Defensive Depth Throttles Falcons

Filmstudy Defensive Depth Throttles Falcons

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The manner in which the Ravens manhandled the Falcons should be more than a little encouraging to Ravens fans.

In the coming weeks (however many there are), the Ravens will face:

— Good QBs,

— On the road,

— Under circumstances which may hamper the passing game.

The win in Atlanta gives hope the Ravens have found a formula that can carry them into January.

The Ravens held Matt Ryan to just 97 net passing yards, the lowest total of his career for a game he finished. On 11/29/09 he was replaced by none other than Chris Redman (210 net passing yards) after completing 2 of 3 passes for 15 yards (12 net). Of his 180 NFL games (playoffs included), that is the only other time he’s played in an NFL game where he passed for fewer than 106 net yards.

There were multiple factors which led to this embarrassment, but what Ravens fan doesn’t have the time to enjoy some of the reasons for a defensive laugher?

Shutting Down Julio Jones

The Ravens limited the Falcons superstar to his lowest output (18 yards) in his last 44 games (including playoffs). It was a team effort with contributions from the pass rush, Jimmy Smith, Marlon Humphrey, Chuck Clark, and Eric Weddle. To get a sense of the spread of contributions, let’s review all 10 targets, including 2 negated by penalty:

  1. (Q1, 13:28): Ryan to Jones PM9 (9 + 0 YAC) [3] immediately tackled by Smith
  2. (Q1, 12:22): Ryan to Jones PR9 (7 + 2 YAC) [5] Smith shaken up after quick tackle
  3. (Q1, 4:17): Play action, ATS, Ryan for Jones 40 yards [1], Weddle PD
  4. (Q2, 15:00): Ball out quickly (BOQ) on 3-step drop, dropped by Jones 3 yards [2], Onwuasor and Carr close
  5. (Q2, 14:57): Play action, ATS, Ryan for Jones 28 yards [5] Humphrey athletic turn for PD
  6. (Q2, 6:56): 3rd/8, Ryan for Jones 8 yards [5] dislodged by Humphrey, flagged for lowering the helmet to initiate contact
  7. (Q2, 5:47): Williams drove back LG Schweitzer and FB Ortiz then drew hold. Ryan for Jones 23 yards [1] Clark dislodged as Smith tackled, negated by penalty
  8. (Q3, 8:56): 3rd/1, Sanu at QB overthrew for Jones 38 yards [1], Smith tight coverage
  9. (Q4, 15:00): ATS, slow-developing QH by Suggs, Ryan for Jones 44 yards [2], Clark tight underneath coverage
  10. (Q4, 4:34): Levine unblocked through left A-gap for fast QH, Ryan underthrew Jones 10 yards [2], Averett stayed close from press.

Aside from a short drop, Jones did not have any uncontested opportunities. He fought for 2 early catches and was shut out over the last 57:22.

Jones is a threat both before and after the catch, which leads me to…

YAC Limitation

Much of the limitation of the Falcons passing offense was a lack of YAC. Using data from NFL GSIS, Ryan’s 16 completions included YAC of 2, 0, 2, 3, 14, 0, 6, 0, 1, 1, 0, 1, 9, 5, 0, 0. That’s just 44 total YAC (2.8 per reception). By receiver:

The Atlanta wide receivers totaled just 21 YAC on 9 catches.

The Pass Rush

It may have seemed like Ryan spent the whole day under pressure, but that was not the case. He and Sanu had ample time and space (ATS) on 16 of 30 pass plays (53%), which is above average. Ryan unloaded quickly on 3 passes, so the Ravens generated some sort of pressure event on 11. What made the Ravens pass rush seem more effective was the fact they converted 7 of those 11 pressures into QHs or sacks.

From a numbers perspective, everything worked.

In terms of deception, however, the Ravens demonstrated restraint. They blitzed from off the LoS just 8 times on 30 pass plays, well below their season average. That number may have been reduced by the desire to get fast pressure on Ryan by rushing from the LoS (as I define them, individual blitzers must be no closer than 1.5 yards from the LoS or at least as wide as the slot receiver).

They ran just 3 stunts. They dropped 2 or more from the LoS on 6 occasions, including elaborate drops of 3 and 4 men, each of which included Michael Pierce dropping to coverage.

To summarize the pass rush in a couple of sentences…The Ravens loaded the line of scrimmage (LoS) with numbers to confuse both Ryan and his offensive line. They were not shy about bringing 5, 6, or even 7, but did so with minimal deception. Ryan’s demonstrated desire to move backwards off his spot in the face of fast-developing pressure coupled with the cornerbacks’ success with press coverage encouraged Martindale to exploit the quarterback’s tendency progressively throughout the game.

Pierce and Williams

Michael Pierce is having a terrific year which morphed from a backup role in camp to higher leverage snaps as the season has progressed. He’s been outstanding versus the run, but is now being used more frequently as the sole defensive lineman on passing downs when Za’Darius Smith flips to the inside. By racing form notes:

  1. (Q1, 0:30): 3/5, Pierce bulled RT Schraeder for pressure
  2. (Q2, 4:59): Drove back RG Beadles then shed to tackle Coleman for a loss of 2
  3. (Q4, 7:16): Fought double team from C Mack and LG Schweitzer for pressure

I consistently see Brandon Williams’ play criticized, but he was outstanding on Sunday:

  1. (Q2, 5:47): Drove back LG Schweitzer and FB Ortiz then drew holding flag when shedding
  2. (Q3, 9:58): Beat RG Beadles inside to blow up Coleman for a loss of 2, tackle by Suggs
  3. (Q4, 7:24): Pancaked C Mack at the feet of Ryan for initial pressure on Onwuasor’s sack/fumble

These 2 combined for the play of the game on Sunday. With the Falcons 4th and 1 at the 50 (Q1, 14:12), the Ravens lined up in the nickel with Pierce and Williams as their only defensive linemen. Take a look at the pre-snap shot below and you’ll see the Ravens were depending on DBs Chuck Clark and Marlon Humphrey to help Za’Darius Smith hold the offensive left side. Pierce is blocked from view by Mosley, but his penetration between C Mack and LG Schweitzer blew up the play, allowing Suggs and Mosley the opportunity to swarm to the ball carrier. Williams also got good push on RG Beadles shut down space in the middle.

 

The Ravens continued to shut down the run in this game, allowing the Falcons just 35 yards on 13 runs (2.7 YPC, excluding 1 kneel). What’s been impressive is their success has come primarily while in the nickel and most NFL teams have eschewed the use of a FB in no small part to spread the field and allow their backs to run at lighter nickel sets.

The Ravens dressed just 4 DL for this game, which seemed risky. By deactivating both Patrick Ricard and Zach Sieler, the Ravens risked being exposed to:

— Injury on the DL

— Fatigue accruing from a high Falcons offensive snap count

— The need to play 3 DL on a higher number of snaps had the Falcons created a chance to nurse a lead

Effectively the Ravens sat FB/TE/DL Patrick Ricard in order to activate both Buck Allen (a 4th RB) and Maxx Williams (a 4th TE). Allen did not play an offensive snap. Williams was not targeted in 21 snaps. Each player has some special teams value, but I have difficulty constructing an argument for the choice to activate both.

Deep Depth

The Ravens defensive depth seems annually encouraging in training camp. This year was no different, but the depth remaining after the first December game is outstanding. Let’s review:

  1. The Ravens have 3 outside corners who continue to play rotationally (Smith, Carr, and Humphrey) and have been catalysts for the current win streak.
  2. They have a fine slot corner (Tavon Young) with backup options that have worked in the past (Carr, Canady)
  3. At safety, the Ravens had perhaps their deepest group and they’ve used that depth to take over the defensive signal calling (Weddle), fill in effectively for injury on the back end (Clark) and provide a key component to the pass defense (Levine). Tony Jefferson has had a solid season and will be a big asset when he returns.
  4. They have 4 of 5 healthy OLBs (Suggs, Za’Darius Smith, Judon, and Bowser) who have maintained solid pass rush and some coverage while they wait for the return of a gifted young pass rusher (Tim Williams).
  5. Next to Mosley, they have 2 ILBs (Kenny Young and Onwuasor) who are both getting significant playing time and contributing.
  6. On the defensive line they have remained effective despite the loss of their best pass rusher (Willie Henry) with 4 rested players (Pierce, Urban, Brandon Williams, Wormley) sharing the snaps and playing effectively. Unlike past seasons where the Ravens had a stair step of snap counts by linemen with Ngata or Gregg topping the list at 60-75%, all 4 linemen have played between 33% and 53% this season and have shined since the bye with reduced snap counts by number.

There are other teams with more star power on defense, but this team reminds me a lot of the 1979-83 Orioles dynasty that won with deep depth.

Defensive Stars

  1. Marlon Humphrey
  2. Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams
  3. Tavon Young
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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 filmstudy21@verizon.net or followed on Twitter @filmstudyravens. More from Ken McKusick

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