Even before the 2009 NFL Draft took place, the Baltimore front office knew that it had to add a pass-rushing presence to the defensive front seven. The rush has been formidable as a blitzkrieg attack, but in certain situations it lacked the means to sink the quarterback when the blitz was not in play. Without a consistent rush from the front four, offenses had the opportunity to use three, four and five-wide packages to hit on quick-hitting pass plays.
Enter Paul Kruger, a man who could change the makeup of the four-man rush.
With Kruger in the mix, the hope is that the defense can get after the quarterback even when they are unable to line up in exotic blitz packages.
Ravens24x7 will evaluate just how Kruger’s added presence, in conjunction with a shift in defensive philosophy, affects the overall pass-rush scheme.
Under former defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, the Baltimore defense was a nightmare for opposing offensive coaches to prepare for. Given the versatility of his athletes, Ryan was never afraid to dial up any type of pressure package.
Most of the time, Ryan’s game plans worked. Like Spiderman’s foe, the Green Goblin, who uses an assortment of weapons to confound the web-slinger, Ryan had a bag of tricks to daze and confuse the quarterback. He used multiple blitz looks, snap-to-snap, and despite the most extensive film study, a signal-caller usually had to account for a formation he had not seen before.
However, offensive coordinators quickly learned that the best way to fight a shape-shifting, aggressive front was to use an equally aggressive approach on offense. The use of the spread nullified the blitz, as backers who would normally attack the line were forced to cover receivers and safeties had to hug the sidelines and help the corners in deep coverage.
In particular, the team struggled to adjust when quarterbacks executed the hurry-up attack. In 2007, the secondary was exposed in games against the Jets and Cardinals, when both offenses seemed dead in the water, but came roaring back when they had to score quickly against the prevent look.
Against the vaunted New England Patriots, Ryan’s boys frazzled the immaculate Tom Brady in the early stages of the ballgame, but ultimately, the rush was ineffective when it stayed static and conservative to better defend the pass.
Last season, the effects of not having a consistent front four push were felt against the Colts, Titans and Steelers. Those offenses, run by veteran quarterbacks, were able to pick up the blitz consistently, and eventually, forced Ryan to back off on bringing the heat.
The moment of clarity that something needed to be fixed came on the final drive, in a regular season tiff against Tennessee. In a game that the Baltimore defense dominated for four quarters, the pass-rush fell apart as soon as quarterback Kerry Collins went to the hurry-up. Collins adeptly adjusted the protection to pick up the inside blitz (one of Ryan’s staple blitzes). When the incoming inside backers were caught up at the line, the middle opened for tight ends and receivers to run crossers and slants. Collins went on to complete six passes for 52 yards, leading the Titans to a game-winning drive on the strength of his blitz recognition and pre-snap adjustments.
In the postseason, Collins continued the assault. He threw for 281 yards. In that game, the Tennessee line was brilliant. It easily picked up Bart Scott and Ray Lewis on inside blitzes. When the two were unable to get home, Collins singed the middle of the field. When the inside backers stayed back in coverage, the front-four was unable to collapse the pocket and Collins had plenty of time to work the edges.
During the AFC Championship, the pass-rush that struggled against a Collins-led attack ran on fumes against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Roethlisberger timed his drops perfectly and go rid of the ball quickly, and he repeatedly completed passes through the same leaky, middle windows that Collins cracked before.
At the end of the season, it was clear that improving the rush became a top priority for the front office to address.
With Ryan’s departure to the Jets, the door opened for linebackers coach Greg Mattison to take over.
Mattison’s approach will not stray too greatly from his predecessor. The defense will remain a hybrid unit, morphing in and out of an assortment of formations – the 3-4, 4-3, 46, 3-3-5, 4-4-3. It will be an aggressive front. However, the frequency of the blitz should dissipate some.
As Eric DeCosta, Director of Player Personnel noted in an interview with Tony Lombardi, the philosophical shift is needed.
“I’m not sure that we’ll see so many exotic blitz packages and quite honestly I hope we don’t have to do that because it leaves you vulnerable to the big play. The Colts, for example, have exploited that. We want to pressure offenses without the exotic packages.”
If pressure is to come without the use of exotic packages, the four-man line will be relied on to provide the push. The addition of Kruger should provide a much-needed kick.
In Kruger, the team may have a reincarnation of former Raven and Ring of Honor inductee Michael McCrary. Like McCrary, Kruger is a relentless rusher with a non-stop motor. He is also tough and athletic.
But what makes Kruger particularly intriguing is his size. At 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, Kruger has the frame to add even more weight without losing explosiveness. If Kruger continues to grow, he could turn into a big edge rusher, with the ability to play inside or outside, similar to a Justin Tuck or the Ravens’ own Trevor Pryce.
For now, Mattison will be content with the prospect of having another hybrid rusher to plug into the rotation. Depending on how quickly he grasps the defensive playbook, Kruger should at least see some action on third-down, as a pass-rush specialist.
It will be interesting to see how Mattison works the rotation, considering that he will also have other hybrids at his disposal, such as Antwan Barnes, Jameel McClain and Edgar Jones.
Barnes has been a tantalizing talent, capable of generating 10 sacks a year as just a third-down rusher. However, he has yet to develop his pass-rush moves, and relies solely on his elite speed. Moreover, he did not endear himself to the John Harbaugh coaching staff a year ago, given his questionable practice habits.
McClain provided a spark towards the end of the year and he took over the role that was projected for Barnes, when Barnes went down with a pectoral injury. He is an athletic rusher with good timing as a blitzer. However, there is a chance that McClain could see more time on the inside and in coverage situations to help curb the loss of Scott to the New York Jets.
Jones garnered some playing time in the postseason, and he may continue to serve a dual role on offense and defense. But it is more likely that he will be given the chance to develop as a tight end – particularly with the addition of Kruger to the rotation.
The new-look front will be fun to watch, assuming that Kruger asserts himself as a rookie and is given a chance, and Barnes has a bounce back season. Both players could be tough to contain off the edge. In addition, both players have the strength to compete on inside loops and stunts. They may also be able to take advantage of the favorable one-on-one matchups they would get if Baltimore’s top two rushers – Trevor Pryce and Terrell Suggs – get all of the attention from blockers in obvious passing situations.
Regardless of how Mattison decides to align his front four, it should be a deeper and more effective group that will make offenses pay for spreading them out.