Breaking down the Ravens’ “hybrid” defense

Suggs sacks Schaub

“The Ravens hybrid defense”

You see that everywhere, don’t you? In almost every article, blog post or comment concerning the Ravens defense, the author normally acknowledges how “multiple” it is.  It’s almost a cliché at this point.

But, what does that even mean?

The typical narrative of the Ravens defense usually goes something like this: They play some snaps in a 4-3, others in a 3-4 and its always really confusing.


Yet, the film breakdown tells another, much more interesting, story.

Here, we have an end zone view of the Ravens defense in the Chargers game of the 2012 season.  If you’re thinking “wow, that looks a little bit like a 4-3 defensive alignment”, you’d be correct.

Here, we have another end zone view of the Ravens defense in that same Chargers game.  And yes, that looks exactly like a 3-4 alignment.

Here’s the kicker:

Both of those screen shots are from the same exact play.  This play.

Not as black and white as you once thought, right? And, I’m not even done yet.

Like many defenses in the NFL, the Ravens are incorporating both 3-4 and 4-3 principles into their defensive base front.  This is commonly called an “under” front.

Now, some would look at the full picture of the under front and notice how the defense is actually stacked up on the weak side rather than the strong side.  The reasoning behind this strategy is actually because of the assumed coverage of the secondary.

Usually, teams that use an under front as their base defense also run a lot of three-deep coverage on the back end.  This allows the strong safety to enter the box (normally on the strong side) while the free safety has a deep third responsibility.

Essentially, this adds an extra linebacker in the box, filling a gap and making it more difficult for the offense to run the ball.

So, why do all of this?  Why not just accumulate the talent necessary to run a classic 3-4 or 4-3?  The answer is actually very simple.

February through April, the phrase “best player available” is thrown around quite a bit in regard to the Raven’s draft strategy.  Well, this “hybrid” scheme allows the Ravens to draft or sign any available defensive player regardless of his perceived scheme fit.  In short, every player fits in some capacity.

In some way, shape or form, every Raven has an opportunity to help this defense no matter their skill set.  And, that is the culture John Harbaugh can build a dynasty around.

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About Scott Fink

Scott Fink
Scott Fink is a football crazed, recent graduate of St. Paul’s school and current student at Syracuse University. At St. Paul’s, Scott found his passion for football while debating with his friends about every small detail of the games on Sunday. As these daily debates continued, Scott made the jump...more

9 Raves on “Breaking down the Ravens’ “hybrid” defense

  1. patrick on said:

    All this talk about whether the Ravens play a 3-4 or a 4-3 is really academic. The Ravens base defense is the nickel. You can check with filmstudy but I believe the Ravens played the majority of their snaps in it last year. This hybrid 3-4 under or whatever you want to call it is de facto a first down subpackage.

    • Mike on said:

      Whether or not you are in nickel you still have a defensive front, Patrick. Fantastic article though, Scott, and something I’ve argued quite a bit about with friends. I usually simplify it by saying we have a 3-4 line, 4-3 linebackers, and Terrell Suggs, but of course like you showed it’s much more in depth than just that.

    • Scott on said:

      No doubt their true base was their nickel last year. In fact, almost every team’s base was their nickel. I was just using the term “Base” for clarity.

  2. Dan on said:

    Ravens ran a lot of 4-3 Under last year. It’s a bit different from Pete Caroll’s typical 4-3 Under based on the 2 point stance of the “Rush” or “Leo” linebacker. The Ravens tended to use the Leo as less of a constant rush guy and incorporated zone drops and stunts with him. Really cool stuff as you can watch the Ravens run standard fronts but change responsibilities of players based on their strengths.

    One more comment/critique. I’m not familiar with 4-3 Under schemes using more 3 deep coverages. The Ravens utilized this, for sure, but 4-3 Under heavy teams (NE, SEA) were not particularly Cover 3 based (as much as the Steelers at least). I think that having the extra safety to roam th box is a response to the offensive personnel. And it fit Pollard’s game exactly.


    • Scott on said:

      I don’t claim to be all knowing, but Kam Chancellor(SEA) was essentially a linebacker as he was in/near the box so much. Same goes for Patrick Chung/Steve Gregory in NE.

      Also…good call with the LEO stuff. The Ravens like to call him the “Rush” so I went with that terminology. I did notice, however, when Kruger was the Rush they were more standard in his use. Ei, classic LEO stuff. But when Suggs came back, they used Suggs in that position like you posted about.


  3. Wheezy on said:

    It’s the 4-3 Under, and there was a great article about how the Eagles are adopting this scheme. It’s actually really easy to sub out a linebacker in the 4-3 under to become the 4-3 nickel under since the WLB has no gap responsibilities and can be replaced with a safety or a corner without any effect on the defense.

  4. Ladbroke on said:

    “February through April, the phrase “best player available” is thrown around quite a bit in regard to the Raven’s draft strategy. Well, this “hybrid” scheme allows the Ravens to draft or sign any available defensive player regardless of his perceived scheme fit. In short, every player fits in some capacity.”

    Any examples? Have there been any prominent reclamation project FAs or late-round development picks from the Harbaugh era where we played a player exclusively to his strengths? Certainly Rolando McClain could have been something like that in run support as a 2-down LB. You could do a second article on the success stories of this defensive mindset.

    • Scott on said:

      A guy like Pernell McPhee who fits best as a penetrating 3-Tech. Or maybe even a guy like Arthur Brown, who was perceived as a 4-3 Will.

      I was actually thinking about writing an article about some success stories, but I am actually starting to work on another article concerning the percentages of different routes used when Cam Cameron was OC as opposed to Caldwell.

  5. richieG on said:

    Looking forward to that article – always hard for me to believe that camTHEman was AS inept as so many postulated; HOWEVER, I do believe that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”.

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