pittsburgh’s longest play of the day (55 yards, Q4, 4:57), beat Scott inside to provide the initial pressure on Reed’s 2nd interception (Q4, 11:08), and blew up Mendenhall’s run left by pushing Scott into the backfield for a loss of 4 that was cleaned up by Reed (Q2, 11:18). An accounting of his plays from the last Pittsburgh game at Baltimore can be found here.
Ngata: He played a big role in Suggs first forced fumble (Q1, 3:15) by taking a double from Legursky and Pouncey. While he engaged those 2, Suggs stunted through the gaping A-gap much too quickly for either Pouncey or Kemoeatu to react. As Suggs loosened both the football and BR’s fillings, Ngata split that double to recover the football. On the Steelers’ first offensive play of the 2nd half (Q3, 14:55), Legursky moved to level 2 rather than attempt to block Ngata. Haloti moved in untouched, dislodged the football from Mendenhall and made the recovery 6 yards in the Steelers’ backfield. On their next offensive play (Q3, 14:39) he drove Legursky backwards to the outside and registered a PD at the line of scrimmage (LoS) which floated softly into the arms of Ray Lewis for the interception.
Lewis: He took down Mendenhall for a loss of 1 on a play that was set up by Cody’s push (Q2, 13:31). He collected Ngata’s aforementioned deflection for an interception. Ray also pursued to punch the ball free from Moore 20+ yards downfield (Q4, 7:27). One of the images I’ll take from this game is Ray’s fist-pump reaction to the on-screen replay that showed the ball was out prior to Moore’s knee hitting the ground.
Reed: Ed feasted on the chaos created by the defensive line. Among his 6 tackles was his takedown of Mendenhall for a 4-yard loss set up by Suggs (Q2, 11:18). Reed three times positioned himself for interceptions and converted 2 of those. He didn’t have any costly coverage gaffes although he was not in position to contest Miller for the slow-developing 55-yard completion negated by Colon’s holding call (Q4, 4:57).
All 4 players finished among the top 40 in the NFL Network top 100 players of 2011, but never before had they all had a quadruple high (anyone remember biorhythms?) like this game. If you only want to save 1 video for a decade from now to help your children understand the impact these players had, make it this game.
On to the statistics, many of which are skewed by the nature of the game (more on that later). All of the Steelers 61 snaps were competitive (no kneels, spikes, special teams runs/passes, etc.):
Versus the Run: 16 plays, 61 yards, 4.1 YPC
Versus the Pass: 45 plays, 246 yards, 5.5 YPP
Overall: 61 plays, 312 yards, 5.1 YPPA
By number of defensive backs:
4 DBs: 12 plays, 66 yards, 5.5 YPPA, 1 TO
5 DBs: 45/257, 5.7 YPPA, 3 sacks, 5 TO
6 DBs: 4/-11, -2.8, 1 sack, 1 TO
By number of pass rushers:
3: 3 plays, 10 yards, 3.3 YPP
4: 27/141, 5.2 YPP, 2 sacks, 3 TO
5: 13/79, 6.1 YPP, 2 sacks, 3 TO
6: 1/7, 7.0 YPP
7: 1/9, 9.0 YPP
So much has changed about this defense from the last 2 seasons. Let’s start by taking a look at the substitution packages:
· The Ravens played much less dime (4 snaps) than I had expected given their secondary and the Steelers receiving corps. It may have been a function of the Ravens’ injury issues at corner or the Steelers personnel, but it appeared Sunday that Pagano prefers to play nickel with 2 linebackers (Lewis with either Ayanbadejo or Ellerbe) than insert Pollard as the dime.
· The Ravens were exposed at corner as the game progressed, but the depth chart is much clearer. Smith’s injury on the kickoff prior to the Steelers’ first possession leaves his slotting as the only one in question, but for now it looks like the order is Williams, Webb, Carr, Foxworth, Brown among the other 5. Carr was first off the bench, played some snaps on the outside, and left for Foxworth. Foxworth did not look healthy but played most of the 2nd half. When Williams left for a handful of snaps, Nakamura entered to cover the slot receiver.
· At safety there was a rarely-seen specialization. Reed and Zbikowski played every snap. Pollard played only in a 3-safety nickel (I can’t recall the Ravens doing that) on some running downs, but accumulated just 8 snaps for the game. Nakamura played some nickel as previously mentioned and also played 3 dime snaps.
· The Ravens in total played 4 different nickel alignments, with Reed/Zibby/Webb joined by Williams/Carr, Williams/Foxworth, Foxworth/Nakamura, and Williams/Pollard. The first 3 combinations were simply Pagano reacting to the loss of corners. The last was the aforementioned 3-safety nickel.
· Interestingly, the first dime package included 4 corners (Carr/Foxworth/Webb/Williams) with Reed/Zibby. That was Carr’s last play and the last 3 dimes included Nakamura for Carr.
· Webb was the standout corner Sunday and he did a little bit of everything. He had a PD while rushing off the slot that was nonetheless collected by Ward who had to wait longer than normal to collect it. That allowed Reed time to move up and separate Hines from the football (Q2, 1:16). Webb split a sack with Johnson (Q4, 11:37), the value of which (but not the credit) was negated by the unnecessary roughness flag on Redding. He evaded the block of the massive David Johnson to tackle Ward (Q1, 6:01), pushed Ward into Sanders to make a tackle (Q2, 12:11), took down Ward quickly for a gain of 7 when a 6-man rush failed to get home (Q3, 8:58), and dislodged the pass from Miller (Q4, 8:45) which nearly resulted in an INT for Ayanbadejo. His highlight was probably the PD on the long pass up the left sideline for Ward (Q4, 13:57). He made high-impact form tackles when moving up in space and was effective moving off his own assignment to help out. It was easily the best game of his career.
· The Ravens dressed 7 linebackers (excluding Suggs) and all saw action on defense with the exception of McClellan.
· Early in the game, the Ravens used their set of run linebackers (Lewis, Johnson, McClain).
· During the 2nd half, the Ravens shifted to much more use of Ayanbadejo, Ellerbe, and Kruger. McClain played just 2 snaps in the 2nd half and Johnson’s time was significantly reduced.
· Brendan Ayanbadejo had his 2nd best defensive game as a Raven, trailing only his week 3 DPOW vs. Cleveland in 2009. He had 2 QHs (Q3, 2:46, and Q4, 13:08) neither of which made the Gamebook. He also came close to an interception on Webb’s PD (see above).
· Johnson, who has been an every-down player for the last several years (98.9% of snaps in 2010) was well-rested in this game as he lined up for just 36 of 61 snaps. He beat Miller outside (Webb came untouched to the inside) on the split sack (Q4, 11:37). He and Zbikowski both missed tackles on Wallace’s 26-yard reception (-1 plus 27 YAC, Q4, 12:22).
· The Ravens played all of their active linemen (Cody, Jones, McPhee, Ngata, Redding, Suggs) at least 12 snaps.
· McKinney’s presence on the inactive list was a mild surprise. That turned out to be a good choice based on the Ravens performance and reliance on better pass defenders as the game became more lopsided.
· Pernell McPhee played his first 30 NFL snaps and looked good. He registered a PD at the LoS while being double teamed by Legursky and Pouncey (Q2, 10:35). He hustled downfield to recover the fumble forced by Ray Lewis (Q4, 7:27). Were this a typical week in midseason, I’d have a snap-by-snap review of McPhee’s auspicious debut, but he is just part of the story this week.
· After some depth-chart shell games this off season, Redding started over Arthur Jones. Jones was limited to 12 snaps with the bulk of that time coming in the 4th quarter.
· Cody, like McClain, had his action heavily front loaded. He played 11 first-half snaps, 16 for the game, and saw his last action midway through the 3rd quarter. The Steelers rushed for 4.1 YPC for the game, but had just 9 rushes for 13 yards (1.4 YPC) with Cody in. He did not register a tackle, but his highlight was his push on Legursky that blew up Mendenhall’s run for a loss of 1 (Q2, 13:31).
· Ngata was worked hard with no apparent ill effects. He played the game’s first 20 defensive snaps and 37 of the first 40. He was rested for 12 snaps in the 4th quarter to finish with 46 (75%).
· Call him a defensive lineman or call him a linebacker, let’s just make sure we call Terrell Suggs a Raven. I include Suggs with the defensive linemen, because I think he has more in common with them. He had played the entire game until he took off consecutive snaps with less than a minute to play. The excitement was too much, however, and he reentered for the last 2 plays including the game-ending sack of Roethlisberger.
· If I had to pick one thing that was most different about Pagano’s scheme, I’d say it was the pace of substitution. He made adjustments at defensive line and linebacker on a high percentage of plays. Only 14 times did the Ravens have the same players on the field on consecutive defensive snaps. That includes repetitions from drive-to-drive. To put that in perspective, the Steelers made it to 3rd down just 9 times in 61 snaps which is where the most frequent defensive substitutions occur. In the NFL, there often is not a personnel change between 1st and 10 and 2nd and 10. Furthermore, the no-huddle precludes some substitution and the time or situation of a game will dictate a specific pass defense (often the dime) be on the field for a number of consecutive plays.
· Don’t get me wrong, I think there is good reason to believe this will maximize the value of players like Ngata, Johnson, Redding, Ayanbadejo, Cody, Kruger, Jones, McPhee, or Pollard who by virtue of age, body type, or frequent pass-rush assignments can probably benefit from rest. Some of the well-seasoned Baltimore sports fans will recall Earl Weaver made a name for himself in 1970 by not repeating his lineup for 40+ games and that turned out just fine.
· The Steelers ran 9 plays on 3rd down for a total of 11 yards.
· The Ravens pass rush featured more deception, particularly in the way of pre-snap movement, than under Mattison. I count the Ravens with 9 deceptive blitzes among 45 plays that resulted in a pass or sack. On those plays, the Ravens had 35 total drops to zone from within 1 yard of the LoS at the snap. That’s the sort of dialed-up pressure you might see against a rookie QB or one who is clearly shaken. Matt Cassel got similar treatment in the Wild Card victory against KC last season.
· I’ve heard it said since the game that the Ravens “didn’t play prevent”, which isn’t completely accurate. They played very soft on the corners for most of the 2nd half after Foxworth’s entry. He specifically had very few plays where he was lined up closer than 8 yards from his receiver. The Steelers rolled up 205 yards on 33 plays (6.2 YPP) on their last 6 drives despite a drive chart that had corresponding entries of “Interception, Punt, Interception, Fumble, Fumble, Downs” in the last column.
· Roethlisberger threw his last 2 passes well out of bounds in the end zone. I can just hear John Gruden providing color…”I know interceptions are important, but the ball has to land in the field of play.”
· I read a quote from the Dalai Lama recently to the effect that man surprises him with the inability to enjoy the present because he is always dwelling in the past or planning for the future. How long are we allowed to enjoy this game? How many times may we re-watch it? Can we talk about Tennessee yet? Frankly, for an NFL fan, what else is there to talk about on a Wednesday besides the past or future?