The loss of Carl Davis to injury was offset by the play of Pierce, who made a significant contribution as an undrafted rookie. Furthermore, the Ravens were able to play the entire season with just 5 defensive linemen splitting the snaps, something I had thought virtually impossible.
First off, there seems to be some question about whether Pierce or Williams played the nose when both were on the field in 2016. That’s any easy one. Pierce played NT almost exclusively and Williams moved to DT (3-technique or “3-tech”) when both were on the field.
I went back and reviewed one snap Pierce and Williams played together from each game. On each of these 16 snaps, Pierce was over center and Williams was lined up over a guard in a 3-tech (more on this later). That’s a check to make sure the defensive alignments remained consistent for that personnel package throughout the season.
Here’s what it looked like in the Ravens basic heavy look:
In reviewing more of Pierce (perhaps 40-50 additional snaps), I did find a single instance where Williams was lined up as the NT and Pierce as a 3-tech (Miami, Q3, 13:16).
Williams did not score particularly well by PFF in 2016. I have a theory on that. PFF introduced by-tech pass rush standards in 2016 and Williams probably suffered from the higher pressure crossbar applied to his 3-tech snaps. Like Pierce in 2016, Williams had also benefited more in previous years from 1-on-1 penetration opportunities from opposing centers (often smaller than guards) on both pass and run snaps.
There’s one other piece of visual evidence which makes me believe my theory is near the mark. Linemen are normally spread out in units of 4 across the offensive formation. So the traditional 3-4 defense has a 5-tech (DE) and a 1-tech (NT) on one side and a 3-tech (DT) on the other. Williams had some snaps where he lined up directly over guard (2-technique) when Pierce was still in at NT. That positioning appears to have been an attempt to penetrate vs exploitable 1-on-1 guard matchups before help from the tackle or center could arrive.
To summarize the play of Williams and Pierce in 2016:
– Pierce played 359 snaps excluding pre-snap penalties, kneels, and spikes.
– Of those snaps, 288 (80.2%) were with Williams on the field as well.
– The Ravens allowed just 3.4 YPC (again excluding kneels) with Pierce on the field.
– Without Pierce on the field, the Ravens allowed 4.3 YPC.
– With Pierce on the field, the Ravens allowed 7.3 YPP and sacked the QB on just 1.9% of dropbacks (3/156).
– Without Pierce on the field, the Ravens allowed 5.8 YPP and sacked the QB on 6.2% of snaps.
From the above, I think it’s fair to conclude the Ravens present a stout run defense with their pair of behemoths on the field. In addition to their own playmaking, opposing offenses focused a number of double teams on Pierce and Williams, which led to fewer effective level-2 blocks on the Ravens ILBs.
However, conclusions about the pass defense are less clear.
Down and distance play a big factor in increasing sack rate, so it shouldn’t be a shock that Matt Judon led the team in sacks as a percentage of drop backs (8.3%). I believe it’s also true that having Williams in as the 3-tech on a high percentage of Pierce’s snaps contributed to Michael’s team-low sack percentage.
In 2017, I expect the Ravens will continue to use the tandem of Pierce and Williams as the 1-tech and 3-tech respectively. Williams should also get some snaps with Davis (could be a 1- or 3-tech) and Willie Henry (3-tech), so Brandon’s versatility will continue to be valuable.
With the departures of Jernigan (61% of snaps in 2016) and Guy (46%), it makes sense that Chris Wormley and Bronson Kaufusi will compete for passing-down snaps from the inside as will Brent Urban, who delivered effective pressure in limited playing time (72 pass snaps).
Effectively the Ravens have 7 players competing for just 5 active spots per game and Pees used just 2.16 defensive linemen per play in 2016.
Since injuries and ineffectiveness frequently thin depth, that crowded competition is a good problem to have.