A lot has been made about the Ravens’ very thin secondary, especially at the cornerback position. With veteran Lardarius Webb dealing with a somewhat mysterious back injury, and cornerback Asa Jackson out with a high ankle sprain, the team is running out of bodies to throw out there.
To offset the corner pocket hole, the team is playing around with different combinations in their sub packages to feature their safeties.
Instead of using a cornerback to play the traditional slot nickel corner role, the team has been giving rookie safety Terrence Brooks those reps. He’s been playing right over the slot receiver or lining up at linebacker. Safety Jeromy Miles has been getting snaps as a third safety in nickel packages as well. When he comes in, he floats between the intermediate area and the line of scrimmage as a blitzer. And when the team only has two safeties on the field, you’ll also see safety Darian Stewart shift over to cover a slot receiver if they are facing a three-receiver set, with Matt Elam playing the deep middle.
There have been more three-safety looks during this camp than we’ve ever seen from the Ravens and you can expect to see some in tonight’s preseason game against Dallas as well. The team is simply playing to the strength of their safety depth right now.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees touched on the idea of experimenting with Brooks and the other safeties earlier in the week.
“We’re just trying to find guys. We’re kind of moving guys around a little bit. We have two more games, really, to kind of experiment with where we want to put guys and see where they fit getting ready for the season.”
How Safeties Match Up Against Open Offensive Attacks
Playing with three safeties presents a few advantages. Given the increase in tight end use across the league, you need bigger, stronger DBs to challenge these pass catchers at the line and downfield. Corners have the feet to cover these players, but they don’t always have the size and strength to out-muscle them for the ball. Given how safeties are becoming hybrids between linebackers and corners these days, they offer an interesting edge to solve the tight end riddle.
And against teams like Chicago and Denver, it’s almost impossible to move your biggest and baddest cornerback (Jimmy Smith) over to defend a tight end because the receivers on the outside are just as difficult to match up against. That’s why Denver usually has the checkmate over most secondaries because they can’t match up against both Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas.
Safeties can also close the gap in run defense from the slot. More offenses are spreading the ball out and running the ball out of those formations. They are taking advantage of their open looks to line up against a softer nickel formation, only to play power football. But with a safety becoming a third linebacker to play the run, there can be better run support at the line.
Moving Safeties Around
Tactically, using a three-safety combination gives coordinators more options for setting up different combinations of coverages and blitzes. The looks become less predictable if the safeties are all interchangeable. The quarterback would have a tougher time pinpointing, which safety is dropping down to blitz or play the run, or which safety is likely to play deep. Safeties always dictate which coverage the defense is in before the snap, but in this setup, even someone as adept as Peyton Manning would be challenged to discern Cover 2, Cover 3, or Cover 1 if the safeties are shifting all over the place right before the snap.
Ultimately, the Ravens don’t play much dime (four corners) at all anyway. Their base package is the nickel. Realistically, three cornerbacks should still see the field in these formations, especially when Jackson returns. But it won’t be a given like it was when the Ravens played Corey Graham, Webb, and Smith almost exclusively as their three corners in nickel looks last season.
After all, would Jackson be your ideal defender against Denver’s Thomas or the Saints’ Jimmy Graham when they flex out?
The possibilities will be even more intriguing when Will Hill gets back into the mix after he serves his six-game suspension. At camp, Hill was also used quite a bit as a moving chess piece all over the field. He flashed the ability to blitz and play physical at the line. But he is also noted for having tremendous range and instincts as a centerfielder. The versatility he brings will only enhance the shape-shifting capabilities of the secondary.
It is quite conceivable that by midseason the team will be able to use Hill, Brooks, and Stewart as their slot cornerbacks in a round robin fashion. They all have the athleticism to handle one-on-one coverage, especially in short zone areas in which they get help over the top. Also, with the inside linebackers being so athletic (Mosley and Brown in particular), the safeties won’t be as exposed in the middle because the linebackers can help out with bracket or buzz coverage.
Start looking out for these mixed safety packages from the Ravens going forward.