The signing of Tony Jefferson has many Ravens fans a little puzzled. Of all the needs the Ravens have, many think that an elite, run-stopping, in-the-box strong safety is the last thing we needed to add.
In addition, some are questioning the scheme fit. How is Jefferson going to fit into a Dean Pees scheme?
At first glance this signing is puzzling indeed, however let’s take a closer look at just how good of a fit Jefferson can be for the Ravens and Pees.
History of the Safety Scheme under Pees
When looking at the way Lardarius Webb and Eric Weddle were used last year, some would say that they were pretty interchangeable. There was not a distinct SS or FS on the team. This is true, and we saw both of them move all over the defensive backfield. Most are quick to forget though, the team’s safety scheme prior to the draft whiff of Matt Elam.
Rewind to 2011 and 2012 – Ed Reed was hawking centerfield for the Ravens defense. This is a sight that the purple and black faithful had seen for a decade. However, let’s look at who was beside him – the infamous Bernard Pollard.
Pollard’s style was the definition of an in-the-box safety. Jefferson’s style is similar, except for one very important fact: Jefferson is better in every facet of the game, including in coverage.
The safety scheme changed after the departure of Reed and Pollard following the 2012 Super Bowl win. Elam was brought in with James Ihedigbo to mirror that scheme. However, Elam was not a centerfield safety in college, nor was that his skillset. That draft whiff cost the Ravens three years of safety play, despite Ihedigbo playing the SS role exceptionally well.
Pees responded by using safeties interchangeably to make up for the shortcomings of the defensive backs. Given that there was no centerfield safety that could do what Reed did (or even come close – big shoes to fill) Pees essentially used two deep safeties instead of 1.
The issue with that? The team didn’t have guys who fit that role until last year when they converted Webb to a safety and Weddle, aka the savior, arrived.
Present Day Safety Scheme
What Weddle brings is his ability to do whatever you need him to do at the safety position. He is that good. He showed it in the 2016 season lining up close to the line or deep in coverage.
The big question now is regarding what Pees will do with Jefferson & Weddle.
He has an intelligent FS who can play centerfield in Weddle, a la Reed, and a hard-nosed, sure-tackling SS who can also cover RB and TE, a la Pollard (but better).
Do not overthink it. The scheme is going to look more like 2012 and less like the last few years simply because of the competency of the safeties.
The majority seem to not be thrilled with this move, but I think it addresses more issues than some are giving Oz credit for.
The Void Left by Zach Orr
Jefferson offers a lot in the run game. He had 96 tackles last year in the Arizona Cardinals defense and was rated the 2nd best safety against the run according to PFF, and his impressive run-stop percentage was best among safeties.
Replacing Orr, the team’s leading tackler, is going to be tough. That ILB spot beside C.J. Mosely is void. However, adding a safety who is going to be able to play in that box and is this good against the run will ease the pain.
Quick side note – PFF rated Jefferson #2. Who was #1? Eric Weddle. Take PFF with a grain of salt, but it is quite exciting to see that kind of review given how Tyrann Mathieu served in a similar capacity in Arizona to that we’ll see from Weddle in Baltimore, in the deep middle.
Putting Weddle in his Best Role
As stated earlier, Weddle can do pretty much anything you need him to do. However, he is at his best deep in coverage, quarterbacking the defensive backs. Again, not to tout the PFF horn given some of their flawed methodology, but Jefferson was rated the best safety in the league last year with a lot of credit going to his pass coverage.
Of course, he’s not going to be Ed Reed, but he can be darn close in the right system. Jefferson allows Weddle to do what he does best, while not sacrificing much, if anything, in the run game.
Adding some Swagger
File this one under “intangibles,” but it is something the Ravens defense has been lacking. The days of having that smash-mouth team that opposing teams did not look forward to playing have disappeared.
Additions of guys that play the way Jefferson does truly embody the old school “Play like a Raven” mentality. Some would argue that those days are in the NFL of the past. I would encourage those folks to check out the way the Cardinals defense played over the last few seasons.
Jefferson is a great fit beside Weddle and the two together could form one heck of a safety tandem.
It does force some considerations about salary cap allocation as the Ravens have now paid for safeties in the past two offseasons. However, this is the price of missing on heavy draft investments following the departure of Reed. Ozzie whiffed on Elam and Terrence Brooks and that has consequences.
All in all, this is going to be one of those signings we look back at in December and point to approvingly.