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Burned, But Not Cooked

Dalvin Cook v. Ravens
Photo Credit: Shawn Hubbard, Baltimore Ravens
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This is Tale of the Tape – Defense. For Tale of the Tape – Offense, click here.

Ravens Defense Rattles Cousins & Co.

Led by Kirk Cousins, the Minnesota Vikings may have scored 31 points by the end of Sunday’s game, but the Baltimore Ravens defense performed much better than the scoreboard suggests. Seven of those points came on a kickoff return TD, and another 7 came on a blown coverage that Chuck Clark already took responsibility for.

 

The Ravens have rarely been beaten by long passes this season, so I’m not overly concerned about Justin Jefferson’s 50-yard touchdown.

That leaves 17 points to account for, which represents a solid performance from the Baltimore defense against both the run and the pass. The Vikings managed 318 total yards of offense, including a paltry 187 from QB Kirk Cousins through the air. Dalvin Cook did average more than 6 yards per carry, but again, the stats don’t tell the entire story.

Let’s dive into some tape from Sunday to find out exactly what the Ravens did to slow down the Vikings offense.

Dr. Kirk Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Cousins

I always jump at the chance to make a literary reference when talking or writing about sports, and this one really fits Kirk Cousins. The disparity between his play when pressured vs. unpressured is one of the starkest contrasts in the NFL. In a clean pocket, Cousins picks apart defenses like an All-Pro, but under pressure, he completely crumbles.

The Ravens, and especially defensive coordinator Wink Martindale, definitely knew this coming into Sunday’s game, and set the tone early.

This isn’t one of Wink’s beautifully-designed blitzes. Instead, Justin Madubuike just wins his matchup, as we’ve been longing to see all season, and absolutely levels Cousins. That kind of hit is going to stick in a quarterback’s mind, especially one that struggles under pressure.

Cousins looked spooked for the rest of the game, eschewing longer-developing shots downfield for quicker check downs and short passes, even when he wasn’t being pressured.

Cousins figured out that he would have to get rid of the ball quickly if he wanted to survive the game. But the Ravens cornerbacks came prepared and did an excellent job in press coverage when blitzing. By overloading one side of the line and also sending Odafe Oweh from essentially the opposite slot, Cousins had multiple layers of pressure coming at him and forced a way-too-early throw for an incompletion.

In many ways, Wink’s blitz-happy defense is all about forcing opponents into difficult choices in extremely short spans of time. That doesn’t work against some of the smarter quarterbacks in the game, like Patrick Mahomes, but Cousins just doesn’t appear to have the requisite football I.Q. to beat the blitz.

The Vikings converted just 5 of their 14 third down attempts on Sunday, often because blitzes forced a check down or throwaway. Pressure on third-and-long situations has hurt the Ravens in the past, but not against Cousins, who simply had nowhere to go with the ball. Cook would normally be the check down option, but with the Ravens showing blitz, he had to stay in and block.

This is another nuance of Wink’s blitz-happy play call: by establishing the blitz, you force opposing offenses to keep in extra blockers and therefore send out fewer receivers. That means that only 3 or 4 defenders have to stick to their man rather than 5 or 6, while still providing a numbers advantage in the pass rush. That’s another tough choice for offenses to make on the fly.

Cousins  barely looks downfield before hitting Cook in the flat, and it’s probably because he saw Justin Houston about to win his matchup. Houston was excellent all day, and likely missed his 100th career sack by a few inches on a couple of plays. By the time the game reached overtime, Cousins was likely too ready to bail under pressure.

Here’s another one where he checks down almost immediately. Why? With Clark screaming around one edge and Oweh close to being in Cousins’ face, he ditches the ball. The Ravens didn’t have to send the house on either play; the mere threat of a blitz was enough to scare Cousins before the snap and force him to prematurely bail out.

Cousins’ NextGen Stats passing chart from Sunday shows his inability to connect downfield. That’s a clear result of successful blitz play-calling to throw Cousins off his game. His 6.7 yards per attempt isn’t terrible, but take away the 50-yarder to Jefferson and he’s sitting at 5.1. That’s a full 2 yards below Cousins’ YPA for the season.

Kirk Cousins v. Ravens

The best part about forcing Cousins to ditch the ball quickly is that it takes away his best weapons. Sure, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen are capable of quick-hitters, but they excel when they can show off their full route tree. But the Ravens never gave Cousins enough time to let routes develop, and that kept Jefferson and Thielen restricted to just 5 catches on 12 targets. Without the deep touchdown, the pair finished the day with 4 catches for just 25 yards. After getting torched by the Bengals receivers, the Ravens did a great job of keeping the ball away from the Vikings’ best targets.

Hit Or Miss Vs. The Run

Now let’s take a look at Cook’s rushing chart from NextGen Stats, featuring all 17 of his carries.

One hundred five of Cook’s 110 yards came on those three green runs, meaning that the Ravens otherwise held him to just 5 yards on 14 carries. Sheesh.

There were two keys to the Ravens’ run defense on Sunday: sealing the edge and interior line play. Both have been issues for the Ravens all season, but the interior defensive line really stepped up on Sunday, while results on the edge were less consistent.

The Vikings beat the Ravens to the edge here, and did so again later with a jet sweep.

That set the Ravens up to over pursue, which is exactly what they did on the following play. The aggressiveness of this defense can be used against it, but unlike previous games, everyone tackled quite competently, like Elliott on the second play in the above clip. So even when Cook did managed to find space, the Ravens did a great job of wrapping him up. Check out Patrick Queen on this next play.

 

Queen makes an exceptional play here, but this is a high-quality rep from the entire defense. Even if Queen doesn’t perfectly run the alley and make a strong tackle, Clark, Oweh and Madubuike are all well-positioned to make the play by attacking the edge.

When the Vikings tried to run the ball inside, the Ravens’ defensive tackles were ready, even without Brandon Williams.

Check out Justin ‘Jelly’ Ellis on this one. He did a great job stepping up in Williams’ absence, just eating blocks for his teammates to allow them to flow to the ballcarrier. Strength in the trenches was huge in preventing the Vikings’ offensive line from blowing open holes for Cook.

Finally, here’s the weekly Calais Campbell appreciation section, with a special shout out to Madubuike, who finally showed off some of the game-wrecking ability we’d been waiting to see. If Campbell’s been able to impart even a small fraction of his wisdom to the second-year DT, Mad Dog could be an absolute force next season.

Note how Tyus Bowser, who quietly had a very good game, was also prepared to tackle Cook if he tried to bounce it outside. His ability to rush the passer, play the run and drop into coverage has come in handy with the Ravens’ injuries and inconsistency on defense this season. He hasn’t made many flashy plays, but he shows his value best on tape.

He’s just another example of the potential of this defense. When everyone of Wink’s guys play at their best, I truly believe it’s a top-10 unit in the NFL, even with the injuries. Let’s see if they can live up to the billing tonight against the Dolphins.

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