As we’ve been doing for several years now, we’ll break down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ opponent each week, telling you what to expect from a scheme and individual standpoint. This year, Jonathan Heitritter and I will cover the opposing team’s defense. I will focus on scheme, Jonathan on the players.
Continuing things with the Baltimore Ravens’ defense.
ALEX’S SCHEME REPORT
RAVENS RUN DEFENSE
A stout group as they almost always are. They’re tied second in the league allowing just 3.8 YPC. It’s a hybrid front with ends who play hand up and hand down but they have big, immovable objects in the middle of the defense. They’ve allowed just 25 runs this season of 10+ yards. That’s third-best in the league. Ho hum, the Ravens have a solid run defense.
Their leading tackler is Patrick Queen, who has come along nicely after a slow start to his career. Tackle numbers certainly aren’t the end/all but he’s got 85 of them this season. Safety Chuck Clark has 71 tackles while CB Marlon Humphrey, always active against the run, has 50. But Roquan Smith, acquired from the Chicago Bears earlier this year, is now the man in the middle. Over the last three games, Smith has played 100% of the snaps in two games and 96% in the other. So he’s an everydown kind of guy.
Schematically, there’s no big secret. It’s a talented front seven that’s strong at the point of attack. They two-gap well, control the line of scrimmage, and often force backs off their path. Some clips of that.
Inside zone and focusing on double-teams and down blocks is about the only way I can see this run game work. Get guys moving down the line and the back cut off them. One clip of that.
But it’s a strong front with fast flow linebackers and secondary/force players who can tackle. Not many weaknesses here. Some other defensive stats. They’re allowing just 19.7 PPG, tied 9th-best in football. Opponents have been held under 14 points in three of their last four games and at 24 and under in nine of their 12 this season. They’ve forced 20 turnovers this year, tied 4th-most in football and they are among the league’s best third down defenses. At 31.2%, they’re the second-best team on third down. Their red zone defense isn’t quite as sturdy, 15th at 55.3%.
Ravens’ Pass Defense
A mixed bag. They don’t look hot in completion percentage (26th – 67.6%) or YPA (7.4, tied 21st) though they’ve only allowed 16 touchdowns this year, which is just outside the top ten. They’re a ballhawking group, eleven interceptions tied for eighth in the league, and that has a lot to do with their pass rush. The Ravens have 37 sacks this season, 5th-most in football, and an incredible 15 players have at least one sack. By comparison, the Steelers have just eight.
Leading the way for the Ravens is Justin Houston, still kicking strong into his 30s with nine sacks. Calais Campbell at age 36 is second on the team with 5.5 sacks. This team is in bed by 9 PM but hey, they get to the quarterback. ILB Patrick Queen is blitzing a ton from his off-ball spot with four sacks while the DBs have a combined five sacks. CB Marlon Humphrey has a whopping three of them. There isn’t a 100% clear pattern of when they’ve come but they’ve occurred in more recent weeks, two in the last two games. Watch out for third and medium. Two of his three sacks have come on 3rd and 4 and 3rd and 5.
As a team, they have allowed 36 passes of 20+ yards. That’s tied for 15th in football. Their pressure rate is pretty low for their sack numbers, 23rd overall at 19.8%. Their blitz rate is also below average, 18th overall at 22.2%. That’s under new DC Mike MacDonald, taking over for Wink Martindale, so this change is notable. Last year under Martindale, the Ravens blitzed 31.1% of the time, 8th in the league. They’re blitzing less and showing less exotic looks though they get home when they rush so they time and scheme things well.
Campbell and Peters have two forced fumbles each. Humphrey and S Marcus Williams, whose played only five games this season but could return this weekend, are tied for the team lead with three picks.
Schematically, it’s a pretty zone-heavy team in recent weeks than runs a lot of two deep. One interesting note is against tight splits and twin receiver sets, they will end up playing a lot of Cover 3/three-deep. Some examples.
They do seem more vulnerable to bubble screens so potentially the Steelers can run them to their Z receiver or motion Najee Harris out, which they’ve done more since the bye, and get him the ball in space.
Last note. Humphrey will move around and doesn’t play just on the outside. He’ll slide inside too.
Jonathan’s Individual Report
The Steelers look to keep their second half of the season surge going this coming Sunday when they host the Baltimore Ravens in Pittsburgh, looking to capture their third-straight win and get one game closer to .500. QB Lamar Jackson has already been ruled out for Sunday’s contest, meaning that Pittsburgh will expect to face QB Tyler Huntley who they saw in the season finale last year. With their backup QB in the game, the Ravens will rely on their run-heavy offense as well as their defense in this matchup as the defense particularly possesses some quality talent at all three levels.
The Ravens will be without run stopper #58 Michael Pierce Sunday who currently is on IR with a biceps injury. One grizzled veteran that will be in the lineup for Baltimore is #93 Calais Campbell. Campbell may be 36 years old, but he appears to have found the fountain of youth, playing at a high level this season for Baltimore along the defensive line. The 6’8, 300lb giant is a sound run defender, using his length and strength to stack and shed blocks at the LOS. He also is a quality pass rusher, having 5.5 sacks thus far in 2022 and two forced fumbled as Baltimore’s leader upfront.
The player stepping in for Pierce at NT is one of my 2022 draft crushes, #98 Travis Jones. The Ravens snagged Jones at a value in the third round this spring, drafted a hulking 6’4, 327lb monster that can single-handedly manhandle interior offensive linemen. Jones has great strength and size to hold his own at the point of attack but also the quickness to get off blocks and push the pocket as a pass rusher. #92 Justin Madubuike starts alongside Jones and Campbell as a stout, powerful run defender that also has good play strength against the run. Madubuike also brings some pass rush juice to the table, having 3.5 sacks as an athletic defender who can play chase of the ball with great pursuit.
Backing up the starters are #97 Brett Urban and #96 Broderick Washington who rotate in as big-bodied run defenders who don’t bring a lot of pass rush juice to the table but hold their own well against the run as they give the starters a breather throughout the game.
The Ravens have gone to the veteran pool for multiple starters on defense including former All-Pro pass rusher #50 Justin Houston. Houston was once one of the best sack artists in the least a decade ago but was hampered by injuries during his time in Kansas City, seeing himself move to Indianapolis and now Baltimore. While turning 34 in January, Houston is in the midst of one of his better seasons in recent years, posting nine sacks, and a forced fumble for the Ravens. Baltimore limits Houston’s snaps to keep him fresh, but he will rush off the edge as well as stacked as an ILB to get him mismatches against interior OL to go hunt the QB.
Beside Houston is another veteran pass rusher that is in the twilight of his career but is providing meaningful snaps for Baltimore in #4 Jason Pierre-Paul. The long-time Giant and Buccaneer signed with the Ravens during the season and has boosted their pass rush, adding an experienced defender that brings impressive length and size (6’5, 270lb) to the table as well as a knack for getting to the QB. JPP isn’t the player he used to be, but still can contribute with two sacks and an INT this season that can overwhelm blockers.
Rotating in for the ravens on the edge are #99 Odafe Oweh and #54 Tyus Bowser. Oweh with Baltimore first round pick last season out of Penn State, giving the Ravens an ultra-athletic yet extremely raw edge rusher. He has ceded the starting job to JPP due to inconsistent play but is still playing roughly 66% of the defensive snaps as he continues to develop as a pass rusher in terms of hand usage well giving the Ravens a run-and-chase defender.
Bowser started his first game of the season last week after coming off an Achilles tear Week 18 last season against the Steelers. Another athletic pass rusher, has played in four games this season and gives Baltimore a chess piece that can play on the edge, move off-ball, and drop into coverage. He had seven sacks last season and looks to ramp up more after being nearly a year removed from the injury.
The Ravens made a splash prior to the trade deadline, acquiring LB #18 Roquan Smith from the Chicago Bears. Since arriving in Baltimore, Smith has been everything the Ravens could have hoped for when they traded for him, providing an athletic, instinctive LB that excels in run-and-chase situations. He reads extremely well pre-and-post snap and flows to the football with ease, covering ground laterally against the run. He has 114 total tackles and 3.5 sacks thus far in 2022 along with two INTs, being a field general in the middle of the defense that has stabilized Baltimore at the second level.
Smith plays beside another former first round pick in the LB core for Baltimore in #6 Patrick Queen. Queen is an athletic, explosive defender that accelerates quickly to the football and brings nasty intentions as a big hitter. He has struggled at times during his young NFL career in terms of pass coverage and getting off blocks against the run, but is playing some of his best football this season, posting 85 total stops, four sacks, a forced fumble, four PBUs, and an INT. Queen gives Baltimore a dynamic duo in the middle, having two LBs that can run, hit, and cover when allowed to move freely to the football.
Behind Smith and Queen is #40 Malik Harrison who used to have a bigger role before Smith came to town and is a better downhill run defender than pass coverage defender. #56 Josh Bynes also played a much bigger role before Smith’s arrival, but still factors in a lot in rotation with Queen as an experienced run defender that does a good job shooting gaps. #57 Kristin Welch rounds out the LB core and a core special teams contributor.
While the Ravens are near the bottom of the barrel in total passing yards allowed on the season, they have arguably one of the best CBs in the game in #44 Marlon Humphrey. Humphrey has been dominant in man coverage at times this season, shutting down some of the game’s best receivers when in one-on-one coverage. He makes plays all over the field for the Ravens, tallying 50 total stops, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, six PBUs, and three INTs. A physical corner that can go toe-to-toe with a team’s WR1 or come downhill against the run or on a designed blitz, Humphrey is the full package.
Opposite of Humphrey is #24 Marcus Peters who is a talented player in his own right but is more of a feast-or-famine type of player. Peters is one of the most feared ball hawks in the game, having a knack for jumping the route in off-man or zone coverage for the pick and taking it the other way. However, Peters gets burned a fair amount in coverage as well, allowing a 64% completion percentage this season for 671 yards and seven TDs, the most TDs allowing in coverage in his career according to Pro Football Reference.
The Ravens have #21 Brandon Stephens contributing as well in coverage, playing a fair amount in sub packages and has five pass deflections to his credit. #41 Daryl Worley is another long, reserve CB on the roster, having played less snaps for the defense having played in only two games this season. Rookie #22 Damarion Williams has gotten more run as the season has gone on for Baltimore in the slot, being a smaller (5’10, 178lb) but feisty defender who holds his own in coverage and provides good run support.
S #32 Marcus Williams was one of Baltimore’s key additions this offseason coming over from New Orleans on a big money deal. However, the star centerfield free safety has been out since Week 5 after suffering a dislocated wrist, being placed on IR. Williams is eligible to come off IR, but his timetable for return appears to be longer than initially expected, making him a long shot to play this Sunday.
One safety that will suit up for the Ravens is #36 Chuck Clark who is the definition of a Swiss Army Knife-type of player. Clark has played 100% of the defensive snaps this season and aligns all over the defense from being a split zone safety to a box/strong safety to nickel corner to outside corner and even on the edge at times for the defense. Clark provides good run defense as a steady player. He may not be a splashy playmaker, but he is a glue guy that helps the defense go with his ability to play literally anywhere.
Starting opposite of Clark at FS is #26 Geno Stone who has filled in well since Williams went done to injury. The Iowa product has provided steady play on the backend, picking up a forced fumble and fumble recovery along with 38 tackles. Still, Stone lacks great athleticism and can be taken advantage of in man coverage, being better when allowed to work in zone and flow to the ball when in the air in off coverage to make plays.
Baltimore’s crown jewel of the draft class started out shaky but has come into his own more throughout the 2022 season. #14 Kyle Hamilton technically hasn’t started a game this season, but has played 43% of the snaps, getting a lot of work in the nickel/dime as a slot defender as well as in the box. Hamilton is currently Pro Football Focus’s highest rated rookie safety, having the size, athleticism, and closing speed to be a menace against the run as well as playing chase to ball carriers in the open field or along the sideline.