This is Tale of the Tape – Defense. For Tale of the Tape – Offense, click here.
The Baltimore Ravens started their season off with a disappointing loss to the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday night, giving up a game-winning touchdown that handed Lamar Jackson his first Week 1 loss in his career.
Many fans and observers criticized the Ravens’ Cover 0 defense on the last play of the game, but the Ravens had been blitzing Derek Carr all game, with little success. Though defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale is known for his blitz-heavy playbook, the zeal with which the Ravens pursued the quarterback might have been a little too reckless in retrospect, after the Raiders’ inexperienced offensive line kept Carr upright for most of the game.
Let’s take a look at the Ravens’ defensive play call throughout the game to see if Wink needs to dial back the blitzes next week against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Cover 0 Woes
The Ravens’ bread-and-butter defensive looks involve Cover 0, named for the utter lack of safety coverage to protect against a deep pass. Instead, the Ravens man up on defense and send everyone else towards the quarterback, a strategy that has yielded success in seasons past.
Initially, the strategy seemed to work, as Carr completed just two of nine passes for 31 yards against the blitz in the first three quarters, costing his team an estimated 5.2 points, per Next Gen Stats.
Derek Carr struggled early against the blitz, completing just 2 of his 9 passes over the first three quarters of the game. In the 4th quarter & OT, Carr was a different QB…
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 14, 2021
But even in the second quarter, it was clear that Carr and the Raiders were picking up the Ravens’ blitzes pre-snap and adjusting accordingly.
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) September 14, 2021
When the Ravens showed blitz, the Raiders switched into a maximum protection offensive front, keeping a tight end and a running back to block the Ravens’ extra rushers. This often left the Raiders pass-catchers in single coverage, giving them a much better chance of making a catch.
This is the risk/reward paradigm of Cover 0. Pressure on the quarterback forces quicker, potentially errant throws, but it exposes defenders to single coverage, giving receivers the advantage downfield. The Ravens have been willing to play this game for the past few years, but when opposing teams minimize the reward and maximize the risk for the Ravens’, it’s time to adjust.
Watch this next play: Carr sees the Ravens blitz coming and calls for max protection.
Carr changed the protection to a full slide here vs. the Ravens Cover 0 blitz. I was trying to was trying to hear Carr’s word for it but couldn’t make it out. pic.twitter.com/q7v6FBelYo
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) September 14, 2021
He then fades back to escape the rush before launching a jump ball into single coverage that drew a flag for defensive pass interference. The Raiders’ offensive line gave Carr just enough time to get the ball off, setting up a score before the end of the half.
Again, a running back and a tight end block for Carr, eliminating the Ravens’ expected numbers advantage when they send seven defenders at five offensive linemen. With fourteen players engaged at the line of scrimmage, pass rush lanes get clogged and prevent free blitzers from getting to the quarterback.
The game-winning play demonstrates how the Raiders worked to buy Carr time by making it difficult for the Ravens to have a clear path into the backfield. This Cover 0 play call was criticized on social media, but head coach John Harbaugh confirmed after the game that the blitz was a last-ditch effort to push the Raiders out of field goal range, as a FG would have won the game as well.
Derek Carr to a wide open Zay Jones for the game-winning TD 🙌🏻
What a game.
— NFL Stats (@NFL_Stats) September 14, 2021
Carr takes the snap and immediately fades backward, knowing he has several rushers coming at him. The Raiders deployed smart route combinations to throw off the Ravens’ cornerbacks at the line of scrimmage, getting enough separation for Carr to just heave the ball downfield.
This graphic from Next Gen stats shows how the Raiders adjusted to the Ravens’ blitzes.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 14, 2021
First, a tight end (87) and a running back (23) stay in to block, while the Raiders’ receivers (83, 7, and 13) crisscross out of a bunch formation, creating space between them and their defenders.
The offensive line also collapses into a bunch, cutting off any pass rush lanes up the middle and forcing the Ravens to take the long way around to Carr. By the time Malik Harrison (40) gets anywhere close to Carr, Zay Jones (7) is already running free towards the end zone.
Andy Reid and the Chiefs were definitely taking notes on Monday night, and they have an even more potent offense than the Raiders. If the Ravens try to pull out Cover 0 in high-leverage situations against the Chiefs as they did against the Raiders, Patrick Mahomes is going to have a field day with his speedy wide receivers.
Marcus Peters’ absence factors into this as well. The Ravens could trust Peters and Marlon Humphrey, two of the most lockdown man cover corners in the NFL, when they called Cover 0, but Anthony Averett, Chris Westry and Brandon Stephens aren’t as reliable as Peters, a two-time All-Pro. The Ravens need to give their young corners a little bit more help, and the best way to do that is have at least one safety over the top to hedge against a DB getting burned.
Adjustments and Disguises
So what can the Ravens do? They still have to get pressure on the quarterback, right?
Of course they do. But Monday night demonstrated that Cover 0 is no guarantee of pressure. It did show, however, a few options for the Ravens moving forward, including a few strategies that should show up in the Chiefs game.
Let’s start with some looks at the Ravens four-man rush, which yielded two of the Ravens’ three sacks.
Ravens four man rush—
Calais Campbell lined up at 5-tech 👀
Bulled Miller right into Carr’s lap for a pressure, but loses balance. Forced Carr into harms way. pic.twitter.com/d9YEGWIXJH
— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) September 15, 2021
The Ravens dropped back into coverage, preventing a quick throw from Carr and giving Houston and Campbell enough time to disrupt the play. With rushers of Campbell and Houston’s pedigree, the Ravens should trust them a little more. If they play well, as they have for their entire careers, they’ll earn double teams from opposing offensive lines, opening opportunities for the Ravens’ other rushers.
Look at Houston shed his blocker with ease on this play!
Justin Houston got the sack but Josh Jacobs' blitz pick-up sheeeeeesh 👀 pic.twitter.com/yp0STg1kx4
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) September 14, 2021
While a simple four-man rush won’t work every time, it does allow the Ravens to drop more defenders into coverage, which will be especially key against the Chiefs’ uber-efficient passing attack.
The Ravens can also use the predictability of their blitzes to their advantage. They frequently stack players up at the line of scrimmage, making it difficult for opponents to figure out who will rush the quarterback and who will drop back into coverage. But too often, the Ravens just send everyone.
Instead, they should use more looks like this one, in which seven Ravens show blitz, but they revert to a standard four man rush.
Ravens put 7 on the LOS but rush four, Clark bats the pass and gets the Ravens off the field on 3-10. One play earlier he almost had a web-gem highlight reel one handed int. pic.twitter.com/ucj0giECwL
— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) September 14, 2021
The Ravens get enough pressure on Carr to force a bad throw without sacrificing downfield coverage. Rather than know who was blitzing, the Raiders’ OL had to guess and react as the ball was snapped, giving the Ravens a leg up from the get-go. Showing blitz can also force opposing quarterbacks to call for extra protection, giving the Ravens a numbers advantage in downfield coverage and allowing them to double-team receivers.
🗣ODAFE OWEH IS CAPABLE OF SACKING THE QUARTERBACKpic.twitter.com/ZNyYJu69vR
— PFF BAL Ravens (@PFF_Ravens) September 14, 2021
The Ravens showed blitz on this play as well, but only rushed three players. Rookie Odafe Oweh showed off his speed and motor to chase down Carr, but what the camera doesn’t show is the excellent coverage on the back end by the Ravens’ linebackers and secondary. Coverage sacks are still sacks!
This last play is probably my favorite of the night, a perfectly-disguised blitz that gave Patrick Queen a free and clear path to Derek Carr.
That delayed blitz was filthy, Patrick Queen just took a leisurely stroll through the Raiders OL 😂
— Nic Mason (@British_Raven19) September 14, 2021
The Ravens have some serious speed with Queen and Harrison at ILB, but just sending them right at opposing o-lines nullifies that advantage. Instead, they should call more plays like this, where Queen feigns dropping into coverage before bursting towards the quarterback. With the offensive line already engaged and no extra blockers in the backfield (because the Ravens didn’t show blitz), all Queen had to do was get to Carr.
The reason I love this play so much is because of how perfectly executed it is. Not only does Queen open his hips to lull the Raiders into thinking no blitz was coming, but the Ravens’ defensive line opens up a hole for Queen by taking their blockers to the edges of the pocket.
The Ravens won’t abandon their blitzing philosophy, but perhaps Monday night will teach them to show a little restraint. Predictability is a death knell for NFL defenses, especially against high-octane passing attacks like the Chiefs.
Wink has to be able to recognize the Raiders adjustments and make some changes of his own mid-game. He should see that the Raiders were effectively dealing with Cover 0 and dial up more creative and disguised blitzes to maintain the element of surprise.
Against Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes and the rest of the Chiefs’ extremely talented offense, that may be the Ravens’ only hope.