Attack Seattle LBs in Zone Coverage
Asking whether a team runs a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense is almost an outdated question in the modern NFL. As offenses around the league spread it out and pass the ball more and more every year, defenses are countering by replacing their run-stopping linebackers with safeties who are better in pass coverage, but strong enough against the run to make a play in the box if they need to. The Ravens do this by replacing a guy like L.J. Fort with someone like Chuck Clark or Anthony Levine on obvious passing downs.
The 2019 Seattle Seahawks are a little bit old school on defense. While most NFL teams plays so much Nickel that it has become the league’s de facto “base” defense, Seattle tends to stay in a more traditional “base” 4-3 look. With athletic starting LBs like Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and Mychal Kendricks, it’s not hard to understand why the Seahawks are more comfortable leaving their base personnel on the field more than other teams.
While Seattle’s loyalty to the 4-3 certainly helps them against the run (they rank 11th), it does not help them against the pass (23rd). In their only loss of the season, the Seahawks LBs struggled in zone coverage against Teddy Bridgewater and the Saints. In coverage, the LBs dropped into fairly deep zones and Bridgewater was able to connect with his receivers about five yards past the line of scrimmage on a regular basis. Against the Seahawks, the Ravens should call plays that attack that portion of the field and allow Lamar Jackson to find Mark Andrews, Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle in the soft spots of Seattle’s zone.
Get Hill Involved in the Short Passing Game
Ravens fans who’ve been clamoring to get Justice Hill more involved in the offense finally got their wish last Sunday against the Bengals. The rookie out of Oklahoma State had a career high 31 rushing yards on five carries. On his way to 6.2 yards per carry, Hill showed why he’s considered to be the change of pace in the Ravens running back group. While it was only five carries, he showed off the speed and elusiveness that made him a game breaker in college and a 4th-round pick in the NFL Draft.
Against the Seahawks in Week 3, Teddy Bridgewater found success throwing the ball to Alvin Kamara on short passes and screens. Kamara, a Pro Bowler, is one of the best pass catching RBs in the NFL, but there is no reason that the Ravens can’t at least attempt to replicate some of the success that Kamara had against the Seahawks with Justice Hill. Throwing a swing, a screen or a quick out to Hill would allow the Ravens to get one of their best playmakers in space and force the Seahawks to respect an underneath passing game that has been largely absent through the first six weeks of the 2019 season.
Let Jackson Run
Ahead of Week 6, Ravens fans and football fans as a whole thought they knew what Jackson could do as a runner. He led the league, by a mile, in rushing yards by a QB and brought a dangerous element to the revamped Ravens offense that no other NFL team had. Then, in the Ravens’ Week 6 game against the Bengals, Jackson led the entire NFL in rushing by running the ball 19 times for 152 yards and a TD. Using designed runs, RPOs and improvisation, Jackson shredded the Cincinnati defense in a way that was almost effortless.
When Jackson is a threat to run to the extent that he was against Cincinnati, every player on the opposing defense is forced to slow down. When rushing the passer, defensive ends can’t come with the reckless abandon that they would bring against less mobile QBs because Jackson is a threat to find a crease and scramble for 20 yards. When reading their keys and coming downhill to meet the FB or pulling lineman in the hole, the LBs hesitate because they know that it could be a zone read and that stopping a two-yard run by Mark Ingram means nothing if Lamar gets around the edge for a first down. Even when they do everything right, the pass rush is closing in and everyone is covered down field, the LBs often regret their decision to turn their backs on Jackson and give him license to scramble. Jackson’s ability as a runner is, above all else, what makes Baltimore’s offense special. In a big game against a tough opponent who has athletic LBs roaming the second level and Jadeveon Clowney on the edge, the Ravens need to go back to the well and get Jackson heavily involved in the run game on Sunday.
Rush with Four
Russell Wilson is the best QB in the NFL when facing the blitz. When the defense sends five or more pass rushers, Wilson leads the league with an astounding 141.8 passer rating. For reference, Wilson’s overall passer rating for 2019 is 124.7. Yes, Wilson is better when he’s being blitzed. Much of that success can be attributed to the fact that Wilson may be the best QB in the NFL at using his legs to extend the play. Wilson is a wizard when it comes to avoiding the rush, escaping the pocket to extend the play, and completing a pass downfield.
The Ravens biggest weakness as a team is their pass rush. They’ve struggled to make an impact with four rushers and, while they blitz more than any NFL team on a per-play basis (h/t 105.7’s Ken Weinman), they haven’t been able to finish the job, and rank in the bottom third of NFL teams in terms of sacks.
Because the Ravens aren’t great at rushing the passer and Wilson is so successful against the blitz, Wink Martindale should change up his pass rush strategy against the Seahawks. While it is counter to Martindale’s normal style, I believe that the Ravens should back off a little bit on Sunday and send their best four rushers after Wilson on most plays. Rushing Wilson with four would allow the Ravens to drop more defenders into pass coverage and lock up his options down the field. Choosing to frustrate Wilson by clogging throwing lanes rather than by turning up the heat is unconventional for Baltimore, but it could get the Seahawks QB off his rhythm just enough to give the Ravens an edge.
Lean on Man Coverage
While the Ravens were initially billed as having one of the deepest and most talented secondaries in the NFL, they have been absolutely decimated by injuries. Tavon Young, Jimmy Smith, Tony Jefferson, DeShon Elliott and Maurice Canady have all been bitten by the injury bug to some degree. As a result, the Ravens have struggled against the pass. Through six games in 2019, the Ravens are ranked 25th against the pass.
If you haven’t heard by now that the Ravens acquired CB Marcus Peters this week and you’re reading this article, I’d be pretty shocked. Peters, a 4th-year player out of the University of Washington, spent time with the Chiefs and the Rams before being shipped to Baltimore in exchange for ILB Kenny Young and a 2020 5th-round draft choice. For a Ravens defense struggling to rush the passer to this point in 2019 (see above), adding a CB of Peters’ quality could prove to be an absolutely huge addition.
A former 1st-round pick, Peters could be very successful if used in concert with fellow 1st-round pick Marlon Humphrey to lock down opponents in man coverage. Since entering the league in 2016, nobody has more interceptions than Peters. He has exceptional ball skills and the ability to take top flight WRs out of a game. Martindale should deploy Humphrey and Peters in man coverage to lock down the Seahawks outside WRs on Sunday. If the two outside CBs can do their jobs and the Ravens flood the passing lanes with safeties and linebackers, they may have a chance to do something that other defenses have failed to do so far this season and actually limit Wilson.
Make a Big Play
Besides the Kansas City Chiefs, the Seahawks possess the best offense that the Ravens have played so far this season. Their QB is playing at an elite level, they’re sporting the 9th ranked rushing attack in the NFL and they have a talented group of WRs. They currently rank 5th in the NFL in total yards per game (399) on offense and they rarely make mistakes.
For arguably the first time in franchise history, Ravens fans are far more confident in their offense than they are in their defense. That defense needs to step up and play their best game on Sunday. In Seattle’s only loss of the season, the New Orleans Saints made two splash plays that won them the game. In addition to an electrifying punt return TD that kicked off the scoring for New Orleans, the Saints punched out a fumble that they then recovered and took back all the way for six points. Playing against a tough team in an incredibly difficult environment on Sunday, the Ravens defense may need to make a big play or two to turn the tide. Whether that’s aggressively looking to strip players of the football like Humphrey did to seal the win over Pittsburgh or Peters jumping a route to hand Wilson his first interception of the season, the Ravens defense needs to be intentionally be looking to make a big play against the Seahawks.
One-on-One Matchup to Watch
Seahawks QB Russell Wilson versus Ravens S Chuck Clark
Aside from being one of the best QBs in the NFL, Wilson is also arguably the smartest. When not playing during the preseason this year, Wilson actually took over play calling responsibilities from the sideline. In the third quarter against the Browns last week, the microphone on Wilson’s helmet malfunctioned and made it impossible for him to communicate with his coaches on the sideline. For the rest of that drive and until he could get his helmet fixed, Wilson called his own plays for the offense. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that drive ended with a TD strike from Wilson to Jaron Brown.
Chuck Clark is pretty smart too. Upon his arrival in Baltimore, former Seahawk and All-Pro Earl Thomas was actually so impressed with Clark’s intelligence that he was quoted as saying “Bro, why would they bring me in when they’ve got you”? Wearing the “green dot” and starting his first game of 2019 last week, Clark was impressive. Unfortunately for him, Wilson and the Seahawks are a few steps up from Dalton and the Bengals. With Clark expected to make the defensive calls again this week, it’ll be up to him to match Wilson move for move. Whether or not Clark is able to make the right calls, counter Wilson’s adjustments and get his teammates lined up could have a real impact on the game’s result.