Sitting at 8-5 and right in the thick of things in the playoff hunt, it is easy to feel optimistic regarding the outlook for the Baltimore Ravens in December.
Coming off an impressive road win against the Miami Dolphins and a win at New Orleans two weeks ago, the Ravens have proved their ability to win on the road during the crucial point of the season.
Part of the reason for Baltimore’s ability to come from behind and win in Miami was because of the stout run defense, which has been consistently impressive this season.
In Sunday’s win, Baltimore’s run defense held the Dolphins to 63 rushing yards and zero touchdowns on 16 attempts. One play which stood out for the Ravens when defending the run came in the fourth quarter.
With the Dolphins trailing 14-10 but in the red zone, the Baltimore defense was reeling. On a first down play from the four yard line, Ravens inside linebacker Daryl Smith shot the gap and tackled Dolphins running back Lamar Miller in the backfield for a two-yard loss.
That defensive stop stunted Miami’s ability to drive down the field, and the Dolphins ultimately had to settle for a field goal on the drive, unable to regain the lead late in the game.
It was a play that didn’t come as a surprise from Smith, but certainly would have a year ago. During his first season with the Ravens, Smith’s pass defense prowess was neutralized by the fact that he was a liability against the run. Even earlier this season, Smith struggled to defend on run plays.
But as the 2014 season has progressed, so have Smith’s contributions to the defense when stopping the opposition not only on pass plays, but on most rush plays as well.
Smith has displayed more of a downhill, see-ballcarrier-hit-ballcarrier mentality this season and has had an innate ability to shed blocks in order to impact run plays.
Let’s start off with the already noted play against the Dolphins.
As mentioned, the Dolphins were four yards away from scoring a touchdown and acquiring a 17-14 lead over the Ravens.
The Dolphins operate out of the shotgun, and it is evident from the start that Smith is going to make an impact as he takes off exactly when the ball is snapped, getting a head start over everyone else on the field.
With help from the defensive line, Smith can sneak past the linemen and meet Miller in the hole, which opens up quickly.
Without Smith occupying the gap, this could be a touchdown run for Miller.
Before the running back even has enough time to pick up speed and hit the hole, Smith pounces through untouched.
He ultimately makes the solo tackle in the backfield followed behind by several Ravens defenders.
It wasn’t as impressive of a play since it happened early in the fourth quarter as opposed to the final minute, but it was certainly reminiscent of this famous Ray Lewis play.
In terms of plays against the run, that game-changing play in Miami was certainly Smith’s finest in Baltimore.
Generally though, Smith has been making an impact of late, particularly when it comes to shedding blocks. Earlier in the season, Smith didn’t consistently show that he was capable of shedding blocks and stopping the run, but in recent games, he certainly has.
Against the Saints, Smith diagnoses the run play to the right, but is blocked off by the offensive guard at the second level.
With the running back deciding to cut back to the left and take advantage of the open field, Smith is the defense’s best bet to make a stop.
However, he must first disengage from the lineman.
Smith’s ability to disengage from the block prevents the ball carrier from fully taking advantage of the open area, leading him to run more straight than left, giving Smith an opportunity.
The linebacker regains his balance after shedding the block and makes the unassisted tackle.
It isn’t too hard to notice Smith shedding blocks and stopping run plays these days. Last season, linemen typically had an easy job sealing off Smith and opening up run lanes.
But this season, Smith’s ability to free himself from blocks and close up gaps has been apparent.
In Week 13 against the San Diego Chargers, that was the case.
Smith follows the run play, however is initially halted as the Chargers left tackle works upfield to block the linebacker.
As the run play develops, the tackle successfully gains positioning on Smith and appears to begin to take him out of the play as the running back follows behind.
Smith, however, sticks with the play and uses his strength to brush off the blocker and locate the ball carrier.
By the time the running back hits the gap that once looked wide open, Smith has completely freed himself from the blocker.
The ball carrier has nowhere to go as Smith seals the hole and closes in for the tackle, with some help from outside linebacker Terrell Suggs.
Smith has consistently proven himself as a versatile defender this season, as opposed to the one-trick pony that he was a year ago.
His more diverse play is just one of the many reasons why the Ravens run defense is fourth in the NFL in yards allowed.
The dynamic duo of Smith and rookie C.J. Mosley has helped make Baltimore’s front seven one of the most feared in the NFL.