There’s no other way to say this: the Ravens were punked in the 2020 Divisional Playoff game against the Tennessee Titans. They were physically mauled at the line of scrimmage (LOS) on both sides of the ball. They know it. The Titans certainly know it. And their roster construction approach this offseason has reflected their acceptance of this fact, including their approach to last weekend’s NFL draft.
There may not be any player who more clearly signifies the front office’s desire to bring back a nasty edge on defense than former Ohio State linebacker Malik Harrison.
In the words of Benjamin Solak from the NFL Draft Network, Harrison “eats nails for breakfast.” When it comes to describing Harrison’s overall toughness and proficiency as a “box” backer, he talks about Harrison’s ability to throw around offensive guards and invite collisions.
In the past, I’ve described these backers as “crash” guys. Classic Baltimore backers who have exuded those qualities include Edgerton Hartwell, Bart Scott, and more recently, Zach Orr. In the cases of Hartwell and Scott, their primary responsibility was to handle the dirty work — collide with linemen at the point of impact to create a blockade for running backs and clear the way for Ray Lewis to flow to the ball unimpeded.
These types of backers are also known as thumpers. Their objective is to play downhill, like seek-and-destroy terminators who are looking to annihilate anyone who comes in their path. In today’s NFL, this type of ILB is being phased out for more of the Patrick Queen types (the Ravens’ first-round pick).
But as we saw last season, when an opponent wants to grind defenses down with a power run game, not having this type of physicality and ability to win at the point of attack can turn into an issue, especially when games are still competitive. The Browns in particular exposed the Ravens’ lack of brute strength in their first matchup, which led to a complete overhaul of the ILB corps (more on that later).
Harrison is not the guy you want immediately playing in space, taking deep drops into coverage, or moving backwards. (Although according to NFL Draft Network, he is savvy in zone coverage and can take away the short-area passing game.) Although he’s a much better athlete than advertised, he just didn’t get as many opportunities to drop into coverage for the Buckeyes, and that’s not where he would excel anyway.
However, when it comes to the downhill game in which Harrison thrives, there are two distinct areas where he will be an upgrade.
Inside Run Fits
As I alluded to earlier, Cleveland did a number on the Baltimore backers in the first matchup. A lot of their success stemmed from the backers’ inability to flow to the right gaps and shed blocks. Nick Chubb‘s 88-yard touchdown run is a study on how “not” to read your keys on an inside run.
Once the team brought in veterans Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort to replace Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young, the run key reads and run fits improved dramatically. While they diagnosed plays more quickly, Bynes and Fort still had their moments when they got caught in the wash and weren’t the most physically imposing players. At times, they were engulfed by interior linemen.
Harrison is not going to engulfed too many times. At close to 250 pounds, he’s built more like an outside backer, hence the potential for him to play the strong-side (SAM) LB position at the next level. He not only has a nose for crashing gaps, he is a bulldozer who can stand up linemen and put them on their back.
Physically, Harrison has the frame and explosiveness to be even more dynamic than Bynes and Fort. Combine that with his intuition to take on blockers, close gaps, and free up defenders to rally to the ball, and you’ll see more tackles behind the LOS.
Moreover, Harrison doesn’t miss many tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, he had one of the highest tackling efficiency rates among backers in 2019.
Inside Blitz & Edge Pass Rush
This is the part of Harrison’s game that could really come to life in Baltimore. As some analysts projected Harrison’s position in the NFL, there was quite a bit of talk that he could turn into a pure SAM backer in a 4-3 scheme who wouldn’t have to worry about coverage duties.
Part of that projection stems from his talents as an instinctive blitzer and pass rusher. He notched 3.5 sacks in his final season at Ohio State. But that sack total doesn’t tell the whole story about his potential to win consistently at the next level.
As a blitzer, he has a clear understanding of how to shoot gaps on inside crossers, and he will overpower backs and tight ends who have to pick him up as an edge looper. Frankly, he has enough functional strength to line up head up on a left or right tackle and hold his own.
While Onwuasor was a terrific technician as a blitzer for defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale on designed inside rushes, Harrison should add that same ability plus the edge rush flavor to expand Wink’s portfolio of blitzes.
How Harrison Will be Deployed
Harrison is the type of player who can thrive in the Ravens’ 3-4 scheme. While his limitations as a pure thumper might have been a problem for other teams, Baltimore should be better positioned to mask those deficiencies and really play to his strengths — especially because Queen provides seemingly unlimited range to cover ground behind him on the back end.
Wink has proven that he can isolate the most prolific skills of his players and put them in position to succeed, whether by rotation or package-specific utilization.
Expect the same approach for Harrison. He’ll be a specialist at first who might not see the field much in obvious third-down situations. However, given Queen’s coverage skills and the depth in the secondary, the team will have enough flexibility in their nickel packages to plant Harrison close to the line and turn him loose.
In Wink’s heavy situational and substitution-based scheme, Harrison should carve out an enforcer role with plenty of room for growth. The violent backer is a throwback who will add much-needed bite for a team that needs to win more slugfests in the trenches.