Cornerback was the weakest position in preseason. Domonique Foxworth was still recovering from the ACL tear which shelved him for 2010. Cary Williams was the team’s best corner, but did not use his physicality as much as might be hoped. Lardarius Webb was criticized by message board pundits for his lack of technique. Chris Carr was also struggling with injuries.
Meanwhile at safety, injury questions continued to surround Ed Reed and the newly acquired Bernard Pollard could not win the starting strong safety spot from Tom Zbikowski.
From there, the news got worse. Foxworth did not play again after a poor outing in week 2 at Tennessee. Chris Carr battled injuries and played just 16% of the snaps after 98% in 2010. Zbikowski lost his starting job and Nakamura failed to earn a bigger defensive role. Newly acquired Bernard Pollard played just 17 snaps the first 2 games in a 3-safety nickel package. Jimmy Smith was injured on the Ravens first kickoff of the season and did not play a defensive snap until week 8. With Smith gone, Williams did not play particularly well.
From that point, the Ravens had a series of positive events like none I have ever witnessed.
In decreasing order of importance:
· Webb went on to become one of the best corners in the game
· Pollard took over at strong safety and turned in a fine year, providing both some coverage and good tackling on the back end
· Jimmy Smith returned to play well on the outside in the nickel
· Cary Williams did not allow a TD pass to his assignment in the Ravens last 10 games and finished the season with 18 PDs
· Chuck Pagano employed the nickel for the vast majority of passing snaps (only 22 dime and 3 quarter snaps all season!) which put much less pressure on the margin at corner/safety
· The Ravens had an improved situational pass rush which helped out the secondary (each benefited from the other)
· Danny Gorrer provided outstanding relief as needed, eventually passing Chris Carr on the depth chart
I’m comfortable with the placement of the first and last, but it was very difficult to order the other 5 improvements. Each was significant.
Each player has 3 grades:
· The 2011 Play grade is a representation of how well he played vs. his positional peers last season. It is not a representation of value relative to salary.
· The 2011 Value grade is a representation of the player’s contribution relative to 2011 salary. Great players, at mid career (after signing their first FA contract), will almost never be graded an A in this category since they are typically paid the market price for their services. It’s not a slap in the face to be graded a C here, but the best front offices will have many more As and Bs than Ds and Fs because they consistently uncover value in the draft and sign bargain free agents. A player who does not miss time due to injury, but otherwise performs exactly as might be expected by his contract would be graded a B-. In the case of linebackers and secondary, this grade includes consideration for their special teams contributions.
· The 2011 Developmental grade is an indication of how much the player improved relative to expectation. The primary reason to expect growth (or decline) is age, but injuries (particularly changes to prospective durability), leadership, position changes, etc. were all lumped in this category. Even a 35-year-old gets a developmental grade.
Snap totals and percentages include only non-penalty snaps which were played competitively (excludes kneels and spikes) for both regular and postseason games. The 2011 Ravens had 1119 such defensive snaps as a unit in 18 games.
Individual Player Comments
2011 Role: Nickel CB (173 snaps, 16%). Carr was injured for much of the season and was inactive for 9 of 18 games. After playing 51 snaps total in the last 2 regular season games, he was inactive for both playoff games, losing his spot on the active roster to Danny Gorrer.
What was there to like about his season? It was a lost season for Chris.
When did he play best? He played well versus Arizona when he recorded his only sack.
When did he play poorly? He didn’t play enough to play particularly poorly in any game. If pressed, I’d say the Seattle game, when he allowed 5 receptions on 6 throws to his assignment was his worst.
What was his signature play of 2011? The aforementioned sack versus Arizona (Q3, 9:00) snuffed out a drive during the Ravens’ comeback.
What does he need to do better? He needs to stay on the field. Good luck, Chris.
Grades: Play D, Value D-, Developmental D. He’ll be 29 when the season begins and his career is at the crossroads. Many teams get thin at corner as the season wears on. Given his age and accomplishments for the past few years, I have to believe there will be another chance for him somewhere if as nothing more than an injury replacement.
2011 Role: Outside corner in the nickel (59 snaps, 5%). Foxworth complained that things weren’t right in training camp then went on IR early in the season. He last played in week 2 vs. Tennessee.
What was there to like about his season? I can’t answer the question with a straight face.
When did he play best? (This space intentionally left blank)
When did he play poorly? He was awful vs. Tennessee in week 2. The Titans averaged 9.6 yards per pass play with him on the field.
What was his signature play of 2011? He was beaten for a TD by Kenny Britt in week 2. It looked as if Foxworth wanted to play Britt soft, but Hasselbeck had the ball out quickly and Britt was isolated with a huge size advantage.
What does he need to do better? I doubt if this question is pertinent to any NFL team at this moment.
Grades: Play F, Value F, Developmental F.
2011 Role: Backup outside corner who saw significant action in 4 games (93 snaps, 8%).
What was there to like about his season? He made the most of limited opportunities as opposing QBs completed just 5 of 13 passes thrown to his coverage assignments for 44 yards (48.2 QBR). He had 4 PDs on those 13 passes.
When did he play best? He played a significant role in the game against the Jets. Sanchez threw 22 passes with Gorrer on the field, but only 3 times with 0 completions/1 PD to Danny’s assignment.
When did he play poorly? He didn’t look good in garbage time versus the Colts. He entered for the last drive, played soft and tentative, and Orlovsky picked on him for 3 receptions. He also missed a tackle on Reggie Wayne.
What was his signature play of 2011? His forceout of Jones for an incomplete versus the Texans (Q4, 3:36) ended Houston’s last threat in the week 5 game.
What does he need to do better? Ball skills may be an issue. He dropped an easy pick-6 in the final preseason game and did not record an interception despite 4 PDs in the regular season.
Grades: Play B+, Value B, Developmental B. Gorrer should see more action in 2012 and beyond. He was undrafted in 2009, but has since played…errr practiced…with the Saints, Rams, Saints, and Colts prior to last season. The Ravens retain rights to him for 2012 as an ERFA. I would assume he will be an RFA in 2013, but I am honestly not sure.
2011 Role: 3rd safety in goal line situations (38 snaps, 3%). He also filled in effectively as the nickel in week 1. His playing time decreased from 25% of snaps in 2010.
What was there to like about his season? He remains a core special teams performer.
When did he play best? He was active for 17 of 18 games, but lost his position to scheme with Pagano’s infrequent use of the dime. There really isn’t anything to select.
When did he play poorly? Nothing stands out. His assignments were targeted just 3 times and Haruki had 2 PDs.
What was his signature play of 2011? He went up in a crowd to knock down Schaub’s Hail Mary for Dreessen at the end of the first half of the week 6 game against Houston. That’s not the sort of highlight Haruki would want for a whole season, but Dreessen appeared to have a bead on the ball.
What does he need to do better? He needs to find a defense where he can have a larger role and may have done that in Carolina.
Grades: Play B, Value B-, Developmental B.
2011 Role: Starting SS (963 snaps, 86%). Pollard won the job in the 4th quarter of the week 3 game at St. Louis. He did not miss a single snap in the team’s last 15 games.
What was there to like about his season? Pollard provided a physical presence on the back end that was a complement to Reed’s ball hawking. His play is consistently enigmatic, despite real value. While we think of him as a fine tackler, Pollard actually missed 10 tackles (1 less than Reed) while making 66. However, Pollard had 26 tackles which would be designated as stops by the PFF (I believe they use the method developed by Football Outsiders) definition,so he makes tackles closer to the line of scrimmage.
When did he play best? He had an outstanding game against Cincinnati in week 11. In addition to 9 tackles, he had a sack and a PD, each of which ended drives.
When did he play poorly? He was one of many that contributed to the loss at Seattle. He was in “coverage” on Jackson’s 50-yard completion.
What was his signature play of 2011? His tip to Jimmy Smith in the AFCC (Q4, 7:22) kept the Ravens in the game.
What does he need to do better? He needs improved man coverage technique and he’s part of the ball-skills issue in the Ravens secondary. He had 9 PDs, but just 1 INT.
Grades: Play B, Value B+, Developmental A-. He was selected as 3rd alternate to the Pro Bowl and deservedly so.
2011 Role: Starting Free Safety (1114 snaps, 100%. OK, 99.6%.).
What was there to like about his season? He still rules the deep middle of the field with fear. The photo of Tom Brady’s wristband from the AFCC said it all: “Knees flexed. Down, down. No turnovers. Find 20 on every play.” That is the single greatest compliment I can ever recall evidenced (as opposed to spoken) for another team’s player.
When did he play best? He was outstanding in the divisional game versus Houston. He had 4 PDs and was in position to make 3 interceptions.
When did he play poorly? Ed had a difficult game versus the Jaguars in week 8 with 3 missed tackles.
What was his signature play of 2011? The strip sack of Sanchez or the game-sealing interception versus the Texans would both be good choices, but I’m going with another. In the AFCC, the Patriots lined up 3rd and 4 at the 39 on a play that would have sealed the game for New England. Reed had man coverage on Hernandez and registered a diving PD to give the Ravens one last possession. As he got up, Ed picked up the ball and jogged off the field. He didn’t release it until he was almost there and it wasn’t clear whether he flipped the ball to an official or someone on the Ravens’ sideline. When we fear anything, we can make up reasons to make that fear larger, but it looked to me as if Reed wanted to save that ball. He’s coming back now, so we don’t have to worry.
What does he need to do better? He was in position to make more interceptions in 2011, but failed to close the deal at a rate higher than ever before. That was a general problem for the team which had just 1 INT for every 7.5 PDs in the regular season (league average was 1 per 4.8) and he was part of the problem. It seems insulting to ask the greatest ball hawk of all time to work on his ball skills, but that is actually something he can improve at his age.
Grades: Play B, Value C+, Developmental C+. He’s still one of the best safeties and played his best when it meant the most in 2011 (the opener vs. Pittsburgh and both playoff games).
2011 Role: LCB in the nickel (321 snaps, 29%). He played only 6 defensive snaps prior to week 11 versus Cincinnati. Beginning with that game he played a significant role in the nickel.
What was there to like about his season? He’s big, fast, and has good hands. All of that was on display in a rookie season in which he held opposing QBs to a completion percentage of 49% and a QB rating of 62.9 throwing to his assignments.
When did he play best? He was outstanding in the week 16 game versus the Browns. He made 6 tackles and had a diving PD in coverage of Cribbs (Q2, 2:10).
When did he play poorly? He didn’t play well in the game at San Diego. He started, played 50 snaps, was beaten for a TD by Malcolm Floyd, and the Chargers averaged 11.7 yards per pass play with him in.
What was his signature play of 2011? Diving end zone INT off Bernard Pollard’s tip in the AFCC. For a loss, that game contained many terrific individual plays by the Ravens.
What does he need to do better? He’s a rookie who wasn’t penalized, displayed good ball skills and stood tall against the run. He was beaten deep for 3 TDs, so perhaps I would say he could learn to read fakes better.
Grades: Play B, Value B, Developmental B. Smith has proved he can play corner in the NFL. That’s a great start, even for a 1st-round pick. By the time both are done, I would hope he and Webb will be the best cornerback duo in Ravens history.
2011 Role: Starting LCB who moves to cover the slot in the nickel (1047 snaps, 94%).
What was there to like about his season? Just about everything. He led the NFL in interceptions (8, including post season) and interceptions per game, did not allow a single TD pass to his coverage assignment, and opposing QBs had an NFL low 42.0 QB rating throwing to his assignment (source: PFF). All of those numbers were better than Revis.
When did he play best? He had 2 interceptions in the divisional game versus Houston and did his part to keep Andre Johnson in check.
When did he play poorly? He didn’t have any particularly bad outings, but in the game against San Diego he played just 13 snaps on which the Chargers averaged 15.1 YPPA.
What was his signature play of 2011? His diving INT in week 11 vs. the Bengals was reminiscent of Ed Reed. Playing a little soft, he out dove Caldwell to the outside to collect the football. Recalling the 2009 draft, Mel Kiper had difficulty containing his excitement for the Ravens selection of Webb in the 3rd round. His immediate comment was “think Ed Reed…” After 2 years interrupted by the 2009 special teams injury against the Bears, Webb is fulfilling that promise.
What does he need to do better? Other than get off the field for special teams, I don’t think there is anything Lardarius needs to do better. The Ravens defensive coaching staff will probably be tempted to make Webb learn better technique to complement his make-up speed and make-up athleticism. In so doing, it is to be hoped that they do not put him in shackles that reduce his effectiveness. Rod Carew had an unorthodox stance and the Twins were smart not to mess with it.
Grades: Play A, Value A+, Developmental A. After Suggs, he was the Ravens 2nd most valuable defensive player in 2011. He’ll get a big contract either this season or next and I’m sure the Ravens won’t let him get away. With luck, he’ll follow in the footsteps of the team’s other defensive greats and play the bulk, if not all, of his career in purple.
2011 Role: Starting RCB (1039 total snaps, 93%). Williams missed some snaps versus the Browns in the 12/24 game in Baltimore, but otherwise played virtually every snap where the Ravens had 2 cornerbacks on the field.
What was there to like about his season? He improved as the season progressed and played very well for the last 10 games. During that span, he was penalized just once, had just 1 missed tackle, had 12 PDs, and allowed 0 TDs to his assignments.
When did he play best? Tom Brady did really test him in the AFCC. That’s not quite true. Brady threw a jump ball for Edelman after Suggs jumped offside (Q3, 0:19). Williams collected the INT, which would have been the first of his career without the flag.
When did he play poorly? He played poorly in the loss to Tennessee. In that game, he surrendered 6 catches to his assignments for 76 yards.
What was his signature play of 2011? His surrendered his last TD in week 9 at Pittsburgh. On the play, he had coverage of Wallace and Roethlisberger had more than 6 seconds to roam the pocket before lofting a duck for Brown that was picked off by the crossing Wallace. Despite the speed of Wallace and time the play took to develop, Williams was right there and nearly made a play on the football.
What does he need to do better? The lack of ability to secure the football separates Cary from the top tier of NFL corners. He is physical and got his hands on the football 18 times in 2011, but he didn’t have a single interception.
Grades: Play B, Value A-, Developmental B. He played well in his first season as a full-time starter. Cary was an outstanding pickup for the Ravens. How is it that the Bengals’ scrap heapers seem to all have further legal problems while on the team, but the Ravens develop some solid system players? In 2012, he will be a 5th-year player with a broad range of potential salary outcomes with his first real crack at free agency beginning 2013. Are the Ravens likely to lose him? Probably, but this is the season to own stock in Cary Williams.
2011 Role: SS for the first 3 weeks who lost his starting job to Bernard Pollard (214 total snaps, 19.1%). Zibby played just 31 defensive snaps after week 3.
When did he play best? Zibby must try to forget 2011. He didn’t play well defensively in any game.
When did he play poorly? He missed a tackle in each of the season’s first 2 games and was invisible in coverage.
What was his signature play of 2011? The Thanksgiving sack of Alex Smith (Q, T) came on a play where he was set to contain and was the first of 9 that night for the Ravens.
What does he need to do better? He may need to decide what he wants to do when he grows up. I don’t think a boxing career is a viable moonlighting gig for an NFL player with the concussion risk and NFL rules.
Grades: Play D, Value C-, Developmental D. Zbikowski just completed the last year of his rookie contract and continues to make a contribution on special teams. I think it is unlikely he will be an opening-day starter again in the NFL.