Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

08 Jan 2015

Film Room: Ravens Defense

by Cian Fahey

Whenever the argument of best rivalry in the NFL comes up, the most common replies are predictable: Steelers-Ravens, Seahawks-49ers, Patriots-Broncos (well, Tom Brady-Peyton Manning, really). Each of those feuds have had meaningful matchups late in the season that were tight and dramatic until the final moments. Two of the three pairs are division rivals, so they play each other every single season, while Manning and Brady seem to inevitably face off every year regardless of what teams they play for.

Over recent times, another rivalry has emerged. A rivalry that exists between two of the teams listed.

Since 2011, the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots have faced off four times. Each team has won two games, sharing the spoils evenly in two postseason contests. Save for a 41-7 smothering that the Patriots handed to the Ravens late in the 2013 regular season, each of these matchups has featured heightened drama. The first matchup came in the AFC Championship Game following the 2011 season. Billy Cundiff missed a game-tying field goal from 32 yards out with just 20 seconds to go after Lee Evans dropped what would have been a go-ahead touchdown just two plays earlier.

Last-second field goals again caused drama when the teams met for the next time the following regular season. Before the Week 3 game between the two franchises, Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith learned that his brother had passed away just a matter of hours before kickoff. It was unclear whether Smith was going to play, but he did and he finished the game with six receptions for 127 yards and two touchdowns -- two touchdowns that helped to set up a 30-28 scoreline during the final minute of the fourth quarter. It was at that point that Ravens kicker Justin Tucker kicked a field goal that appeared to go directly over the goal post. The attempt was called good, causing Ravens players to celebrate and some Patriots players to chastise the officials.

That game acted as a prelude to the Ravens' real revenge.

Roughly 12 months after losing the AFC Championship Game, the Ravens travelled to Gillette Stadium again to avenge that loss, with another Super Bowl berth on the line. This time there wouldn't be any last-second field goals of consequence. This time the fourth-seed Ravens would comfortably beat the second-seed Patriots by a score of 28-13. The Ravens would go on to win the Super Bowl, defeating the San Francisco 49ers in Louisiana. The Patriots would return to the AFC Championship game again the following year, but a loss to the Broncos awaited them. Now, for the third time in the last four seasons, the Ravens once again travel to Foxboro to face the Patriots in the playoffs.

John Harbaugh's squad no longer boasts Ed Reed or Ray Lewis on the defensive side of the ball, and Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta are absent on the offensive side, but the blueprint to beat the Patriots remains the same. Joe Flacco will need to continue his impressive displays in playoff games that date back to 2011, while new faces on the defensive side of the ball will need to maximize their strengths and win some critical matchups.

The Patriots have the fifth-best pass offense by DVOA, while the Ravens have the 15th-ranked pass defense by DVOA. That is where the Ravens need to win this game.

While their statistics as a whole suggest the Ravens will be overmatched by the Patriots offense, it shouldn't be so simple. The Patriots aren't a team littered with superstar skill position players. They rely on balance and intelligent play-calling, with specific matchup advantages, to exploit opposing defenses. To stop Tom Brady and the Patriots passing game, you need to be able to contain Rob Gronkowski, match up to Julian Edelman, and stop the run without overextending your defense in any direction. This puts pressure on individual defensive players to execute tough assignments consistently.

Although no actual game plan exists to contain Gronkowski, the Ravens will feel they have as good a chance as any other team in the league because of their personnel over the middle of the field. Daryl Smith and C.J. Mosley may be the best inside linebacker combination in the NFL. Both players are versatile, athletic, disciplined, and intelligent.

When the Patriots last lost to the Ravens in the playoffs, Ray Lewis was marauding over the middle of the field for the Baltimore defense. However, at that stage of Lewis' career, his body had slowed down and he was playing injured. Lewis had become a liability in coverage. Both Mosley and Smith show off excellent range in coverage to clamp down on receivers, tight ends, and running backs over the middle of the field.

Here is a sack by Haloti Ngata early on against the Steelers.

Mosley and Smith play key roles in forcing Ben Roethlisberger to hold onto the ball.

Heath Miller is Roethlisberger's first read as he runs a curl route to the left side of the offense. Mosley stays in perfect coverage against him and closes in when Roethlisberger initially appears set to release the football. Roethlisberger brings the ball back down in an attempt to find another receiver. Ngata gets to him relatively quickly, but even if he hadn't, Smith's depth and awareness allowed him to completely close off Roethlisberger's seam route.

On this play, Mosley showed off his ability to change direction and read routes quickly, while Smith showed off his comfort dropping into space, as well as his awareness.

Smith and Mosley likely won't cover Gronkowski in press man coverage very often. That role will instead fall to safety Will Hill if the Ravens choose to take that approach. Hill will get plenty of help when he covers Gronkowski in man coverage because there isn't a safety in the league who can be expected to line up across from that phenom and be expected to consistently get the better of the matchup.

Instead, the duo of inside linebackers will need to excel in zone coverage while playing a critical role in run defense and reacting to the screens/underneath passes that the Patriots will inevitably throw. Against the Patriots, you need linebackers who can cover ground in all directions because they will attempt to find space in different ways.

On this play against the Steelers, Mosley lines up wide of the right tackle because he is in man coverage against the running back. The Steelers have spread the field and the Ravens are sending two rushers from Mosley's side of the formation so he can afford to move out of the box. Smith remains in the box in position to react to any running play, and presumably take over Mosley's man coverage if the running back releases into a route towards the other side of the field.

At the snap, Mosley moves further towards the sideline while keeping his eyes on the quarterback. If the running back releases into the flat or past the right tackle, Mosley is in position to track him down. Smith is watching the quarterback also, but he is holding his position over the middle of the field as Antonio Brown runs directly towards him on a crossing route.

The Steelers are running a slow developing screen. It should have been flagged because Ramon Foster was way too far downfield when the pass was thrown, but that wasn't significant for Mosley or Smith. Both linebackers broke forward towards the running back in the flat as soon as Roethlisberger released the football. They read the play in such a way that they would have been able to recover positioning if Roethlisberger had held the ball and turned back towards another receiver. Of course, with the pass rush closing in on him, Roethlisberger never had that chance.

Because of his positioning and his impressive short-area burst, Mosley (No. 57) is able to advance past the blockers coming across the field and get to the running back in the flat. Although he doesn't make the tackle, Mosley is able to take away the sideline and force the running back infield, where he has help.

While Mosley was advancing downfield to force the running back infield, Smith was showing excellent effort and speed to pursue the football. This meant that he was in perfect position to tackle the running back as soon as he crossed the line of scrimmage to hold the offense to a minimal gain. Mosley and Smith worked in tandem on this play to take away the space in which the offense could work.

This is the kind of play that the Patriots will try to use for Shane Vereen this weekend. Vereen is a very dangerous back and especially so when working against linebackers in space, but Mosley and Smith shouldn't fear that matchup. Neither linebacker is heavy or slow, and both have excellent tackling technique to bring down opponents in space.

Whenever the Patriots and Ravens have played in the past, a key player has always been cornerback Lardarius Webb.

Webb is a phenomenal talent who can play inside or outside at the cornerback position. Unfortunately, his career has been plagued by different injuries since he entered the league. Over the past two years, Webb has stayed on the field for the most part, but he has clearly been less than 100 percent during different games. This season hasn't been an impressive one for Webb on the whole, but he has improved in recent weeks and showed promising flashes against the Steelers last week.

Webb has always been crucial in these matchups because his skill set matches up to the Patriots receivers. Webb is a very fluid player with excellent footwork and physicality at the catch point. He is so quick that he was never intimidated by Wes Welker when Welker was roasting cornerbacks across the league as a Patriots receiver. When Welker moved on to Denver, Webb completely shut him down during the cornerback's return from the second torn ACL injury of his career.

Since that game, Webb has dealt with different, less significant injuries, while Julian Edelman has taken over Welker's role in the Patriots offense to great success.

Edelman has differences from Welker, most notably his strength, but for the most part the duo are similar assignments for Webb. Both players primarily rely on their quickness and route-running to come free while working from the slot or outside. Edelman is more likely to beat defensive backs down the sideline because he more easily fights off physical coverage. The 28-year-old diminutive receiver has had his own health issues this year, but he still accumulated 92 receptions in just 14 regular-season games.

As much as Brandon LaFell has proven to be valuable to the Patriots, it's clear that Edelman is still the second primary option behind Gronkowski.

Webb has the physical skill set and coverage ability to contain Edelman without much help, but only if his health permits a positive performance. It's very difficult to use Webb's past performances as an indicator of what will happen in the future because of how inconsistent he has become. Against the Steelers last week, he faced off against a flurry of talented receivers and showed up well for the most part. He was able to run with Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton, while being aggressive with Antonio Brown.

It's never good to be on the other side of a matchup that includes Rob Gronkowski, but the Ravens shouldn't feel intimidated by the prospect of facing off against the Patriots offense.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 08 Jan 2015

11 comments, Last at 08 Jan 2015, 8:06pm by Anon Ymous

Comments

1
by jonnyblazin :: Thu, 01/08/2015 - 1:16pm

Thanks for the in depth analysis. Mosley has been a revelation at ILB for the Ravens this season.

While the Ravens secondary has been roasted deep this year, the Ravens are 3rd in passing DVOA against passes under 15 yards (-14.4% DVOA). It will be interesting to see if the Pats try to attack the Ravens weakness and throw downfield, or stick with the short passing game.

3
by Anon Ymous :: Thu, 01/08/2015 - 1:44pm

I wasn't aware how well the Ravens ILBs had been doing this year. It'll be interesting to watch because NE's young LBs could arguably be tabbed the best LB pair in the league as well.

As for the short passing, I watched SD chew Baltimore up on short passes out of the spread. Did they do something different than other teams? Something NE might be able to implement? Or was it just a bad game?

6
by justanothersteve :: Thu, 01/08/2015 - 2:47pm

I was pissed when the Ravens drafted Mosley because I was hoping he might fall to the Packers. I still like Clinton-Dix, but Hyde would still have been OK as the free safety while Mosley would have been light-years better than Brad Jones.

7
by jonnyblazin :: Thu, 01/08/2015 - 2:58pm

The Ravens held the Chargers mostly in check for the first 3 quarters, allowing 13 points, but had a bad 4th quarter to be sure.

The Ravens had a bad stretch of games following the injury to Jimmy Smith. They were rotating safeties in and out and playing safeties at CB, but seem to have found a good combination of CB's in the latter weeks of the season who can play Pees's mixed zone concepts. Webb finally began moving more fluidly after slowly recovering from a back injury in the preseason as well.

8
by game3525 :: Thu, 01/08/2015 - 3:36pm

No, they didn't.

San Diego had no problem moving the ball on the Ravens.

10
by jonnyblazin :: Thu, 01/08/2015 - 7:33pm

Most teams can easily move the ball vs. the Ravens, the Ravens D is one of the worst from the opponents 20 to the Ravens 40, but they clamp down from there and easily have the best red zone D in the league (-42% DVOA). SD scored 13 points on their first 6 drives, which isn't great, but then the Ravens gave up TD's on the last 3 drives. It's pretty rare for teams to score that many TD's vs such a good red zone D.

The Ravens are playing different guys in the secondary since then, though. Webb and Will Hill played most the defensive snaps for both games, but also:

Snaps vs SD:

Stewart: 4%
Elam: 78%
Miles: 97%
Gorrer: 46%
Levine: 41%
Melvin: 0%

Snaps vs PIT:

Cason: 6%
Stewart: 64%
Elam: 37%
Miles: 43%
Melvin: 85%
Levine: 57%

Levine is the only player who played close to the same %, but he played CB vs. SD and he is really a safety.

11
by Anon Ymous :: Thu, 01/08/2015 - 8:06pm

In fairness, had a first and 10 on the 18 when one of the OL forced an Eddie Royal fumble. Literally, he ripped the ball right out of Royal's arms, presumably while trying to pull him forward. That was a terrific 5 minute (and counting) drive that Baltimore did nothing to stop. It would have at least pushed the total to 16 points and possibly even 20.

2
by Anon Ymous :: Thu, 01/08/2015 - 1:27pm

I'm digging through the full article, but I thought this was interesting:

"The attempt was called good, causing Ravens players to celebrate and some Patriots players to chastise the officials."

It might be worth mentioning that the missed FG called good was the least of NE's concerns. That was the worst officiated game I've witnessed in 30 years, one in which Collinsworth was openly apologizing to the viewers during the broadcast. I had never witnessed a 40-17 victory massaged into a 31-30 loss and wish I could still say the same.

Of course, the Ravens proved their legitimate superiority later when the game really mattered, so this is all just griping for sake of griping. ;-)

4
by Anon Ymous :: Thu, 01/08/2015 - 1:53pm

Got through it now and it was an enjoyable and insightful article. Well done.

In the first gif, it looks as though the outside WR at the top and the inside receiver at the bottom both get open pretty easily. The DB at the top starts to undercut the throw, but had it already come out, I don't think he gets there in time. The guy at the bottom is all turned around and the window was open for a while.

Anecdotal, of course, but I have to think that if the LBs are too much to handle, NE can still exploit the DBs in the short passing game.

5
by jonnyblazin :: Thu, 01/08/2015 - 2:38pm

I think the point is that there is no way a defensive scheme can immediately cover all 4 WR's, but a good scheme will take away the primary reads, thus allowing the pass rush to get there.

If you look at Roethlisberger's body position there's no way he could throw it to the WR at the bottom without pivoting, therefore allowing time for the DB to cover the route. The coverage at the top confused Roethlisberger because he likely thought the DB was going to follow the slot WR to the outside but instead was positioned to take out the primary read Miller if Roethlisberger threw it to him.

9
by Otis Taylor89 :: Thu, 01/08/2015 - 5:23pm

Can't you just throw the PIT game out when evaluating the ILB? PIT didn't have a RB who gained more than 9 yards the entire season, meaning the ILBs really didn't need to key on anyone. You go back and look at their last 3 games and they played JAC, HOU and CLE, all teams without a QB you can rely on. The last game where they played a very good offense that wasn't missing something major was Thanksgiving weekend vs. SD - that's a long time without facing a quality opponent.