There are plenty of things to be excited about as a Baltimore Ravens fan heading into the 2014 season.
Will the offensive line bounce back? Was Joe Flacco’s turnover-ridden 2013 season a fluke or a new trend? How will the secondary look with a new nickel corner and new starting free safety?
Above all, though, is one exciting thing to think about on the defensive side.
How will Dean Pees get all of his talented front-seven players on the field?
Over the past two offseasons, Baltimore’s front office has successfully made the team’s front seven one of the deepest in the NFL.
Free agent signees Daryl Smith, Chris Canty and Elvis Dumervil all had large roles in 2013, rookies Arthur Brown and Brandon Williams are expected to take on bigger roles this season, and this year’s draft provided three more capable contributors (C.J. Mosley, Timmy Jernigan, Brent Urban).
Baltimore’s four-deep inside linebacker corps of Smith, Mosley, Brown and Josh Bynes is one of the strongest positions on the entire roster, and the rest of the front seven certainly isn’t lacking in quality talent.
Outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Dumervil are complemented by Courtney Upshaw, second-year player John Simon and Pernell McPhee, who transitioned to a partial outside role last season, although his impact is most felt along the interior.
The loss of defensive end Arthur Jones may be tough to get over, but the front three depth that includes Haloti Ngata, Canty, Williams, Jernigan, Urban, DeAngelo Tyson and Kapron Lewis-Moore isn’t one to complain about.
All seven defensive linemen are capable players, and all may see the field in some type of role in 2014, with Ngata, Canty, Williams and Jernigan likely headlining the group.
Veteran Terrence Cody was also brought back on a one-year deal, but the odds are against him to make the roster at this point, so he’ll be left out of consideration for the time being.
The list of front seven players is almost too many to count, so back to the question asked earlier: how can we expect to see all of these players on the field?
Using some of Baltimore’s six and seven-man front variations from last season, let’s take a look at how those fronts could look with the new defensive personnel.
In nickel packages, Baltimore operated with a six-man front, which often requires the best pass-rushing personnel available.
With Baltimore’s current situation, here’s how that could look in 2014.
The depth allows the team to remove two players from this scenario: Upshaw and Bynes. Mosley, Smith and Brown are all superior pass rushers and coverage linebackers to Bynes who, like Upshaw, is best utilized as a run defender.
Simon hardly played last season, limited almost exclusively to special teams, but he may be forced into a bigger role as a backup rusher in his second year to spell Dumervil or Suggs in passing situations.
In a more run defending type of six-man front, possibilities include:
We’ll see how training camp plays out, but ideally, Mosley is the answer as the strong side linebacker, replacing Smith’s role from 2013. His skill set is much more valuable than what Smith provided, and the best utilization of Smith’s skill set would be for he and Brown to take most of the reps at weak side linebacker.
Consider Canty a defensive lineman option as well, although he may be better utilized if given more five-technique, defensive end plays in 3-4 situations.
Which brings us to more standard Baltimore fronts, such as the 3-4.
In the 3-4, Baltimore has much more flexibility to get almost every front seven player mentioned above on the field.
With a stacked left side of the line on Cleveland’s part, this would be Upshaw’s prime designation at outside linebacker.
The names at defensive end on each side are mainly interchangeable; on the left side of the defensive line is a three technique in Ngata and a five technique on the right in Arthur Jones (shown in 2013). Players such as Urban, Canty, McPhee, among others, could play either technique.
This setup puts a nose tackle at the one technique, lined up on the shoulder of the center, where Williams or Jernigan could play.
At inside linebacker, either Mosley or Bynes would be ideal when facing an extra-strong side of the defense.
The scenario above profiles the personnel when using a seven-man front in run-defending situations.
When the Ravens have seven box defenders against an offensive look that favors the pass, the possibilities are different.
Another possibility not shown above is a 4-3 front, something the Ravens have the personnel to run next season.
That allows Brown, Mosley and Smith all on the field at once, with Mosley likely the middle linebacker in that scenario.
The four-man front would likely include Dumervil and Suggs (two players who lined up like defensive linemen on several occasions last season) at defensive end and a two-man combination of Ngata, Williams and Jernigan.
Baltimore has more than enough of the right personnel to run this front, and in a perfect world – given the players the Ravens have on the front seven – a base 4-3 defense may actually be preferred.
Pees runs plenty of hybrid fronts, though, and with Baltimore’s current depth at linebacker and defensive line, expect a variety of fronts in 2014, allowing the team to capitalize on the immense depth along the defensive front.
Lack of depth may be a problem at other positions on the roster, but when it comes to the front seven, the Ravens have more than enough quality talent across the board, leaving plenty of intriguing combinations to think about as the season approaches.