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Tough Sledding in Pittsburgh

Tyus Bowser Chuck Clark Najee Harris Steelers
Phil Hoffmann/Baltimore Ravens
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Reading Time: 5 minutes

This is Tale of the Tape: Defense. For Tale of the Tape: Offense, click here.

Despite the big plays and missed tackles, the Baltimore Ravens defense has only surrendered 260 points in 2021, the ninth-lowest total among all NFL defenses. That’s even more impressive considering that they’re missing Marcus Peters, DeShon Elliott and Derek Wolfe. That’s not even including absences from run-stuffing DT Brandon Williams and several cornerbacks in various games this season. The Ravens have embodied a ‘next man up’ attitude all year, but that’s about to get tested with the loss of Marlon Humphrey.

Even despite some struggles this season, Humphrey is still arguably the Ravens’ best defender, so his loss will certainly have an impact on this team going forward. That’s going to put a huge amount of pressure on an already-depleted secondary and raise the stakes sky-high every time that defensive coordinator Don ‘Wink’ Martindale calls a blitz.

Let’s jump into some film from the Steelers game to see how the Ravens will keep their defense afloat for the rest of the season.

The Averett Rollercoaster Continues

It’s safe to say that Wink Martindale’s All-Pro projection for Anthony Averett hasn’t quite worked out. He’s shown flashes, even against top competition like the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill, but he has a tendency to let bad plays stack during games, leading to abysmal performances like Week 5 against the Indianapolis Colts. He had another rough night against the Steelers, especially Diontae Johnson, in Week 13.

The Ravens play a four-deep, or quarters, coverage here, with Averett responsible for the far-right quarter of the field. Humphrey gives Johnson a nice chip off the line, which should have given Averett plenty of time to get back into his zone. But instead, he’s caught still backpedaling as Johnson blows right by him (and drops a wide-open TD). Averett may have thought he’d have help from Chuck Clark, but there’s also no other receiver anywhere close to Averett’s zone. Awareness, both of space and situation, is a huge area of improvement for Averett to focus on, as illustrated by the next play as well.

This is another bad rep from Averett. It’s okay to get beat by a good release from a high-caliber receiver like Johnson, but Averett self-destructs on this play, getting overaggressive to make up for the lost ground and completely misses the tackle with no one outside of him to clean up the play. Rather than shooting so far inside to try to break up the pass, Averett should have focused on bringing Johnson down as soon as he caught the ball.

Here’s another one where Averett gets beat and can’t bring his man down after the catch. Neither of those things can happen with such regularity. He doesn’t make any contact with Chase Claypool off the line of scrimmage, allowing him to quickly accelerate past for a big gain.

This kind of timing play is tough to disrupt, especially when a stumbling receiver is able to recover and make the catch. But again, Averett needs to at least slow his man down until reinforcements arrive, as I discussed last week, instead of letting Johnson break free almost instantly.

And then there was this. Averett missing the communication sums up the problem facing the Ravens’ secondary for the rest of the year. They simply don’t have the talent to make up for mistakes, and awareness and communication are going to be vital in overcoming the loss of Humphrey.

Tackling after the catch would help, too.

Credit Where It’s Due

The Ravens held the Steelers to 20 points and just 321 yards of total offense, limiting star rookie RB Najee Harris to just 71 yards on less than four yards per carry. Those numbers are pretty good, and the defense’s overall performance was solid once again. But the Steelers also demonstrated a high level of preparedness for the Ravens defense, and they executed as well. When that happens, it’s hard to do anything but tip your cap to your opponents, no matter how hated they are.

Let’s start with the Steelers’ eventual game-winning touchdown from Johnson.

I’ve written about the Ravens being burned by this kind of rub route on the goal line. The Steelers seem to have paid attention as well, running a similar play to secure the touchdown here. But usually, the outside player runs an in-cutting route and the insides player runs a fade or flat towards the outside. Pittsburgh wisely flipped that here, knowing that Humphrey would be prepared for the original version of the play. They were right – look at how well Humphrey and Brandon Stephens navigate the traffic. Tight end Pat Freiermuth is covered by Stephens and while Johnson could have caught a slant, he would’ve been quickly met by Humphrey and Josh Bynes and likely stopped short of the end zone.

So instead, the Steelers have Freiermuth flare out before cutting back in while Johnson runs a well-executed pivot into the open space on the left side. That’s a tough play call to beat in that situation, especially when you’ve been burned by different variations of that concept in the past.

I also have good news and bad news about Patrick Queen. The good news is that he’s still playing well, but the bad news is that other teams are taking note, and starting to plan for it.

Here’s Najee Harris shutting down Queen when he nearly had a free path to the quarterback. The Steelers did a great job picking up Queen’s blitzes all game.

They also looked for him coming up to stop the run.

And even targeted him specifically at the second level on this screen.

To be clear, Queen was in the right position on all of those plays; the Steelers were just ready for him to be. But every action has an equal and opposite reaction; in other words, opposing offenses focusing on Queen should open up opportunities for other Baltimore defenders elsewhere. But that requires Queen to maintain his high level of play and continue to fight through blocks in order to maximize the chances of the defense as a whole making the stop.

The Steelers’ blocking wasn’t perfect; we still got a Calais Campbell-esque play from a resurgent Brandon Williams.

All You Need Is Luck

Luck isn’t everything, but a little bit of it might be nice for a battered Ravens defense.

Check out these plays, any of which could have ended in a turnover, but didn’t.

Oweh misses the first opportunity, and Humphrey can’t quite hang on.

This was a weak DPI call, in my opinion, that could have just as easily not been called and given the Ravens a game-changing turnover. Referees all seem to have different interpretations of pass interference, and some may not have called that one.

Justin Houston almost catches this one, but instead it bounces off his hands and just out of each for Chris Board. Geno Stone makes the right play to make sure the pass is incomplete, but imagine if he had turned around a bit earlier.

There’s some more Harris pass protection on that last one, stymying the Ravens’ blitzes much like Bengals’ RB Samaje Perine did in Week 7. I’m curious to see if the Browns RBs will show similar blitz pickup proficiency this weekend.

The Ravens will need some of these plays to go their way down the stretch in order to hold onto the division lead. As we found out, in brutal fashion, it’s truly a game of inches, and sometimes the difference in a tight game can come down to just a touch of luck.

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