Baltimore's Defense is Mortal
In a league dominated by high-octane offenses, the Ravens’ defense stood alone as the last remnant of an NFL that could be dictated by defense. Other teams such as the Bears, Jaguars, and Seahawks had shown quality defense through the first half of the season, but none of them crushed their opponents the way the Ravens did.
Through the lens of pass defense, the only lens that really matters in a modern NFL, the Ravens’ were unrivaled through seven weeks. Per Justis Mosqueda’s team AY/A calculations, the Ravens pass defense was worth 472.1 yards of value, dwarfing the second-place Browns by nearly 100 yards. To put that in perspective, the 11th-place Cardinals were the same distance away from the 18th-place Panthers.
A menacing pass rush and no-fly-zone over the middle of the field drove the Ravens’ success in defending the pass. Heading into Week 8, the Ravens had the most sacks in the league (27) and Football Outsiders’ No.1 ranked defense in pass defense over the middle of the field. With a multitude of capable pass rushers ready to sub in and out of the game to stay fresh, as well as move around the formation pre- and post-snap, generating a pass rush has been easy for a creative defensive coordinator like Don Martindale. Likewise, linebackers Kenny Young and CJ Mosley were as good as coverage linebackers get and were reinforced by a talented, heads-up safety duo in Tony Jefferson and Eric Weddle. The Ravens took away the middle of the field and forced opposing quarterbacks to attack their quality cornerbacks on the outside whilst dealing with relentless pressure in the pocket. Needless to say, that had been a winning formula for the Ravens.
That was until Cam Newton and the Panthers eviscerated them. Heading into Sunday, the only offenses that had looked respectable, much less good, versus the Ravens were the Bengals on a Week 2 Thursday night game in Cincinnati and a top-five Saints offense in the Superdome last week. Even then, the Saints were held to just seven points until the fourth quarter before the Ravens defense collapsed in what felt like a rare moment of vulnerability.
For the Panthers, phase one of toppling an impenetrable Ravens defense was neutralizing the pass rush. Newton was not sacked once on Sunday, both through his own escapability and a proper performance by his offensive line. On a number of occasions, the Panthers offensive line gave up an initial break in the pocket, but managed to recover and allow Newton to buy time.
It is no perfect formula, but there is something to be said of an offensive line that refuses to be rolled over despite being beaten initially. In the play above, Newton is pressured by Baltimore’s three-technique defensive tackle who shoves Carolina’s left guard into Newton’s lap. The offensive line did not give up on the play, though, and did their best to redirect their focus and shore up the area in front of Newton. The smidgeon of extra time bought by the offensive line’s second effort allowed Newton to readjust his position in the pocket and find a crease to scramble for a few yards. In the end, a handful of yards is not a game-changing play, but avoiding a potentially drive-killing sack can be.
Without any drive-killing sacks, the Panthers were able to take the next intuitive step to beat the Ravens’ defense: workaround their strengths and abuse their weaknesses.
As mentioned above, the Ravens’ defense had thrived in locking down the middle of the field versus a number of opponents this season. Carolina made it a point to get Baltimore’s middle-of-field defenders into uncomfortable positions and force them to be wrong.
Carolina gave Baltimore the work with a couple of follow concepts, for example. The two examples below are more or less the same follow concept, with the second one tweaked to expose how Baltimore reacted to the first.
In this first play, the outside receiver in the bunch set runs a drag route across the formation and the innermost receiver bends around the bunch before cutting inside to the area cleared by the drag receiver. Tight end Greg Olsen, the point man in the bunch set, runs a clear-out vertical route.
The two defenders responsible for the receiver looping back inside fail to cover him properly. By the time the receiver’s route break kicks in, neither defender is in a position to work inside and directly contest the catch point. Newton sees the opening and laces a nice throw out in front for the receiver, but the receiver T-rex’s the reception attempt and drops the ball. Drop be damned, it was an effective idea from the Panthers.
The next time around, the Panthers tweaked the concept knowing that the Ravens would be more prepared. In this second play, Olsen, still the point man, does not run a clear-out vertical route. Olsen runs a vertical stem tighter to the formation and looks for the open field over the top of the linebacker responsible for the receiver below him looping back inside.
So as to not get burned the way they did last time, Baltimore’s inside linebacker plays with better inside and over-the-top leverage on the shallow receiver looping back inside. Unfortunately for the said linebacker, playing the shallower route so aggressively gave Olsen endless space over the middle of the field to find an opening. Once again, Newton finds his intended target with ease and delivers a good throw.
More than over the middle of the field, offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s creativity truly shined in forcing the Ravens to play sideline to sideline. The Ravens are and have been an excellent defense when working between the numbers in both the run and pass game, but asking their linebackers to run side to side and have their safeties fill in the alleys has not been their strength. Turner set out to pressure that relative weakness.
For many teams, attacking the perimeter too often means simple bubble screens and uninspiring toss runs (Sark, we see you). Turner took it a step further than that with weapons such as Newton, DJ Moore, Curtis Samuel, and Christian McCaffrey at his disposal. Moore, specifically, was an important gadget player in this game.
Power running is Newton’s speciality. Dating back to his days at Auburn under Gus Malzahn, Newton has always been a menace when being able to plow through defenses behind a lead blocker following some sort of read during a hand-off exchange. On this play, the Panthers run what appears to be a ‘bash’ read with a lead blocker pulling in front of Newton. By all accounts, Newton is the primary threat here because, unlike any other quarterback in the league, he can demolish defenses between the tackles.
Turner puts a twist on Newton’s bread-and-butter, though. McCaffrey’s ‘bash’ path is more than a possible runner for Baltimore to account for, he becomes a lead blocker for Moore on the reverse. With the entire defense swarming to clog Newton’s running lanes, Newton delays his inside run before pitching to Moore on the end-around. Moore is sprung free by the misdirection threat of Newton, enabling Moore to pick up 10 or so yards to get the Panthers closer to the end zone.
Between plays like this, more traditional end-arounds, misdirection toss plays out of pistol, and so much more, the Panthers regularly trotted the Ravens defense around the field and ran circles around them. The Ravens’ defense could not keep up all day with the Panthers’ misdirection and talented ball carriers.
In fairness to the Ravens’ defense, Newton and the Panthers did enjoy some good fortune on the day. For one, Joe Flacco coughed up an interception that put the Panthers’ offense at midfield to start the drive. Field position is a critical factor in predicting scoring drives, so starting at midfield right away is a huge advantage. On top of Flacco being Flacco, the Panthers’ scored one of their touchdowns off of a tipped pass by Weddle that happened to fall right into McCaffrey’s waiting arms. The aforementioned toss play out of pistol formation — a play that resulted in a 27-yard gain by Moore — also started off with a horrid pitch from Newton that resulted in a fumble Moore was fortunately able to recover with ease.
Even with that in mind, a helping hand from Lady Luck should not take away from the Panthers’ feat. The fashion in which the Panthers trounced an elite Ravens defense, through both innovation and execution, is impressive regardless of a couple of fortunate bounces. Carolina’s 6.1 yards per play and 36 points were the most the Ravens’ defense had surrendered all year, edging out Cincinnati’s performance from over a month ago.
The Ravens will face a slew of top-tier offenses in the following weeks to potentially make up for their showing versus the Panthers. The Steelers, Bengals, Falcons, Chiefs, and Chargers are all still on the docket this season, all of which can serve as opportunities for the Ravens’ defense to redeem themselves and reassert themselves as the pinnacle of defensive play in 2018. This is the turning point where the Ravens’ prove whether this game was an aberration or if they have been exposed by a surprisingly imaginative Panthers offense.