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Ravens Defense Does the Little Things Right vs. Jets

Mike Macdonald
Phil Hoffmann/Baltimore Ravens
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I wasn’t expecting a major breakthrough performance from the Baltimore Ravens’ Week 1 matchup with the New York Jets. Facing a depleted offensive line and a backup quarterback, the Ravens defense didn’t need to do anything special to win. They just needed to execute a clear, simple gameplan: control the line of scrimmage and don’t give up big plays.

I think those two keys will be the pillars of the Ravens defense this year under Mike Macdonald, and they were present especially in the first half as the Jets were held scoreless until there were 24 seconds remaining until halftime.

The Jets’ second drive was one of the defense’s best, which really started with a beautiful punt from Jordan Stout that pinned New York at their own 11-yard line.

I felt like Justin Madubuike set the tone early for the Ravens defense, like he did on this first down. He feasts on a mismatch with a tight end and sweeps through the cutback lane to stuff Breece Hall for a 2-yard loss. This isn’t especially well-blocked – Jets left tackle George Fant barely gets a hand on Madubuike before moving to the next level – and the tight end has no chance of getting inside of the third-year Raven off the snap.

Broderick Washington pushes his tight end matchup back into the pulling guard and Justin Houston held the edge, trapping Hall in the backfield with Madubuike closing in. Michael Pierce eats a double team, too, so Josh Bynes is in position to make a play had Madubuike not finished things.

A short completion set up a third-and-long that was converted by an illegal contact penalty on Marlon Humphrey. I think it was a soft flag, but that’s a known point of emphasis this year and defenders need to know that.

On first down, we see Patrick Queen continue to anticipate plays based on motion, with this stop as part of his excellent game. This was a feature of his stellar play to end last season, and his film study has clearly continued into this year.

Queen’s footwork on this play is especially good. I thought he over-committed sometimes last year, but this time, he moves with the hole and forces the running back to commit before exploding for the tackle.

Odafe Oweh turns Fant around with a sidestep that I recognize from Houston’s arsenal, and Pierce dominates the left guard to make Queen’s job a bit easier.

Second down, same thing: Queen triggers off motion and disrupts the play, with Pierce cleaning things up for no gain.

The word that keeps coming to mind for Pierce’s performance on Sunday is dominant. He looked like the strongest player on the field most of this time, and I think we’re going to get the best out of him this season.

Stout run defense to force third-and-longs is a defensive coordinator’s dream. The drive ends with a drop on a would-be first down pass to Corey Davis against man coverage. Sometimes, you get lucky.

Let’s move to the Jets’ sixth drive, which again started at their own 11-yard line courtesy of Jordan Stout.

On first down, Hall scoots through a big hole for a 14-yard gain, It’s well-blocked by the Jets, though I think Laken Tomlinson holds Bynes. Hall does well to find a hole and Kyle Fuller is taken out of the play by a tight end.

Baltimore’s linebackers do well not to bite on play action on the next play, and Malik Harrison makes a nice tackle after five yards. I thought Harrison played really well, one of the better games of his career.

Bynes also gets excellent depth to take away one option on this play and Humphrey comfortably shuts down the outside vertical route.

The Jets take advantage of Queen’s aggressiveness on second down, drawing him closer to the line with motion to open up a swing pass to Hall for a first down.

Queen flashes his closing speed and almost makes the stop despite a bad angle, but can’t quite get there in time. This is a good example of Queen needing to pick his moments. Even if he was confident in reading run, he has to remember he’s already lined up on the opposite side of the formation as his man.  Teams will take note of Queen’s aggressiveness and use it against him in future matchups. With Harrison already blitzing to his left, Queen should have prioritized his assignment instead of sneaking towards the line, which left him out of position and allowed the first down.

On the next play, Houston freezes Jets left tackle George Fant with an excellent hesitation and gets inside to Flacco for a sack.

Every time I watch Houston in detail, I marvel at his technique: sudden footwork and precise timing. He knows he’s playing against a tackle who just moved from the opposite side of the line and combines footwork and hand placement to get Fant off-balance and clear a route to the quarterback. The subtle hesitation forces Fant to open up his left foot into a more vertical pass set and set up the inside counter from Houston, who strikes with precision and timing to get his left arm outside of Fant’s right arm.

Houston has built the latter part of his career on this kind of savvy pass-rushing, but he couldn’t convert those pressures into sacks last year. That will be important to the Ravens defense early in the season, especially with Macdonald dialing back the blitzes and trying to get pressure with four.

On second-and-long, though, Macdonald dials up the pressure with a blitz that quickly overcomes pretty poor pass protection from the Jets.  Let’s break it down from left to right.

Humphrey is a threat to blitz from the slot, as is Queen off the edge. Houston has his hand in the dirt over the tackle and Calais Campbell is lined up over the center. Madubuike is inside the right tackle and Oweh is standing up outside of the tight end. Flacco is in shotgun, with Michael Carter to his left.

This was not one of Humphrey’s four blitzes on Sunday, but it seems like Carter was expecting him to come. The Jets running back is locked on Humphrey, not scanning the defense, when the ball is snapped. Queen and Houston both come and engage the left tackle and left guard, respectively, and Campbell slants left and takes the center with him.

Carter completely misses Marcus Williams perfectly timing the snap count to come screaming through the A gap – widened by Campbell – right as the ball hits Flacco’s hand.

I’m pretty sure that’s Carter’s responsibility – defend the shortest path to the quarterback first – so that’s why the right guard doesn’t pick Williams up, either. He’s focuses on Madubuike and leaving the right tackle to block Oweh with help from the tight end. When Oweh drops into coverage, that leaves three blockers on Madubuike and the other four on Queen, Houston and Campbell.

Williams seems to slow down before getting to Flacco and gets chipped by Carter, allowing the veteran quarterback to roll left. Houston beats his blocker and narrowly misses a second sack in a row, so Campbell and Flacco have a veteran’s race to the sideline for a 1-yard loss.

Williams has just one pass-rushing snap in the last two years, per PFF, a total he surpassed on Sunday alone. He’ll get that opportunity plenty in this defense, but notice how Macdonald still only rushed five players. The poor protection and Williams’ timing blew up the play before it had a chance, but the Ravens still had plenty of downfield coverage had Flacco been able to throw the ball.

It was these kinds of blitzes – with clear paths to the quarterback and protection from big plays – that succeeded in Wink Martindale’s defense more than the more aggressive Cover 0 blitzes. I’d expect more of the former from Macdonald, especially with so many players suited for both coverage and blitzing.

But the Ravens’ philosophy on third-and-long situations on their opponents’ side of the field will be to sit back and keep the play in front of them. A straightforward, well-executed Cover 3 leaves Flacco nowhere to go with the ball, and the Ravens end another drive with fewer than 20 yards allowed, which they did on seven of the Jets’ 12 drives on Sunday.

The Ravens executed a solid gameplan against a depleted offense, which should be easy but is never a guarantee. It’s a confidence-builder of a performance heading into a better test against Mike McDaniel’s Dolphins in Week 2.

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