Film Room: Ravens Defense
Chaos is not an accident. Defenses in the NFL do not stumble into being aggressive, creative units whose sole purpose is to terrorize the opposing quarterback. Chaos is a conscious choice, a bold strategy that defensive coordinators have to fully embrace to truly reap the rewards that come with the inherent risk. There is not a defense in the league right now better at earning the rewards of aggression while minimizing its risks like the Baltimore Ravens.
Per Pro Football Reference, the Ravens blitz on 54.4% of their plays. The next-closest team to them is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 44.3%. Even the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were highlighted in Film Room in part because of their blitzing, only come in at 36.%. The league-wide median for blitz percentage is 28.1%, which is about half the frequency that the Ravens send their blitzes.
While it has not necessarily resulted in fantastic pressure or sack numbers, the all-out attack often forces quarterbacks to speed up their process and feel pressure before any pass rush actually arrives. Simply being aware of blitzers being sent can be overwhelming for a quarterback, and that is especially true versus a suffocating Ravens secondary.
The Ravens are not coy about letting quarterbacks know they are bringing second- and third-level defenders, either. One of their favorite tactics is to load up the line of scrimmage with as many potential pass-rushers as possible and make quarterbacks guess which players are actually rushing. Are they just sending their standard four? Are they rushing the A-gaps? Is the slot corner coming? Will they be dropping players into coverage from one side and sending all their blitzers to the other side? These are all questions that every quarterback has to ask before the snap, and they only get about 1.5 seconds after the snap to answer and respond.
In the following example, Baltimore has six players across the line of scrimmage when including Jaylon Ferguson (45), who is in a wide edge alignment that happens to make him look like the nickel player because of the receiver's tight alignment. With Brandon Carr (39) playing just a few yards behind the nickel, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson should know that Ferguson is coming. Now it should be a matter of who else on the Ravens is rushing.
Baltimore's second and third players from the left, outside linebacker Tyus Bowser (54) and defensive back Anthony Levine Jr. (41), drop off the line into coverage assignments. Bowser (left) looks to be keying the running back, while Levine (right) gets to roam around underneath and play off of Watson's eyes. Once all the routes have been declared, the coverage plays out like Cover-1 and Baltimore gets a three-on-three pass rush to the right side despite only rushing four players to Houston's six blockers. With Levine undercutting Watson's initial read and Houston's right tackle being slow to the perimeter because he's trying to help inside, Ferguson is able close on Watson for a sack.
The very next week, defensive coordinator Don Martindale used the same tactic to get a failed third-down throw out of Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff from a completely different offensive look.
The Ravens have the line of scrimmage crowded again, this time away from the passing strength. Considering the Ravens have four defenders to the offense's right side versus just one potential pass-catcher (the tight end), Goff understands that pressure is coming from that direction. What Goff does not seem prepared for, however, is two defenders dropping from the left side of the line of scrimmage into coverage toward the bunch formation. The traffic created toward the bunch makes it improbable for Cooper Kupp (18) to get open on the short pivot. Goff's only options are now the 12-yard in-route, which is being poached by Earl Thomas (29), and the vertical route to Robert Woods (17). Since Woods is the only receiver not covered by multiple defenders, Goff tries to fit a throw to him while sliding away from Baltimore's blitz, but Carr stacks the vertical route perfectly and gives no room to be beaten over the top.
In its purest form, defense is about forcing the offense into low-percentage plays as often as possible, because it's impossible to take everything away on every snap. Baltimore's lopsided pass rush from a crowded box and unexpected coverage defenders off the line of scrimmage, along with excellent man coverage from the defensive backs, all worked in unison to do just that against the Rams in the last example.
By dropping players from the line of scrimmage and moving pieces around in the box, the Ravens are creating low-percentage looks for the offense through deception. Versus particular offensive looks or in situations in which the offense may be tipping a tendency, this kind of deception can be a great way to get an opposing quarterback's head spinning.
When the Ravens get backed up near or in their own red zone, though, Martindale has no reservation about throwing tricks out of the window to send everything he's got. Cover-0 isn't just something the Ravens are willing to do when necessary, it's one of their favorite coverages when they get backed up. They live for playing on the edge.
There is nothing sneaky about Baltimore's intent on this play. They line up seven across the line of scrimmage and dare Bills quarterback Josh Allen to beat them. As talented as Baltimore's secondary is, Martindale is confident that his guys can hang on for 1.5 to 2 seconds to let the heavy blitz get home. In this case, Baltimore gets a free rusher through the middle and forces Allen to bail the pocket before any of his receivers have a chance to snap their routes off. Allen nearly finds a way to make a play anyway after shaking off a tackler, but the play is broken in so many ways by the time he gets the ball out that the Bills would have needed a miracle for a completion.
In this instance, the Ravens defense is a bit more ambiguous in their intent, but they bring the house again. It's Cover-0 with seven pass-rushers and Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield knows it. Part of the Ravens' formula, though, is that even while the quarterback may be quick to feel the blitz coming, they still have to execute within a small window of time and with a small margin for error. Mayfield has to rush his process here and ends up placing the throw behind the wide receiver. While this ball could have been caught, the wide receiver would have still gotten obliterated by cornerback Jimmy Smith (22) and stopped short of the sticks. Heck, even a well-placed ball out in front of the receiver may have been disrupted considering Smith's positioning and closing speed.
That combination of suffocating coverage and overwhelming pressure has drawn countless throws just like this one out of every quarterback the Ravens have faced for the past two months. Even a perfect play may not be enough to beat the Ravens' aggressive defense on a given snap, never mind an imperfect play.
Baltimore's blitz-heavy approach and star-filled secondary have gelled together perfectly down the stretch of the regular season. Since Week 10, the Ravens rank first in pass defense DVOA at -34.1%. Only three other defenses are even better than -20.0% over that span. We do not need to go interview all of Baltimore's opponents to know that it's no fun trying to play quarterback against this defense.
The Ravens' particular approach is geared for playoff success, too. Defensive backs can generally get away with being a bit more physical in the playoffs because refs are more willing to "let them play" instead of plaguing the postseason with penalty flags. The New England Patriots found their stride through last year's postseason for the very same reason, at least in part. As effectively as Martindale can scheme up blitzes, that extra split-second of bullying receivers on every other play might be the difference that allows the Ravens defense to blaze through the playoffs.