Football, much like boxing, is often a test of matchups.
When you find a weakness, you exploit said weakness. Have you watched all-universe defensive tackle Aaron Donald play very often? He can line up anywhere from the edge to straight up against a center — not necessarily to show off his athleticism and range, but to exploit a matchup. If you have a bum on your offensive line, and you’re playing the Rams, you can expect Mr. Donald to be punishing that aforementioned bum whenever you have the ball.
The same thing goes for offense. How many times have we seen the Ravens run low on quality corners during their “seasons of attrition,” only to watch an opposing offense find that weakness over and over and over again? Remember Tom Brady stealing Rashaan Melvin’s lunch money time and time again in that January 2015 AFC Divisional game? Joe Burrow picking on guys late last season who were, well… not part of the team’s preseason plans? And how many times have you seen the Ravens beat an overmatched defensive front into submission with a power-run game?
In a salary-cap age, teams are going to have to make certain sacrifices on their rosters, be it positional groups or depth. It’s just not realistic to believe your team is going to have 53 difference-maker guys on the roster making $30 million-plus a season, so you have to have a plan. You have to have a strategy. And at its base, that strategy has to include taking advantage of mismatches when they are presented.
Or, you build a team that creates mismatches by its very foundation.
That’s what I believe the Ravens are trying to do right now.
A Smattering of Safeties
With the addition of rookie Kyle Hamilton in the first round, the Ravens added to an assumed strength with their safety group. Hamilton will join high-dollar free agent Marcus Williams, veteran Tony Jefferson, youngsters Geno Stone and Ar’Darius Washington, and, if he doesn’t get traded, Chuck Clark. It’s an interesting collection of players, each bringing their own characteristics to the safety room.
Granted, in today’s NFL, safeties aren’t exactly one of those “premium position groups” that generates a ton of discussion or attention. Just on defense, corner, edge-rusher and the greatest unicorn of all — disruptive interior pass rusher — are more highly sought-after and well-compensated. But don’t sleep on the Ravens’ ability to create mismatches with this group.
The Ravens should be able to play deep cover-two in certain situations, as well as push Williams to a centerfield role while guys like Hamilton, Jefferson and Clark can provide coverage matchups inside against tight ends or big slots, while also being able to offer something with the blitz.
And though we’ve seen the Ravens offense fail in many spectacular ways in the playoffs over recent seasons, the one where I thought the opponent did more to stop them than they did themselves was that Divisional game against the Chargers. Due largely to injuries amongst their linebacking group, the Chargers fielded a ton of defensive backs in that game to disrupt the Ravens dominant running game with speed and range. They were equally able to get back on the Ravens tight ends with safeties who could provide coverage, and a weapon like Derwin James who could do whatever he wanted to throw off the Ravens offense. Think about how the Dolphins sold out against the Ravens last year with safeties blitzing, and now think about how the Ravens can seemingly do that at will to opponents this season — and also be able to sit back in deep cover-2 against those speedster receivers in Miami.
There is flexibility with this group, and they are seemingly prepared on the back end to present issues to whatever looks they are given from the opposition week to week, possession to possession. Another possibly-significant element in this is second-year player Brandon Stephens, who can step into that slot role against certain receivers, and has shown the ability to navigate his way through traffic when working the middle of the field — as one might expect from a former running back.
In a matchup league, where defenses in particular are looking for an advantage in this offense-favored time, this group of safeties could prove to be game-changing for the Ravens going forward — particularly if they are able to get out to leads and start throwing a zillion different looks at pass-heavy teams trying to score points in a hurry.
Test Opposing Defenses’ Ability to Match Up
A lot has been said about the Ravens receiver group, and for good reason — there isn’t a lot of NFL production there to hang your hat on. Oh, there is some reason for optimism with some of the young guys, but unrealized potential adds up to a steaming pile of nothing until it turns into real-life production.
But what the Ravens do offer is the ability to create headaches for opposing defenses, particularly ones who might not have a plethora of safeties like the unit we discussed above. And that advantage will largely come from the team’s tight ends.
Mark Andrews is the headliner here, and for good reason. He has established himself as one of the top receivers in the league at his position, and provides pretty solid blocking, as well. Andrews can easily move from the end of the line to the slot or even out wide before the snap, forcing an opposing defender to give something away. Maybe a linebacker scoots out with him, or a safety comes up to “check him” or nothing happens at all, and quarterback Lamar Jackson can identify a zone happening in front of him. Conversely, Andrews can also line up wide, and move back to the line in an instant if the Ravens see a look they like to run against. Advantage: Offense.
The expected return to health of juggernaut-blocker Nick Boyle also helps. Boyle is known as being one of the very best run-blocking tight ends in the NFL, and justifiably so. But he is also sneaky good at slipping out into gaps in zones and extending drives. When your reputation is one way, and you can provide even a little bit of something that strays from that reputation, well… now you’re a problem.
The team did not stop with these two, adding two more weapons to the position in the draft with Charlie Kolar and Isaiah Likely, two good receivers who bring some more skills to the offense. Kolar projects as a good target on third downs and in the red zone, while Likely stirs images of a runaway train breaking down the seam or taking wheel routes down the sidelines. He has also shown to be a scrappy blocker.
The Ravens can move these players in and out to keep them fresh, and to take advantage of mismatches, while also working in fullback/H-back/pancake-pounder Pat Ricard, who can line up in the backfield, wide next to a tight end to cave in unsuspecting safeties and smaller edge defenders, or next to the tackle in an unbalanced line.
This is not the sexiest package of weapons to hit the NFL in terms of dash and flash, but it is a matchup nightmare that can line up against any defense, and — maybe even more importantly — can dictate what kind of packages opposing defenses can roll out there from play to play.
Load up with defensive backs to try to negate the Ravens speed with Jackson and JK Dobbins? Here comes the thunder on the edges. Bulk up to try to stop those battles, and watch a tight end get matched up against a linebacker one-on-one in coverage.
What’s it Mean?
Well, the Ravens certainly appear to have weaknesses right now at edge and receiver. The edge group could eventually straighten itself out with the return to health of Tyus Bowser and rookie David Ojabo, but that’s unknown — both in terms of the production the team can anticipate and a timeline for their return. The receiver group, though not as important in this offense as many others, simply does not strike fear. Maybe Devin Duvernay, James Proche and Tylan Wallace become stars with more opportunities. Maybe they just show that they are undeserving of expanded opportunities. Time will tell, and there is still time to address these positions before the real games start in September.
But what they do have is an embarrassment of riches at two positions that can expose other team’s weaknesses, as well. And that at least makes for a fair fight.