Ravens: How to Build a Contender (Part 3)
In this three part series, we take a look at one of the most consistent winning franchises, in recent history, that is also similar in a lot of ways to the Ravens. Where have the Ravens gotten off track, how can they get back on it following another model.
Part 1 – The Brass/Coaches
Part 2 – The Offense
Part 3 – The Defense
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Today we’ll look at the final installment of this three-part series, how to build a contender. I mentioned before that this is unchartered territory for the Ravens front office. It is important to take a step back and examine how the Ravens got here. It is even more important to identify the problems and come up with solutions to remedy them. We take a look at a comparable team to the Ravens in the Cincinnati Bengals for answers.
Why the Bengals? They are what the Ravens were before this year. A perennial playoff team with a mix of veteran leadership, young talented players acquired through the draft, and they don’t possess an elite level quarterback. They have to be good in all aspects because they aren’t excellent in a single one. Where did the Ravens get off track, and how do they get back on it?
It’s a little tougher to compare this unit between the teams because they have different fronts. The Bengals run a 4-3 while the Ravens run a 3-4. You’ll be disappointed if you simply look at sack totals from defensive lineman in a 3-4 defense and assume they aren’t doing their job. Their job in a 3-4 isn’t to generate a pass rush. It’s to take up two men on the offensive line, so the linebackers can penetrate the backfield. They really have to be team players, role players, and let the linebackers make the highlight reel plays.
In the 4-3 defense, with four down lineman, it is their job to rush the passer. They are usually one-on-one with their foe on the offensive line. They rely on speed as well as power in order beat their blocker. The defensive ends will line up outside the offensive tackles to try to get around the edge, where in a 3-4, the defensive ends are inside the tackles, and an outside linebacker can rush the edge.
Because they have different jobs to do, they have to fit the scheme. In a 3-4, the D-lineman have to be tall, to be able to locate ball carriers, and take up a lot of space. Your perfect nose tackle would be Haloti Ngata (6’4”/340) type. The same goes for the defensive ends. Tall, long arms, like Arizona’s Calais Campbell (6’8”/300). These guys obviously don’t just grow on trees.
In a 4-3, the guys up front need to be quicker. Not necessarily smaller. But they usually are leaner bodies because they need to be quick. They need a quick first step, powerful first punch off the snap to beat their blocker.
Let’s get back to Haloti Ngata. A player Ravens fans are very familiar with. He was traded to Detroit and replaces Ndumakong Suh who was acquired by Miami. Ngata is your perfect 3-4 nose tackle. But in Detroit, he plays in the 4-3. He’s not having a good year, at least not third highest paid player on the Lions good. He occupied gaps and shut down running backs here in Baltimore. Now he’s getting tasked with having to beat guards off the line to get into the backfield, and he doesn’t have the quickness to do that.
Let’s just take a look at the front line for the Ravens and Bengals
DE – Chris Canty: 6’7”/320. Timmy Jernigan 6’2”/302. Lawrence Guy: 6’4”/305. Brent Urban: 6’7”/295
Nose Tackle – Brandon Williams: 6’1”/335. Carl Davis: 6’5”/320
DE – Michael Johnson: 6’7”/280. Carlos Dunlap: 6’6”/280. Wallace Gilberry: 6’2”/270.
DT – Geno Atkins: 6’1”/300. Domata Peko: 6’3”/325
Notice the differences. The lean, quick defensive lineman employed in the Bengals 4-3, versus the bigger bodied guys in the Ravens 3-4. Domata Peko is a little bigger, but a fine player. Brent Urban on our side almost looks like a better fit for the 4-3, but time will tell. He could bulk up and play DE, or shed weight, get quicker, and become a edge rushing specialist.
Once again, there is a difference in the style linebackers play in the two schemes. 3-4 backers make all the highlights. The Ravens duo of Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs is one of the most dangerous tandems when it comes to pass rushing. Tamba Hali and Justin Houston in Kansas City is another one. Blitz packages are just more exotic in the 3-4.
In the 4-3, the offense knows the front four men are coming after the QB. In the 3-4, the backers have the versatility to rush the passer, take on O-lineman head on, or drop back into pass coverage. With so much versatility, the offense has to do more guessing, and can’t pinpoint where the rush is coming from each time.
Courtney Upshaw is just not a fit in this 3-4 scheme. He’s been average at best in his time here. Which is to say that he does his job, nothing more, nothing less. You hardly hear his name called because he isn’t making plays, but he isn’t making mistakes either. In my opinion, he profiles better at a Sam (strong side) linebacker in a 4-3 because he has the size to cover the tight end, or set the edge on running play to his side. But not a Will (weak side) linebacker in the 4-3 because those guys need to be able to roam sideline to sideline, and Upshaw just doesn’t have that speed.
On the Bengals side, they have Vontze Burfict. A player a lot of the league passed on because of red flags come draft day. The Bengals scooped him up as an undrafted free agent and found themselves a Pro Bowler in just his second season. He has the tools to play any of the 4-3 LB spots. 10 year veteran, A.J. Hawk is another guy who has all the tools for any of their LB spots. He was also once the best defensive players in the country coming out of Ohio State.
Middle (Mike) Linebacker is most important in the 4-3 because they get to freelance more often. They make the calls. They have to read the quarterback. The have to read the running back. They have to possess the speed to cover sideline to sideline, and to drop back into coverage over the middle of the field. Luke Kuechly is the best in the business at this role today. But the Bengals, Rey Maualuga checks all the boxes as well.
On the Ravens side, one of the the 3-4 inside backers need to be bigger. They need to be bigger because they are more likely to engage with guards and centers since they are playing with just three down linemen in front of them, where as the Mike backer in a 4-3 has four men in front of him. Being a bigger body means they could be sacrificing some speed. Daryl Smith (6’2”/250) is the bigger of the combination of he and C.J. Mosley (6’2”/235).
To sum up the front seven, both teams do a good job of putting the right guys in the right positions. Courtney Upshaw seems to be the only blemish.
There are two ways to play cornerback. Zone coverage. You’re back is to the sideline as you try to funnel the receiver to the middle of the field where linebackers and safeties in can pickup the coverage, while keeping your eyes in the backfield so you can assist in run support if necessary. The other is man coverage. You face your man and you cover him like white on rice. You don’t pass coverage off, you don’t peek into the backfield, and you try to funnel the receiver to the outside where the sideline is your friend as a CB.
Dean Pees draws up a lot of zone coverage for his Ravens defense. Problem is that the inside linebackers on the squad aren’t great in coverage. So he takes a quality corner in Jimmy Smith, has him pass off coverage to C.J. Mosley, Kendrick Lewis, so he can assist in stopping the run, or passes out to the flat. Does that make sense? If Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were patrolling the middle of the field, absolutely it makes sense. But those days are long gone. Will Hill is playing well at times, but sometimes he gets beat deep, which should never happen to a safety. Kendrick Lewis is ok too, but doesn’t lend much help in the box. Neither guy could catch a cold in Alaska either. A couple easy INT’s that these guys have dropped could have swung a couple games.
It’s not all on Pees. Jimmy Smith had a great 2014, pre injury. This year, when he has been playing man coverage, he’s still been beaten. The cardinal sin while in man coverage is giving the receiver the inside position. If the receiver puts you, the corner, between him and the sidelines, you are toast almost every time. This has happened more than once to Smith, but most notably was the Amari Cooper touchdown to open the Raiders game early this season.
Pacman Jones of the Bengals is one example of a great zone coverage cornerback. He’s very disciplined (on the field anyway) and reads and reacts very quickly. It also helps that the Bengals have two pretty good safeties in George Iloka and Reggie Nelson for Jones to help funnel the receiver to, and to pass off coverage to deep. Both guys excel in coverage, drop into the box for run support, and Reggie Nelson has incredible ball skills, leading the NFL with seven INTs. He could be a candidate for Defensive player of the year if he stays hot, picking off passes in four straight games.
Diagnosis: The Bengals defense ranks 9th against the run. Ravens defense ranks 10th. The front seven is not a problem and, should only get better as guys like Carl Davis and Brent Urban develop. A big part of being successful up front is having guys that fit the scheme, and both the Bengals and the Ravens have that. The Bengals are 13th and the Ravens 19th against the pass, but only 3.6 yards per game separate them. The disparity is that the Ravens allow eight points per game more than the Bengals. A touchdown plus two. Could it be as simple as creating more turnovers? Catch some of those easy balls for INTs that are ultimately dropped, and it leads to not allowing points on that drive. It’s a start, but the problems seem to stem from a lot miscommunication, and after further review, not tailoring the play calls to the player’s strengths. Once in a while a corner will think he has help over the top, and it isn’t there, it will happen. But the finger pointing after every big play that goes for a score, it just can’t happen as often as it does here. How do you improve communication? I wonder if some things can’t be taught, making guys like Ray and Ed even more special for their commitment to preparation and being a vocal leader.
Overall, a man coverage specialist corner is a need on this team. The front seven is great enough at stopping the run. You don’t need to keep playing the soft zone stuff to help them in run support, sacrificing passing yards allowed by linebackers not doing their jobs in coverage. It’s why tight ends, short passing games, three step drop offenses like the Bengals have eaten this team alive. Tight ends being the chain movers, and moving the chains keeps the defense on the field, and wears them out by the fourth quarter, and they are gassed when they blow fourth quarter lead after fourth quarter lead…it’s been Dean Pees’ M.O. even before he got to Baltimore.
Mike was born on the Eastern Shore, raised in Finksburg, and currently resides in Parkville. In 2009, Mike graduated from the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland. Mike became a Baltimore City Fire Fighter in late 2010. Mike has appeared as a guest on Q1370, and FOX45. Now a Sr. Ravens Analyst for BSL, he can be reached at [email protected]