Ravens Develop Effective Platoon at OLB

Filmstudy Ravens Develop Effective Platoon at OLB

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Defensive Notes vs. Saints 11/24/14

John Lowenstein was a lefthanded utility player that the Orioles claimed off waivers prior to the 1979 season. Earl Weaver platooned him in left field with Gary Roenicke in what became one of the great pairings in MLB history. In their first 5 seasons together, the Orioles averaged 98 wins per 162 games, played in 2 World Series, and won it all in 1983. Brother Low became the most productive hitter in baseball in 1982-83 (by plate appearance) because Weaver determined (and Altobelli continued) the exact role that minimized his weaknesses and was selective even in terms of the righthanders he faced.

How does this relate to the Ravens?

The Ravens have generally been ahead of the curve in terms of managing snap counts for their interior linemen. That’s a luxury possible with depth. The philosophy did not always extend to their outside linebackers. In particular, Suggs and JJ played a high percentage of snaps when healthy.

By now, you know about the milestone sacks for Suggs and Dumervil. In the larger context, this is a time to be thankful for the Ravens OLB platoon, which has not only carried this defense, but is the single best rotation of any position in football. Each of the 4 players made significant contributions on Monday night that deserve individual review:

Terrell Suggs

Suggs is also benefitting from a decreased snap count (80%) and giving indications of longevity with increased per-snap productivity relative to the last 2 seasons. His highlights from Sunday night:

• (Q2, 5:12) He rushed across the pocket to take down Brees for a gain of just 1 (at the 4-yard line) after Daryl Smith’s missed tackle allowed the Saints’ QB to escape the pocket. The Ravens went on to hold New Orleans to a FG.
• (Q3, 5:10) He rushed unblocked past Jahri Evans from a 2-point stance as an ILB to knock down Brees as he threw behind Graham on Will Hill’s pick-6.
• (Q3, 3:52) He beat Armstead inside for initial contact as Brees went down to bring his career sack total to 100.5.
• (Q4, 2:53) He diagnosed the screen left to Thomas and forced the incompletion where the play looked well set otherwise with 3 blockers out front.
• (Q4, 1:27) He beat Armstead outside for pressure to force an incompletion on a play negated by the Saints’ illegal shift.

Where is he in his Hall of Fame bid? As Bill James would say, He has all of the foreground scenery and most if not all of the background.

In the foreground he has the 2003 DROY, 2011 DPOY, Super Bowl XLVII, 1 all-pro selection, and his role as a principal contributor to one of the iconic defensive franchises of the post-merger era.

For background, he’s played in 6 Pro Bowls, been part of 7 playoff teams, started 15 postseason games, and played in 191 NFL games.

There are players on the outside with better sack totals, starting with Kevin Greene (160), but it’s the fact that Greene has been denied and is perceived as a poor run defender that gives me confidence Suggs will not have a long-deferred enshrinement.

Ironically, despite the fact he was drafted as one of the most prolific pass rushers in NCAA history, his 100.5 sacks are not his top NFL achievement. Suggs’ greatest strengths as a defender, the ability to set the edge and diagnose the screen are not well measured by defensive statistics, but he’s among the most well-rounded OLB/DE’s of his era. The sack total is a natural byproduct of an extremely savvy and sound fundamental player.

Many Ravens fans will be making their travel plans for Canton by 2025, but what Terrell does on the field between now and then will only determine whether he goes on the first ballot or after a short wait.

Elvis Dumervil

Elvis epitomizes the OLB platoon.

Prior to 2012, the Ravens identified a 29-year-old who could still rush the passer, but was a liability in other areas. They decided they could shape a specialist role which would maximize his effectiveness. Dumervil went from 87% of snaps in his last year with the Broncos to 53% in 27 games with the Ravens so far. He had been marginalized by rushing primarily opposite the left tackle in Denver, but the Ravens moved him almost exclusively to abuse less-athletically-gifted right tackles. The result has been one of the league’s most productive pass-rushing OLBs on a per-snap basis.

I was primarily optimistic about the Dumervil signing based on the 1-year escape hatch for the Ravens, but his improved productivity now gives reason to hope he will play out the contract with solid contributions even though he will turn 34 after the 2017 season when it ends.

His most significant contributions from Monday:

• (Q2, 12:01) Elvis had an outstanding jump and worked outside RT Strief. As he did so, Thomas released on a screen right and Suggs blew the play up by hitting him in the backfield. Brees threw incomplete.
• (Q2, 11:56) On the very next play, Ingram lined up at TE and Dumervil rushed unblocked past the RB to sack Brees for a 3-yard loss.
• (Q3, 3:15) He beat Strief cleanly to the outside for a fast-developing sack for a loss of 6 and triggered his escalator.

Pernell McPhee

He had another outstanding night as a pass rusher:

• (Q2, 6:22) Pernell bulled, then tossed back LT Armstead and delivered a QH as Brees threw right to Thomas for no gain.
• (Q4, 8:27) Ingram ran up the middle and McPhee hit the back hard, but bounced off for a MT.
• (Q4, 7:14) He stunted unblocked through the right B gap to knock down Brees, who threw incomplete to Graham.
• (Q4, 2:53) He beat Grubbs outside for a fast and low QH on an incomplete screen left (see Suggs).

Pernell continued to play after the last QH, but he has been on the practice participation list twice this week with an unspecified shoulder injury.

McPhee continues to get some snaps on the inside and his quickness allows him to both beat double teams and provide blitz opportunities for Mosley and Smith.

Courtney Upshaw

Jon Gruden made mention of Upshaw as a “professional edge setter” which has been his greatest strength in his 3 seasons.

Without fanfare, he’s emerged to make a substantial contribution as a coverage linebacker this season. He’s dropped to cover 102 times and opposing QBs have only thrown to his assignment on 10 occasions with 6 completions for 18 yards. He has not surrendered more than 6 receiving yards on any play, nor in any game. How has that happened? Most of the throws against him are screens where he has responsibility for a back drifting out. On Monday night he made a prototypical play (Q2, 6:22). McPhee delivered a QH as Brees threw an outlet to Thomas 5 yards behind the LoS. Upshaw stayed square and brought the RB down in the open field for no gain. Coverage success for Upshaw is primarily about denying an occasional screen pass completion and minimizing the missed tackles that can result in big plays.

Here are the rest of my notes for Upshaw:

• (Q1, 12:54) He corralled Brees on QB scramble to set up 4th and goal at the 1.
• (Q2, 14:18) He set the left edge on Ingram as he was held to a gain of 1.
• (Q4, 8:27) He set the right edge, but McPhee failed in knockdown attempt on Ingram’s 8-yard run up the middle.
• (Q4, 1:22) He beat Strief outside for a QH on a 4-man rush in garbage time

Other Notes

• The 26-yard touchdown to Colston (Q2, 0:44) was infuriating and as bad a play as you will see a safety make on the football. This wasn’t a case where Brooks simply took a bad angle to the ball like Rahim Moore on the F bomb, aka the Mile High Miracle. It wasn’t a case where he bit on the wrong route as Hill did when Webb was beaten by Morgan for the 62-yard play (Q1, 4:58). Brooks drifted over like a second baseman into foul territory with the single best angle to judge the football and plenty of time. Yet he set up behind Colston to wait on the ball and made no effort to contest the catch. Brooks was benched and did not play another snap the rest of the night after words with Harbaugh. Stewart played all 32 remaining snaps and many of those were substitution packages which would normally have included Brooks.

• Things aren’t right with Lardarius Webb, but he made 2 big rundowns on Monday. On Morgan’s 67-yard run, Levine failed to get off a block from Hill and Stewart misjudged the angle necessary to push the WR out of bounds. From the opposite side of the field, Webb ran down Morgan inside the 5 with a horse collar tackle that saved the TD. That became a 7-point play when the Ravens stuffed the Saints on 4th and goal from the 1. When Webb was beaten by Morgan for the 62-yard play (Q1, 4:58), Hill bit underneath and failed in his cover-2 responsibility. Webb ran down the speedy Morgan inside the 10, but the Saints scored nonetheless.

• Hill’s performance spanned terrible to great with 2 TDs allowed to Graham and the aforementioned blown coverage of Morgan to go with otherwise consistent man-coverage denials of Graham and his pick-6. The Ravens have not had a player who could effectively cover the tight end in quite some time and I look forward to seeing if Pees will dare the Chargers with similar man coverage of Gates.

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Ken McKusick

About Ken McKusick

Known as “Filmstudy” from his handle on area message boards, Ken is a lifelong Baltimorean and rabid fan of Baltimore sports. He grew up within walking distance of Memorial Stadium and attended all but a handful of Orioles games from 1979 through 2001. He got his start in sports modeling with baseball in the mid 1980’s. He began writing about the Ravens in 2006 and maintains a library of video for every game the team has played. He’s a graduate of Syracuse with degrees in Broadcast Journalism and Math who recently retired from his actuarial career to pursue his passion as a football analyst full time.

If you have math or modeling questions related to sports or gambling, Ken is always interested in hearing new problems or ideas.

He can be reached by email at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @filmstudyravens.

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