The Baltimore Ravens have made many head-scratching decisions during their 3-5 start to the 2013 season. For a team that won the Super Bowl just eight short months ago, it appears that the coaching staff that made all the right decisions to start the 2013 calendar year is making all the wrong ones at the end of it.
Headlining the surprising moves is the commitment to Juan Castillo as the leader of Baltimore’s zone blocking scheme, which seems to have many fans screaming for a switch back to solely a man-blocking scheme.
On the defensive side, perhaps the biggest question mark has been the reinsertion of veteran inside linebacker Jameel McClain to the starting lineup.
After missing the first six games of the season while recovering from a neck/spine injury suffered last December, McClain was immediately penciled in as a starter the first week he came back. He has started the past two games, taking valuable snaps away from Arthur Brown and Josh Bynes.
One question: Why? McClain has been a favorite of the Ravens coaching staff throughout his time in Baltimore, despite his suspect on-field play.
The Ravens didn’t draft Brown just to let him have a minimal role – at least they shouldn’t have. And while Bynes is the team’s most valuable run-stopping inside linebacker, he was only on the field for nine snaps on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns (he missed the previous game due to a finger injury).
In comparison, McClain played 47 snaps, and Brown only 14.
McClain’s struggles – particularly in run defense but also in coverage – were evident last season pre-injury. So far through two games this year, nothing has changed.
Brown and Bynes deserve to be on the field over McClain, both because they are not only better than McClain, but also since they should be more in the team’s future plans than McClain.
Let’s take a look at why McClain is the third-best of the bunch.
As noted, McClain’s struggles on the field stem from run defense issues, particularly regarding decisiveness and ability to shed blocks.
Against the Steelers, McClain is lined up on the side of the line where the run play is designed to go.
Two running lanes develop, with the lane to the outside of the tackle being the more desirable one at this point. With two run lanes developing, McClain can do two things – choose a lane and commit or stay between the two and pounce at the perfect time.
McClain does neither, and he ends up getting sealed by the tackle, allowing Bell to cut back inside for a large gain.
A linebacker who stays patient in the run game and waits between two lanes isn’t a problem for a defense. That is something Brown has shown the ability to do well, while also being able to time to play perfectly and identify the run lane.
If McClain is just going to get sealed off anyway, he might as well commit to one run lane, giving him at least some chance of making an impact on the play.
McClain’s poor athletic ability also comes into play on these occasions, as he doesn’t have the aggressive athleticism needed to attack a lane and make an inherent impact in the run game.
No explosiveness in run defense leads to little impact.
Bynes, on the other hand, can commit to a play and go full speed, making an impact.
On this play, Bynes is lined up as an outside linebacker on the left side of the defense.
He immediately diagnoses the run play to the left side, and there isn’t a second of hesitation on Bynes’ part, as he commits to the running back as the handoff unfolds.
Bynes displays impressive closing speed, making his way across the backfield and to the running back just as the back gets to the line of scrimmage, preventing any gain.
Is McClain capable of making a play likes this?
Let’s take a look at another poor run play on McClain’s part.
McClain is again lined up on the weak side of the defense.
On this play, only one running lane seemingly develops for Bell, and at the point of development, McClain needs to read, react and close in before getting sealed off.
Instead, the right guard is able to easily gain a firm block of McClain, sealing him to the left, and opening up two running lanes for Bell.
Had McClain attacked the initial hole as a committed, fast defender, the play would have been stopped for no gain.
Instead, McClain’s combination of indecisiveness and lack of speed doomed him, making him a non-factor.
As for Brown, his ability to remain patient and react in run defense is profiled here.
But let’s take a look at what else Brown brings to the table.
Against the Browns on Sunday, Brown starts lined up as a stand-up linebacker along the defensive front.
After a quick pass rush, Brown retreats and identifies the crossing route being run by wide receiver Davone Bess.
Brown backpedals in enough time to get in front of Bess and seal any route besides one toward the sideline.
Just as this happens, quarterback Jason Campbell takes off downfield, and Brown makes the correct decision, committing to Campbell.
Brown eventually trips up Campbell for what would have been a third-down stop, were Haloti Ngata not flagged for a ridiculous personal foul.
If this play doesn’t scream “get this man on the field more,” of Brown, I’m not sure what does.
The three-part play on Brown’s part is a prime example of his innate feel for the game and quick closing speed, as he is faster than McClain or Bynes.
Ideally Bynes and Brown should be splitting weak side linebacker duties, allowing Bynes to play the run and Brown the pass.
But instead, the coaching staff seems to be committed to McClain as a fulltime player, and it’s hard to understand why.