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Defense Hold Up Their End Against Talented Rams

Stafford Rams Tale of the Tape
original photo: Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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Happy New Year, Flock Nation, and welcome back to Tale of the Tape after a week off. Trust me, there was no need to re-live that defensive performance against the Bengals in Week 16, so we’ll skip right ahead to the Ravens’ Week 17 matchup with the Los Angeles Rams.

A depleted secondary against Cooper Kupp and the Rams was supposed to be a one-sided fight, but it didn’t turn out that way. As usual, the Ravens defense gave it everything they had, and they played surprisingly well against a talented, well-coached Rams offense. Let’s break it down!

The Good: Turnovers, Turnovers, Turnovers!

Obviously, Chuck Clark’s pair of interceptions were the defensive highlights of the day, so let’s start there.

Here’s the first one, a classic film study pick in which Clark recognized the pre-snap offensive alignment and clearly had some idea of what was coming.

But he doesn’t just abandon his post to go ball-hawking. Instead, he looks for visual keys from the wideout in front of him, the tight end to his left, and the quarterback in the pocket. Matthew Stafford draws back to throw when the tight end breaks, not when the wideout breaks, so Clark knows exactly where the ball is going and makes the easy play.

Here’s interception No. 2, in which there’s actually a coverage breakdown of some sort in the Ravens secondary, as Van Jefferson (12) is wide open on the left sideline when Stafford releases the ball.

It doesn’t matter, as Stafford makes a terrible decision to throw into triple coverage, and again, Clark does a great job in coming down with the ball. Baltimore’s defensive backs have seemed allergic to catching the ball at times this season, so to see Clark make even a slightly difficult interception was very satisfying.

But the Ravens weren’t done taking the ball away, in what was a huge departure for their inability to force turnovers for much of the season.

Just a quick reminder that four years and $22 million for Tyus Bowser is a STEAL. Watch him turn a chip from ex-Terp Jake Funk into a speed boost to beat the tackle inside AND have the wherewithal to force the fumble despite a good effort at ball security from Stafford.

 

Seriously, Stafford does everything right here. He uses his body to shield the ball and break the sack, but Bowser just finds a way. Justin Houston also shows off his veteran savvy by being the first to react and dive on the loose ball.

These kinds of game-changing turnovers have been missing from the Ravens defense all season, especially after multiple years of Marlon Humphrey Fruit Punches and Marcus Peters interceptions.

The Neutral: Clutch Tackling and Grasping at Thin Air

Tackling has been a point of emphasis in these breakdowns all season, but it’s safe to say that the Ravens are tackling much better than they were at the beginning of the year.

But Cooper Kupp is just a different beast, and he showed that in Baltimore.

I don’t love the soft coverage leaving Kupp that wide open, but he’s still a few yards behind the line of scrimmage when he catches the ball, so it could be worse. What is abjectly awful is the tackling here. Pause at 0:08 and you’ll wonder how Jimmy Smith and Josh Bynes couldn’t combine to get Kupp out of bounds around the 20-yard line. You’ll also wonder why Patrick Queen ends up at the sideline at 0:09 when Kupp’s only path to more yardage was to cut back inside.

But there was some excellent tackling too, courtesy of two safeties on opposite ends of their careers in Baltimore.

First up is Brandon Stephens, who made a great one-on-one tackle in the open field to stop the Rams short on this crucial third down. Tyler Higbee has about 30 pounds on Stephens, but the rookie still muscles him down in a huge moment.

Then came our old friend, Tony Jefferson. It didn’t end up mattering, but this tackle gave the Ravens a chance to win the game with the leg of Justin Tucker rather than just playing for overtime.

This is some slick play design by Sean McVay that should have worked, but Jefferson read the play so early that he’s charging hard at Odell Beckham Jr. before the ball even gets to him. That allows Jefferson to get to Sony Michel before he can turn the corner to keep the Ravens within range of victory.

The Bad: Caught Leaning

The Ravens’ coverage deficiencies eventually caught up to them, starting with the Rams’ first touchdown of the game, scored by Kupp.

Queen makes the same mistake that Robert Jackson made against the Packers: forgetting the assignment. Queen should know that he has two defenders on his outside, meaning all he has to do is not give up the middle of the field. Of course, that’s exactly what he does, biting all the way on Kupp’s stutter-step, and Kupp is too good not to take advantage.

I’ll get to Beckham’s fourth-down conversion in a bit, but first I want to look at his late game-winning touchdown.

I am going to tear my hair out if I see the Ravens give up as many red zone touchdowns to this passing concept next season. I know it’s tough to defend, but McVay clearly studied the Ravens red zone defense (which is one of the best in the NFL) and found its biggest weakness.

Baltimore’s defenders need to be ready for this near the end zone, because it’s been used so many times against them in different variations. Higbee takes his defenders upfield and prevents the Ravens from sticking with Beckham to the sideline for the easy score.

I don’t think NFL referees are as vigilant as they should be about these rub routes (or pick plays), but the Rams are so well-coached offensively that I doubt Higbee did anything ‘flaggable’ in clearing the way for Beckham. The Ravens just have to be ready for it.

Here’s another example of a Ravens defender leaning the wrong way and getting punished for it, this time featuring Chuck Clark.

I understand that Clark doesn’t want to give up a deep shot over the top, but he still jumps too hard to the outside here. Jefferson times his cut perfectly to catch Clark way off balance for an easy chunk gain.

But alternate angles of this play also lead me to my next section…

How The Heck Do You Stop This?

Jaylon Ferguson has a nice rush of the edge here, but Stafford is so smooth in the pocket that he’s comfortable stepping into a defensive lineman to launch a deep ball.

Yes, Clark’s coverage could have been better, but it’s also just hard to beat a quarterback that does this pretty regularly.

Here’s another example:

This is a great blitz design from Wink Martindale, and Stafford stays calm and somehow gets an accurate throw off. There’s always going to be someone open with these blitzes, so it’s more a matter of getting to the quarterback before he finds the open man. I am honestly not sure how the Ravens could have executed this play better, but the Rams just beat it.

One more:

Again, Stafford stays strong with Calais Campbell bearing down on him to find the soft spot in the Ravens’ coverage. The Ravens were this close so many times in this game, on top of the turnovers they already created.

Here are two more cases of the Rams just winning the play, starting with Beckham’s fourth down conversion.

This is excellent coverage by Tavon Young, who blankets Beckham and makes a strong tackle to try to keep Beckham short of the sticks. But the throw is in just the right place, and Beckham manages to hang on. That’s tough to stop!

So is this:

Pass protection, route-running and the throw are all good, even with decent coverage from Queen in a tough matchup. He flips his hips too late to keep up with Kupp, but his athleticism lets him make an impressive effort at cutting off the throw. Of course, that only serves to highlight how well Stafford threw this ball, and at a certain point, you just have to tip your cap to a talented, well-coached opponent like the Rams.

Onto the Steelers! Hopefully, we’ll be breaking down an appropriately hard-hitting goodbye to Ben Roethlisberger.

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