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A Confidence-Builder in Cleveland

Anthony Averett
Original Photo Credit: Shawn Hubbard, Baltimore Ravens
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After allowing scores on three of the Browns’ first four possessions on December 12, the Baltimore Ravens defense absolutely clamped down, shutting Cleveland out for the last 2.5 quarters of the game.

After overcoming an early-season allergy to tackling, the Ravens’ run defense has been the best in the NFL, allowing a league-low 85.5 yards per game. They’ve held Nick Chubb to his two worst performances of the season despite a strong Browns offensive line. I’ve detailed this in previous articles, but pretty much everyone on the Baltimore defense is playing the run at an extremely high level right now. It’s the definition of team defense, with every player knowing their role, executing their assignment and, crucially, making tackles, whether it be in the open field or as gang members.

It’s for those reasons that I’d like to focus on the Ravens’ pass defense, because that’s going to make-or-break this defense down the stretch.

The Packers, Bengals, Rams and Steelers all have fine rushing offenses, but they all rank in the bottom half of the league in yards per carry and total rushing yards this season. All of those teams are much more dangerous through the air, which is also where the Ravens are weakest, personnel-wise. So let’s take a look, both at the pass coverage and the pass rush, to see where the Ravens’ defense stands after Week 14.

CATCH THE BALL

Did any of us think that Anthony Averett and Chris Westry would be our starting cornerbacks this season? No, of course not.

Averett and Westry have both been rollercoasters. Expect more of the same. There will continue to be a fair amount of blown coverages, but the clean-up tackling from Westry (Averett, not so much) and the Ravens’ safeties has been solid. But Westry and Averett seem to excel at using their athleticism to win close plays.

Case in point: the early (and terrible) defensive pass interference call on Westry.

Obviously, this wasn’t DPI, and arguably should’ve been called offensive PI on Jarvis Landry for tackling Westry as he tried to make the interception.

But this angle shows how Westry stuck with Landry through traffic and closed a ton of distance with the ball in the air (which is likely what drew the flag).

It’s important to note that Westry doesn’t try to shoot the gap to keep up with Landry off the line of scrimmage. Instead, he recognizes a slower-developing route and stays patient, trusting his own speed to take over once he has a clear path to his man. The fact that he’s even in a position to make a play on this ball is impressive, and he continued to play tough, physical defense despite the early penalty.

On this play, Averett (bottom of the screen, lined up in press coverage) does something similar.

He stays engaged with his man rather than to try and blow up the screen, which means he’s prepared for the upfield release. Averett stays with his man step-for-step and keeps his eyes on Mayfield, giving him the opportunity to undercut the pass for what should have been an interception.

But Brandon Stephens dropped the ball twice, literally. This just cannot keep happening, especially with Aaron Rodgers, Joe Burrow and Matthew Stafford all due up. Baltimore has to seize any turnover opportunities presented by those quarterbacks, and that just means reeling in some of these tip drills.

Luckily, that’s one area where Averett has been reliable.

Sure, the ball was gift-wrapped by Mayfield, but Averett stayed calm and made the play. That was a game-changer, as the Browns offense didn’t score again.

The Ravens are still allowing touchdowns in the red zone just 48.4% of the time, the third-best mark in the NFL, but they allowed two red zone touchdowns to the Browns.

Here’s the first:

The Ravens have gotten hit by leakers in the red zone, especially in goal-to-go situations, all season. Chuck Clark keeps his eyes on the backfield far too long and lets Austin Hooper get behind him. These are tough situations, but one big issue is that Chubb had an open gap to the end zone as well. Patrick Queen and Jaylon Ferguson both fill the same hole, and Clark is right behind them rather than scraping over-the-top to the open gap. I’d almost rather Clark commit to either covering Hooper or stopping the run right away rather than trying to play both, especially on the goal line. He ends up stranded in the middle, and it’s an easy pitch-and-catch for a touchdown.

Here’s the second red zone TD

It’s a smooth route from Landry, the savvy veteran, and an even smarter move to square up Young before going for the pylon. Landry’s slow release off the line should alert Young that another move is coming, but Young shades too far inside and gets punished for it. Chuck Clark, at deep safety, bites too hard on the run fake, and is out of position to make the tackle.

It’s a tough play to make, but I bring it up because the Ravens have to deal with it this week:

The patience, the head fake, the footwork. The Packers have other receivers, but none with nearly as much talent as Davante Adams. Unless Westry or Averett can unlock a new height to their talents, the Ravens seriously need to consider doubling Adams for most of Sunday’s game.

Gotta. Get. There.

With the injuries in the secondary, pressure on the quarterback is going to be key. That wasn’t present for most of the Browns game, but I did want to note one play by Broderick Washington.

Washington has looked good in a bigger role with Campbell struggling with recent injuries. In both size and positional listing, he’s more of an interior defensive lineman, but he makes a nice play from the edge here. Any interior pressure from him in the future would be huge, as the edge pressure has been there but opposing quarterbacks have largely been able to step up into the pocket, especially with Campbell out.

Finally, here’s an example of what Wink Martindale is going to need to pull out many times for the rest of the season. Simulate pressure to disrupt the offense and put Baltimore’s athletic playmakers (Bowser, Oweh, Queen, chiefly) in positions to, well, make plays. And, Wink has to do this without going Cover 0 because we’ve seen that movie before.

It’s a tough ask, but we’ve seen enough from the Ravens defense to believe in them for the rest of the season, even against some top offenses. The Ravens defense may give up 30 points once or twice before the end of the season, but if they can pair that with a few turnovers, that should be able to keep Baltimore in the playoff hunt.

[Related Article: “We’re in a Fight!”]

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