It’s always difficult to know if your team is as good as they look during the preseason.
This August, the Ravens cruised to a 4-0 record and allowed just 32 total points. The depth at DL and OLB, in particular, meant the Ravens were still playing quality players throughout the 2nd half of each game. With the games being decided by the best 46 players beginning on Sunday, many Ravens fans had legitimate concern that the defense could be as effective versus the Bengals starters.
For a week, the Ravens quelled all doubts about the quality of their defense and stoked discussion about the 2017 team’s place among the great defenses in team history.
How the Shutout was Preserved
It often takes at least 1 “save” to preserve a shutout. That can come in the form of a missed field goal, turnover in the red zone, or late turnover on downs when a field goal does not benefit the trailing team.
The Ravens had 2 red-zone turnovers in the first 35 minutes as well as a 4th-and-5 stop in FG range (Q4, 4:43), but they also benefited from the fact Marvin Lewis essentially conceded the game early in the 4th quarter. With the Ravens leading 20-0, Lewis chose to punt (Q4, 9:43) on 4th and 9 at the Ravens 43.
It got weirder…
After the Bengals’ failed 4th-and-5 attempt (Q4, 4:43), they used their remaining timeouts to get the ball back with 4:07 remaining. The Bengals then ran the ball on the first 2 plays, threw a 2-yard pass, then Dalton threw his 4th interception to Jimmy Smith. If they planned to run, I don’t see a reason to call those timeouts.
Finally, when the Bengals got the ball back for their final possession (Q4, 1:06), they ran the ball twice, for -4 and -5 yards. Concession wasn’t going to change anything at that point, but the Bengals probably should have just knelt out the clock in victory formation. What fans they still had paying attention to the game would have been cursing at their car radios.
The roots of Lewis’ willingness to concede are interesting and may have been the result of relentless first half pressure on Dalton that included:
— 16 drop backs
— Ample Time and Space (ATS) on just 2 of 16 drop backs (13%)
— 3 Interceptions
— 2 Sacks
— 1 other QH
— Constant pocket compression from Brent Urban, Brandon Williams, and Michael Pierce to complement outside pressure from Za’Darius Smith, Matt Judon, and Terrell Suggs.
The shutout was the 4th in team history against the Bengals and first in Cincinnati. The other 3 shutouts against the Bengals came in Baltimore and in consecutive seasons from 1999-2001 by a combined score of 75-0.
Let’s review by group (note: all snap counts exclude penalties, spikes, kneels, and special teams plays that result in a run or pass. The Ravens played 58 competitive defensive snaps by my definition):
The Ravens dressed just 5 of their 8 defensive linemen. Willie Henry, Bronson Kaufusi, and Chris Wormley were inactive.
The Ravens were in their standard (4 DB) package for just 10 snaps all day, which resulted in the defensive linemen playing just 128 snaps in aggregate (2.16 per play). Those snaps were concentrated:
Michael Pierce (36 snaps) was a monster versus the run and pass. He had a cleanup sack on a trash-compactor pocket (Q2, 0:49) to go with 2 other pressures among just 21 pass snaps. He also recovered the fumble forced by Suggs as 4th Raven to the pile (Q3, 10:57) and had primary tackle credit on 3 run stuffs. What was unusual about his usage (and that of Williams) is that both played some obvious passing downs and provided significant pressure when doing so. In 2016, Williams played 80.2% of Pierce’s snaps, but just 11 of Pierce’s 36 snaps Sunday (31%) came with Williams on the field as the 2 most frequently took turns being paired with Brent Urban in passing situations.
Brandon Williams (33 snaps) had the best pass rush game of his career with 6 pressures in just 20 pass rush snaps (he dropped to coverage once). Those pressures included:
— 4 on the first 5 pass plays
— Pressure on 2 interceptions (Q1, 1:46 and Q4, 3:00)
— A combined pressure with Levine on Dalton’s overthrow to the wide-open Core 35 yards down the right sideline (Q2, 5:58)
— Pressure against all 3 interior offensive line starters (LG Bolling, C Bodine, and RG Hopkins)
Williams had just 1 tackle assist versus the run.
It already appears Brent Urban (49 snaps) may lead the team in DL snaps after struggling to get on the field last year (137 snaps, 14%). In addition to 3 pressures, I scored him for blowing up 2 run plays (Q1, 4:44 and Q4, 1:06). All 5 sacks and all 5 turnovers (9 plays total) occurred in the 32 pass snaps he was in the game. As is the case for Williams, his 1 tackle significantly understates his contribution.
Carl Davis played just 6 snaps and did not make my notes or the defensive scoresheet.
Patrick Ricard changed his number to 42 to avoid the requirement to report eligible. He was inserted at NT for the final play of the game and violently swung down Mixon for a loss of 5 on his first NFL snap on defense.
The Ravens deactivated 3rd-round draft pick Tim Williams, leaving them with just 4 OLBs, but had all 4 ILBs active. Unlike last season, Pees didn’t do anything truly unexpected with his linebackers. Za’Darius Smith played 1 snap on the inside as part of a 6-man standing pass rush on which he sacked Dalton. That was the only instance where the Ravens dropped to 1 defensive lineman. The Ravens otherwise played 2 ILBs on every play, which means Pees eliminated his “Joker” package with 3 ILBs played frequently in 2016.
Terrell Suggs (47 snaps) found the fountain of youth in the first game of his 15th season. His play (good and bad) deserves a full list (and your review on Game Pass):
— (Q1,14:19) Suggs was cut down and unable to close a gaping left C gap as Hill cut back for a 12-yard run.
— (Q1,13:03) He drew a holding call on LT Ogbuehi as Smith beat Fisher for a 9-yard sack.
— (Q2, 14:26) As the backside defender, he was fooled by Dalton’s naked boot right which resulted in a 14-yard completion to Green.
— (Q2, 9:50) He held the left edge vs Ogbuehi to contain Bernard for 2-yard run.
— (Q2, 1:39) He leapt high in the left B gap to take away Dalton’s passing lane and the Bengals QB hit him in the helmet. The ball bounced high in the air and only 3 players on the field appeared to have it tracked (Carr, Onwuasor, and Webb). Lardarius collected the INT to set up the TD that put the Ravens up 17-0.
— (Q3, 10:57) He beat Ogbuehi outside for a 6-yard sack and forced the fumble recovered by Pierce.
— (Q3, 0:34) Terrell visually disrupted the pass left to Boyd, which fell incomplete to deny 3rd and 5.
— (Q4, 11:55) He bulled then shed Ogbuehi for a 5-yard sack of Dalton.
— (Q4, 6:04) He beat RT Fisher inside, spun Dalton 360 degrees, but failed to sack him. Dalton was flushed right and was run out of bounds by Jefferson for a 1-yard sack.
Suggs finished with 6 tackles and I scored him for 2 other pressures that did not make the list. It should be obvious to even the most ardent minimizers of Suggs’ career that it’s not a question of whether he makes the Hall of Fame or not. It’s a matter of whether or not he makes it on the first ballot.
Matthew Judon (49 snaps) had a solid game as the primary Sam. Despite just 1 tackle, he held the edge well, had a QH on Webb’s interception (Q2, 1:39), knocked down a pass at the LoS (Q2, 1:28), drew a holding call on RT Fisher that negated a 7-yard pass, and had 1 other pressure as I scored it.
Za’Darius Smith (6 snaps) was off to a great start before the injury including a pressure and a 9-yard sack. He also penetrated vs. RG Hopkins to blow up Hill’s 1-yard run right (Q1, 13:47).
Tyus Bowser (15 snaps) made his NFL debut. He tackled Hill from behind (Q2, 7:10) on his first NFL play, but did not make an attempt to dislodge the football. I scored him for 1 pressure (Q4, 6:09). He should see more playing time with Za’Darius Smith hurt.
C.J. Mosley played all 58 snaps as defensive signal caller. He drew a holding penalty on Fisher and contributed a pressure on Pierce’s sack. His end-zone interception (Q2, 9:06) ended the most significant Bengals scoring threat. Mosley looked great patrolling the underneath passing lanes in 2016 and he is playing with the same large catch radius he displayed last season. Based on the play of the pass rush, there should be many more opportunities to collect both tipped and misfired balls in 2017.
The players next to Mosley included Correa (26 snaps), Onwuasor (18), Levine (12 as the Dime), and Bradley (2).
Kamalei Correa had a mixed effort. He played well when pursuing to the outside, including a stretch of Bernard for a gain of 2 (Q2, 13:46) and a tackle for a loss of 2 on a catch by Hill (Q3, 13:25). On the debit side, he was lost in the wash on Hill’s 12-yard run (Q1, 14:19) and was juked off his feet by Bernard (Q2, 12:42), which allowed the Bengals RB another 19 yards. Correa alternated playing time with Onwuasor rotationally, not situationally. The 2nd ILB spot remains unsettled.
Patrick Onwuasor also had a mixed game. We’ll want to remember this game for his leaping PD which was collected by Brandon Carr for an interception (Q1, 1:46). However, earlier on the drive, he was beaten to the edge by Mixon for a gain of 9 (-6 + 15 YAC) on a swing pass when it appeared he had the rookie contained (Q1, 3:59). He was also cut off his feet by C Bodine to lead Mixon’s run right for 8 yards (Q1, 3:28)
Bam Bradley made his debut on defense for the final 2 snaps, but did not make my notes.
Pees stuck with schemes the Ravens ran in the preseason. Everything worked in terms of deployment by number of defensive backs:
The dime (20.7%) was deployed at a rate almost 8 times as high as in Pees’ previous 5 seasons as the Ravens DC (2.7%).
The Ravens dressed just 8 of their 10 DBs, but they all saw action.
Jimmy Smith (51 snaps) drew a face mask on Bernard (Q2, 14:48) as he was driving him out of bounds for a gain of just 1. In addition to the interception (Q4, 2:59), he maintained close coverage on several balls which did not connect deep on his side. The only 2 significant receptions he allowed were consecutive 13-yard slants to Lafell and Green (beginning Q2, 11:09). Humphrey took his place for 7 plays. Of those, 5 snaps came on 2 short drives and 2 others came after Smith had just defended a vertical (Q4, 10:40). The Ravens have lacked the depth to make use of that sort of substitution in the defensive backfield, but it can be useful in today’s game.
Marlon Humphrey (9 snaps) made his NFL debut in relief of Smith (7 snaps, see above) and Webb (2 snaps). He did not allow a catch and the Bengals gained just 3 yards total on his 9 snaps.
Brandon Carr (58 snaps) played every snap. Entering the game, he had just 1 interception and 24 PDs in the previous 3 seasons, despite starting all 48 games. In this game, however, he collected Onwuasor’s tip (Q1, 1:46) and delivered a no-look PD on a 20-yard pass intended for Green (Q3, 0:39). He was flagged for illegal use of hands to negate an incomplete and released Core wide open when he expected zone coverage from Jefferson over the top (Q2, 5:58).
Lardarius Webb (44 snaps) played exclusively SCB. Pees rushed him just once, but he managed to collect his interception on that play when Suggs deflected the ball high off his helmet (Q2, 1:39). He ran down Bernard for the TD-saving tackle on his 39-yard screen catch and run (Q4, 6:46) to preserve the shutout. The worst completion he allowed personally was a 14-yard slant to Green where he was soft, but made the tackle quickly (IQ2, 13:08).
Eric Weddle (57 snaps) missed a tackle on Green which allowed 8 YAC of a 27-yard completion. He was also beaten for a 14-yard catch by Green on an extended play by the right sideline. The biggest concern about Weddle, however was the fact he reached for his left leg when he was cut by Hewitt on the next-to-last play. He was removed immediately and I’ve heard nothing g since about the extent of his (or any other) injuries.
Chuck Clark played the final snap at safety.
Tony Jefferson (58 snaps) played every snap and was active in run defense. He led the Ravens in tackles with 9. Of those, 3 were assisted run stuffs, he had a sack, and he made another open-field tackle for a 6-yard gain to deny 3rd and 11. There may be a better clue as to the miscommunication between him and Carr on the coaches’ video. Tyler Eifert was held to just 1 catch for 4 yards, but the Ravens did not bring Jefferson up for man coverage on the TE. That’s something I still expect we’ll see at some point this season. Pees did not use him to rush the passer despite the fact he picked up a cleanup sack by Running Dalton out of bounds.
Anthony Levine (14 snaps) split his time between dime (12 snaps) and SCB (2 snaps). He lined up in the A gap on several snaps and made his biggest contribution when he and Brandon Williams bulled RB Bernard and C Bodine to pressure Dalton’s incomplete when Core was wide open down the right sideline (Q2, 5:58).
This was a game with 8 or 9 performances good enough to make the list of defensive stars, but I’ll hold it to 3:
1. Terrell Suggs
2. C.J. Mosley
3. Brandon Williams
I could easily have made a case for Pierce, Urban, Judon, Webb, Carr, or Jimmy Smith as well.