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L.J. Fort Unsung Hero of Ravens Defense

L.J. Fort drags down a Cleveland Brown.
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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Life After Hurst

One of the under-the-radar storylines coming out of the Ravens’ offseason was the transition away from Hayden Hurst, who was heavily involved in the offense in 2019, to a new-look personnel grouping from offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Hurst was on the field plenty in a combination of two- and sometimes three-tight end groups. The three-tight looks (although fewer in frequency) were devastating mismatch scenarios Roman could employ given Hurst’s versatility to play on the line, in the backfield, and split out wide.

Fast forward to Week 2. The evidence shows that Roman is opening up the formations more than he did last season. In Week 1 against the Browns, he used the same number of three-WR looks (mostly with Willie Snead, Marquise Brown and Miles Boykin on the field) as he did two-tight looks. In Week 2 against Houston, Roman opened up the first half with more of those three-WR formations, although there were some two-back combinations sprinkled in. In two different instances, we were treated to seeing Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins on the field at the same time, which I’ve been pushing for since training camp started. 

However, in the second half, it was a different story. Fullback and third tight end Patrick Ricard saw the field more. Roman leaned on the heavier sets and dialed down the three-WR looks, and as a consequence, the Ravens overpowered Houston on the ground. 

This isn’t to say that the three-WR looks haven’t worked. The offense has been able to create more opportunities for their receivers to make plays. Mark Andrews has also benefited through motion and the ability to release on routes from bunch and 3×1 looks. 

However, Roman will need to continue balancing these open looks with the power looks to find the right formula. That’s the disadvantage the offense has faced without Hurst on the field. He was a terrific bridge player who could always give the team the option to run or pass against heavier defensive packages. The offense will continue to evolve without him and so far the results have been mostly positive. 

Duvernay in Space

One of the players who directly benefits from a more open style of attack is rookie Devin Duvernay. The former Texas Longhorn was an intriguing prospect coming out of college on a number of levels. Built like a running back, Duvernay is a threat in the underneath game on screens and handoffs. He’s also a slot receiver with the vertical speed to take the top off the defense.

I like his usage in the offense and it seems like it’s only the beginning. Against Houston, Duvernay motioned in the backfield as the “orbit” player to catch a flat route. He was a decoy on a screen to the backside to Ingram, which ended up being a chunk play for 18 yards, leading to a TD on the drive. Later in the game, Lamar Jackson found Duvernay on a rollout pass. Against the Browns, Duvernay caught his first pass on a quick-hitting screen, showing his ability to break tackles and move the sticks.

So far, it looks like Roman is sprinkling him into the offense in early-down situations where the stakes aren’t as high. Duvernay has responded well to his opportunities, and his usage should continue to increase. Given his versatility to impact the underneath game, the offense has an added dimension to stress defenses horizontally and on the perimeter, ultimately opening up more passing windows for Jackson to exploit downfield. He’s going to be a consistent matchup problem for defenses and bring a Golden Tate-like dimension that the offense didn’t have last season. 

Don’t Tear Down the Fort 

The play that everyone will remember from the Houston game is L.J. Fort picking up a punch-out from Marlon Humphrey for a TD score. As well they should. It was a tremendous effort by the inside linebacker, as he had to navigate the sideline and extend the ball on a diving effort to cross the goalline. You could argue that was Fort’s signature play in his career.

Earlier on that same drive, Fort shot the gap on 1st down to force David Johnson to shuffle his feet and ultimately get stuffed for no gain. That wasn’t the splash play he made earlier, but it’s those types of plays — taking on blocks, diagnosing the run, setting up his teammates — that Fort routinely makes that go unnoticed. He’s perhaps the most instinctual player in the front seven with a high football IQ. He understands his landmarks and has a feel for the game that you can’t always coach. 

One of the most underrated signings of Eric DeCosta’s era as a general manager has to be Fort coming in last season off the scrap heap to fill a major hole at ILB. You could argue that DeCosta’s decision to extend him on a long-term deal was an even better move. 

As Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison continue to learn the ropes as rookies, Fort continues to be a steadying influence for this defense, and his value goes beyond the stat sheet. He’s typically the guy not standing out on the splash plays, but it was good to see him get the recognition on the key TD scoop and score. 

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