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Ben Cleveland: More Than Squirrels

Ben Cleveland at rookie camp 2021
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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There’s been a lot written about the squirrels. How he saw a squirrel in his tree, shot it and grilled it for breakfast. No pancakes for him. Oh wait, yes there are, only they’re on the football field when he’s driving dudes into the ground. I’m of course talking about new Raven offensive lineman Ben Cleveland.

I know the squirrel thing has been a little overdone now (not the squirrel of course, I’m sure that was cooked to perfection; but hearing about it.) So, I looked for some other trivia about Cleveland, which you can find with a modicum of Google in your life:

  1. Cleveland went to the same High School, in Toccoa, Georgia, as Ravens legend Evan Oglesby.
  2. Even after exceeding 300 pounds, Cleveland was still stealing bases as a baseball player.
  3. Cleveland broke his leg, then played a game six weeks later.

The squirrel diet, I don’t really care about. That he’s from the town where the 101st Airborne trained prior to invading occupied France, not important. But playing on a broken leg and stealing bases,can begin to tell you just how tough and athletic the newest Baltimore offensive lineman is.

If you want more evidence of how impressively athletic Cleveland is, Speed Score is a metric that adjusts 40-yard dash times with weight. Cleveland ran a 5.05 40 at 6”6 and 343 pounds. That gives him a Speed Score better than Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook. Of course he isn’t faster than McCaffrey or Cook, but force equals mass times acceleration. People, a wrecking ball doesn’t move that fast but it leaves destruction in its wake. That’s Ben Cleveland – destruction in his wake.

This was a draft when I learned that John Harbaugh and I have similar tastes. Every year, the Ravens scouts are allowed to place a red star on a prospect they believe fits Baltimore perfectly. I replicated this process myself when I started evaluating draft prospects some 12 years ago.

I allow myself about six to eight “red stars” each year rather than just one.

Ben Cleveland was one of my red stars this year. It sure sounded like he would have been Harbaugh’s, if he had one to give.

Pre-draft, it wasn’t just his toughness, athleticism and relative length that led me to place a red star on Cleveland, it was his fit with the Ravens. As many will know, a heavy gap scheme like the Ravens run requires more power from offensive linemen, and doesn’t prioritize movement as much as do the heavier zone schemes. But even a heavy gap team like the Ravens run plenty of zone, so they require some athleticism. The beauty of Cleveland’s fit for this offense is that his biggest strength as a run blocker – his power at the point of attack – matches Baltimore’s predominant run blocking scheme. He has the raw tools (read: speed) to be good in space, but it doesn’t yet translate to his movement ability at the second level (more on this later).

If you want to see more of my deep dives into the Ravens draft picks you can find them here on RSR, or on my website where I’ve already reviewed some of the new Ravens from this draft class.

As a drive blocker, Cleveland is a people-mover. As a down blocker, he’s a people-destroyer. There has been some talk though, about his ability to pull, something that we see from guards in this offense consistently. He will of course need to pull successfully in this scheme, but I suspect the amount to which Bradley Bozeman pulled was due to his more limited ability as a down-blocker – we may well see different assignments for a different starting guard after Bozeman kicks inside to center. Despite Cleveland looking a little cumbersome in open space, I didn’t have too much of an issue with his ability as a puller. The challenge for Cleveland is his change of direction, but as long as you have him running a consistent arc or a straight-line kickout block, you’ll get the best out of him.


He can win on these types of pulls consistently. Another here, like the one above in how little movement in open space is required:

On combination blocks, crucial to gap running schemes, timing is paramount. Cleveland can take too long to seal at the line of scrimmage and therefore too long to make it to the second level, but he also has little margin for error on this given his movement deficiencies in space. While I don’t appreciate the lack of unit effectiveness caused by Cleveland on occasion as a combo blocker, I do appreciate his general demeanor on these blocks, which is, in a word, nasty. Sometimes his poor timing on his release to the second level is because he hasn’t finished mauling the guy at the point of attack with his teammate. In the tweet below, he is on a Deuce block as the right guard working up to the second level after sealing at the line of scrimmage with the Right Tackle.

In essence, I think he’s too keen to get the sealing job done and will, more often than not, move to the second level too slowly. The kind of beat showcased above, does show up a fair amount on film. There are times when it’s because of the poor timing already mentioned and there are also times when it’s because a second-level defender is too nimble under his block even after Cleveland has located him.

However, as a combination blocker, he’s pretty good off-script and has solid instincts. The small, pre-snap shift by the Defensive Tackle (#44) in the play shown in the tweet below dooms the Ace block they have called between the Guard and the Center from the start. The Center moves to the second level, but the down block for Cleveland has now become an impossible reach block. He adjusts on the fly and washes the DT past his Running Back’s cutback lane, before moving to the second level himself, working in tandem with the back to salvage a positive play.

As the down-blocker, either in combination or solo, he’s a powerful beast and very difficult to handle. If he does start at left guard and he does execute combination blocks, the Ravens would be best suited with him as a down-blocker and Ronnie Stanley or Bozeman moving to the second level. As a down blocker, he will regularly put his man down – either with or without help. This tossing of defensive linemen like he’s lobbing another log on the fire to help grill more of his squirrels is his signature move.

He has some challenges making reach blocks and will be caught running his man into the ball carrier. You can also too often see him on the floor after chasing a block too hard. But these are, pretty much, the only deficiencies in his work at the line of scrimmage. As well as the down-blocking prowess already mentioned, he will roll his hips on contact, albeit without overwhelming initial pop, wall off the defender from the ball carrier and dominate. His upper body strength is crushing and he will break the will of defensive linemen, keeping them away from the inside run with devastating consistency. Runs through the A gap are rarely disrupted from Cleveland’s side – the Ravens coaches were likely salivating at this prospect.

He is circumspect and patient in pass protection, allowing him to maintain magnificent bend for his considerable size. When you pack his kind of power into a compact-leverage filled base, he is consistently difficult to shift. When he drops anchor he might as well have built a small moat for his section of the pocket – defensive linemen would need a drawbridge to get through him to the quarterback. Straight bull-rush into his chest, early in the game, from a defensive end with a running start – no problem:

It’s important to note that I’m talking here about his base and his anchor. His hands are a slightly different story, for me. While his punch is patient, it doesn’t pack a whole lot of power yet for someone as country-strong as him. I’m not knocking his end-results in pass protection, which were near flawless protecting Georgia QBs, but the patty-cake hands and hand-fighting he engages in too often could cause him some challenges at the next level. You’d like to see more latch strength from him and while this doesn’t often get him into trouble in college (you can see instances where a savvy defensive lineman takes advantage of it), it certainly could at the next level.

He has progressed with this over his career to the level where reps like the below against Alabama were more frequent. Don’t get me wrong: he’s rarely beaten, even when he doesn’t execute in a textbook fashion, but you’d like to see him more consistently win like this. He has really long arms for the phonebooth and when he locates an effective outside hand inside, like he does below and latches, it’s over.

The snap in the tweet below also has a poetic beginning, middle and end to really show how good his pass protection can be when everything works in harmony. That initial patience he has, so well demonstrated in this rep, takes away the possibility of a quick win for his opponent. When followed by the strong initial paw to the chest, accompanied by some latch, his considerable reach means the defensive lineman gets nowhere near his body and can’t win through the middle of the rep. And to close, we even get a hint of that devastating anchor as the defender tries to come with some late, straight power.

His footwork in short areas for his pass protection is excellent. His patience, combined with his power, means that pressure up the gut was rare for Georgia quarterbacks to face, from his side anyway. This is crucial to the Ravens passing game – Lamar Jackson is at his best throwing with a hitch or when climbing the pocket, and interior protection is vital to those throws. Kevin Zeitler shored up one side, and perhaps the Ravens found the answer to protecting their soon-to-be-highly-paid, franchise quarterback on the left side of the interior too, in Ben Cleveland.

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