Third-Down Defense Sputters photo: Baltimore Ravens/Shawn Hubbard

Filmstudy Third-Down Defense Sputters

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The Ravens again failed to produce splash plays on defense versus the Steelers which led to sustained drives and 76 defensive snaps.

To the lack of defensive variance, the Ravens added red-zone inefficiency, allowing 3 of 4 TDs on the trips inside the 20 by the Steelers compared to jut 1 of 4 TDs from similar opportunities of their own.

Central to the Steelers’ ability to keep their offense on the field was success on 3rd and 4th down, where they converted 11 of 17 times.

It feels like I’ve written this piece the last 2 weeks, but let’s review the key plays that beat the Ravens. I’m limiting it to just the converted 3rd and 4th downs and the 2 pass plays which got the Steelers out of a 2nd-and-20 hole in the 4th quarter:

Note: “PR13 (-2 + 15) [4]” is shorthand for a pass right for 13 yards caught 2 yards behind the LoS and advanced for 15 yards after catch (YAC) with the catch coming between the right hash and numbers (one of 5 field segments from left to right delineated by on-field markings).

— (Q1, 1:09): On 3rd/5 and with ATS, Roethlisberger threw to Conner PM7 (-3 + 10) [4], Kenny Young chased Conner across formation, but was rubbed by 89. Based on the way the defense was unable to keep Conner from getting to the pylon, there was a significant amount of the field uncovered or assigned to Young.

— (Q2, 11:37): On 3rd/1 Roethlisberger handed to Conner in the shotgun whose RM3 took advantage of the nickel. The 2 defensive linemen, Urban (by LG Foster and C Pouncey) and Williams (by RG DeCastro and RT Feiler) were each doubled at the outset and DeCastro peeled off to block Mosley in level 2.

— (Q2, 9:34): On 4th/1, Roethlisberger threw to Smith-Schuster PM6 (4 + 2) [3], who beat Jimmy Smith on a slant.

— (Q2, 3:50): On 3rd/2, Switzer motioned right and took advantage of a pick by Juju for PR5 (0 + 5) [5]. Smith-Schuster’s pick impeded Tavon Young from converging to the spot of the throw in time.

— (Q2, 0:25): On 3rd/9, Conner’s RR9 converted with key blocks from RT Feiler on Za’Darius Smith and LG DeCastro, who sealed Levine. Mosley was rushing on the far side and Judon took a bad angle on the play.

— (Q3, 13:45): On 3rd/6, Roethlisberger threw PM13 (11 + 2) [3] to Switzer. Switzer lined up slot left with Tavon Young opposite him, but became the hot read when Tavon blitzed and Michael Pierce dropped to a short middle (exploitable) zone.

Michael Pierce in zone coverage.

— (Q3, 12:21): On 3rd/7, Roethlisberger threw to Brown PM9 (4 + 5) [3] as Smith-Schuster rubbed Humphrey.

— (Q3, 8:54): On 3rd/6, Smith-Schuster beat Tavon Young on a square out PL7 (6 + 1) [5].

— (Q4, 12:39): On 2nd/20, Dobbs at QB had ATS for a play-action fake to Conner then threw to Smith-Schuster PM22 (22 + 0) [4]. Weddle overran the play with his back turned to the QB. Dobbs had previously run the ball twice for -4 yards, but this was his first NFL pass.

— (Q4, 11:17): On 2nd/9, Carr bit on some combination of Roethlisberger’s pump fake and TE Jesse James’ double move to allow James to break open by 5+ yards for PR51 (30 + 21) [5].

— (Q4, 9:50): On 3rd/8, Smith-Schuster motioned left and was uncovered inside slot left. Roethlisberger extended the play with a roll right and redirected Juju left where he hit him for PM9 (7 + 2) [2] in front of Weddle with Mosley trailing.

— (Q4, 4:07): On 3rd/5, Roethlisberger threw to Brown PM8 (2 + 6) [4] on a shallow cross with Jimmy Smith trailing. He was minimally impacted by a rub from McDonald.

— (Q4, 2:00): On 3rd/4, the Ravens lined up all 11 defenders at the LoS in a last-ditch effort to force a punt. Smith-Schuster beat Levine on a slant PM7 (3 + 4) [3]. Za’Darius Smith deflected the pass, but did not change the course of ball sufficiently.

Notes on the key plays:

— Smith-Schuster is a much bigger part of the Pittsburgh offense than is indicated from his receptions and yardage (which both lead the team). In addition to his own conversions, he set several picks in this game which were effective in generating space for other receivers.

— The slot blitz by Tavon Young was illustrative of how difficult it is to defend Roethlisberger’s hot read. Dropping Pierce to cover seemed particularly futile. He probably could have done more simply raising his hands at the LoS.

— The Steelers took advantage of light run units on each of the last 2 plays of the first half listed above. It’s understandable why that might happen on 3rd and 9, but less so on 3rd and 2.

— Motion confounded the Ravens, because they were exposed to pick/rub concepts. To the degree the Ravens find other opponents use such schemes nearly as often, they’ll need to prepare to switch coverage.

— Other than the gaffe by Carr, I don’t think any of the corners played poorly.

— The Steelers were well-prepared for the Ravens’ pass rush deceptions and scheme in general.

— The Ravens failed to convert what pressure they generated into any splash plays to end drives, which leads to my next point…

Ravens Fail to Convert Turnover Opportunities

The Ravens had 7 more passes defensed in this game, bringing their season total to 48. As I write this (prior to the MNF game), that’s the 3rd best PD total in the league. Since interceptions are a subset of PDs, that ought to be a good thing, but the Ravens have managed to convert just 5 of those into interceptions and have the 5th worst PD/INT ratio in the entire NFL.

The Ravens’ 5 interceptions are tied for 20th in the NFL. For some teams, that would be an improvement, but the Ravens have led the NFL in interceptions each of the last 2 seasons. The Ravens have depended on their defense to generate turnovers for most of the last 2 decades and the secondary is the strength of the team, dammit.

If the Ravens are to make any sort of run at a playoff spot in 2018, a significant increase in turnovers will be required.

The Disappearing Pass Rush

Since the 11-sack performance at Tennessee, the Ravens have had just 2 sacks during the 3-game losing streak. Versus Tennessee the Ravens converted 9 QHs into 11 Sacks (yes, you read that correctly, 2 of the sacks were not QHs and every QH was a sack). Since then, they’ve delivered 13 QHs, but had just 2 sacks.

There is no one simple reason for the reduced pass-rush efficacy, but I suggest the following are among the contributing factors:

— Injuries to Willie Henry and Tim Williams limit the pool of situational pass rushers. It’s true, the Ravens had an embarrassment of riches in terms of pass rush depth, but the inside pass rush has been significantly downgraded.

— Coming into the season, I expected Henry and Za’Darius Smith to be the primary inside pass rush tandem. It was nice to know players like Brent Urban, Chris Wormley, and Zach Sieler provided additional rotational options. With Henry on IR, the team must now lean heavily on Urban as the primary option with Smith. Urban has been worked hard and the Ravens used Michael Pierce as the only defensive lineman on 4 dime snaps Sunday.

— Similarly, Z. Smith has been overused in a combination of inside and outside snaps. He played 79% of the defensive snaps which was more than any OLB, but far more tiring given his frequent alignment inside.

— The play of Terrell Suggs has fallen off dramatically. He has just 1 pressure and 1 QH in his last 60 pass snaps (Carolina and Pittsburgh).

— The secondary has not been as effective maintaining coverage, some of which has been a matter of injuries.

— Good QBs have reduced the time to read and release.

— Opposing OCs have had to scheme on how to beat the Ravens pass rush and so far, the Ravens haven’t figured out how to counter. The plethora of Pittsburgh rub routes is a good example.

Against the Steelers, the Ravens allowed ample time and space (ATS) on 25 of 49 pass plays, which is a slightly above average result for the offense. However, I also labeled 12 of the other 24 plays as “Ball out Quick” meaning no pressure was generated by a defender by the time the ball was released, but it appeared the pocket was not likely to hold up for 3 seconds. In another indicator of futility, the Ravens had 3 QHs, including their sack, on plays where they allowed ample time and space.

The Ravens had additional rush freedom against Roethlisberger they squelched against Newton the previous week. Specifically, they returned to a frequent stunting (10 times). Martindale also sent 15 individuals blitzers from off the line of scrimmage or at least as far outside as the slot receiver. That total is a little lower than we have seen this season for 49 drop backs, and it furthermore broke down as 12 times in the first half and 3 on the first 2 pass plays of the 2nd half. After Young’s slot blitz (Q3, 13:45) resulted in the 13-yard conversion to Switzer (see above), the Ravens did not send another blitzer from off the LoS and instead relied on stunts for deception.

When reviewing the pass rush by numbers, the Ravens weren’t burned by the Steelers offense:

The 5.8 YPP total would normally result in a win, but the lack of variance generated by the defense made it difficult for the Ravens to get off the field.

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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 or followed on Twitter @filmstudyravens. More from Ken McKusick


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