Ravens Backups Flatten Steelers

There is a lot for which to be happy this holiday season.  Let’s review:

  • The Ravens are the number 1 seed in the AFC with the best record in football.
  • They will play a home game in the divisional round on Saturday 1/11 for the best possible rest relationship to opponents before and after.
  • They signed one of their key defensive playmakers (Marcus Peters) to a 3-year extension on Saturday.
  • They sat 6 Pro Bowlers plus a 1st alternate for the season finale yet beat their arch-rivals, who had a playoff spot on the line.
  • Despite playing without their biggest offensive playmakers, they needed only modest changes to their game plan to roll up an impressive win in poor weather, against one of the league’s best defenses.
  • They shattered the NFL’s 16-game rushing record by 131 yards and became the first team in league history to average both 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game (201.6 and 206.0 respectively).
  • They held the Steelers star receiver, Juju Smith-Schuster, to 6 targets with 2 catches for 6 yards.
  • As several other teams suffered a serious injury (Chiefs), depended on the kindness of strangers (Titans), limped to the finish line (Packers), or threw up on it (Patriots), the Ravens won handily without any obvious injuries.
  • They are by far the league’s most complete team and have one of the highest DVOA ratings since Football Outsiders has been keeping the statistic.

Yet somehow, as sports fans, we’ll never be truly happy without having something to worry or complain about.  It’s difficult to find cow patties in this field of dreams, but I’ll try:

  • The Ravens had no answer to stop the run when the Steelers inserted massive T Zach Banner as a 6th lineman.  The Steelers enjoyed their only real success of the day in that package with 53 Rush yards on 9 carries (5.9 YPC).  For the last several weeks I’ve bemoaned how the standard nickel has been insufficient to stop other teams trying to run from 11 personnel.  In this game, the base defense proved too light to handle the Steelers jumbo package (see below).  Excepting plays where they ran with Banner inserted, the Steelers gained just 115 yards on 41 snaps (2.8 YPP).
  • Tackling was poor at times, including outright misses for significant yardage and dragging after first contact.
  • Most of the pressure generated was a result of scheme as opposed to 1-on-1 wins at the line of scrimmage (LoS).  To expand…

Pass Rush

The Ravens allowed QB Devlin Hodges ample time and space (ATS) on 9 of 27 drop backs (33%).  That is the second consecutive week where that above-average defensive result seemed inadequate given what the Ravens had to risk in terms of numbers and deception.  However, Hodges completed just 2 of 9 passes for 35 yards with ATS.

Let’s look at the pass rush results by numbers underscores the scheme dependency:

4: 9 plays, 73 yards (8.1 YPP)

5: 14 plays, -3 yards (-0.2 YPP), including both sacks and the only takeaway

6: 1 play, 0 yards

7+: 3 plays, 7 yards (2.3 YPP)

I don’t want to downplay the fact the Ravens held the Steelers to 3.1 yards per pass play.  That’s good under any conditions and variation from that mean by subset is to be expected.  However, the Ravens continue to produce significantly better results rushing with numbers.  By the most common definition, the Ravens “blitzed” (used 5+ rushers) on 67% of drop backs (above their league-leading average) on which the Steelers gained 4 yards on 18 plays (0.2 YPP).  When Martindale rushed 4, he did the Steelers a favor.

Martindale continued with a deception rate at or near season highs.  He called 17 individual blitzers, 7 stunts, and 10 drops of 2+ men to coverage.  Among just 27 drop backs, that’s a remarkable amount of deception, including 10 deceptive rushes which combined 2 or more such elements.  Hodges was 3/8 for 9 net yards including 2 sacks for -18 plus a fumble lost (0.9 YPP) when facing a deceptive pass rush.

The Ravens will face quarterbacks/offenses with more ability to deal with pressure in the playoffs, so it would be unrealistic to expect these results to continue.  However, since the Ravens have been able to generate so little pressure with a 4-man rush, I expect Martindale will continue to use numbers and deception.  


Note: all snap totals exclude penalties resulting in no play, kneels, spikes, and specials team plays resulting in a run or pass.  As such, they will be lower than other published totals.

The Steelers ran 48 competitive, non-penalty snaps.

Jumbo (0): Martindale never saw fit to use their jumbo (4-4-3) despite the fact the defense looked undersized vs the 6 offensive linemen presented by Pittsburgh.

Base (16): These included (but were not limited to) instances where the Steelers inserted Banner as a 6th offensive lineman.  They resulted in 70 net yards (4.4 YPP).  That breaks down as 3 passes for 2 yards and 13 runs for 68 (5.2 YPC).  Allowing 5.2 YPC to a poor offensive team is frustrating, but if another team decides to use a 6th OL in the playoffs, Martindale may be forced to react with a 4-3-4 set to spread the LoS rather than sticking with the base defense.  

Jumbo Nickel (7): The Ravens again used more jumbo nickel (3-3-5) against the Steelers, who favor heavier personnel and power run schemes.  Chris Wormley and Domata Peko were included in each such deployment and Bynes was the lone ILB.  The Ravens surrendered 11 yards (1.6 YPP) with this package.

Standard Nickel (6): The standard nickel included Bynes and Onwuasor at ILB with 2 down linemen.  The Steelers ran the football each time the Martindale deployed it, but they gained just 13 yards (2.2 YPP). 

Dime (19): The Ravens lined up in 2 forms of the dime, but did not play any snaps of the 4 OLB racecar.  Summarizing the results:

Standard–1 ILB, 2 OLB, 2 DL, 6 DBs (1 snap): 12 yards (this was a 3rd and 8 conversion (Q2, 7:38)

2018 standard–1 ILB, 3 OLBs, 1 DL, 6 DBs (18 snaps): 63 yards (3.5 YPP), 2 sacks, 1 takeaway

Before the Ravens started using the racecar package in 2018 (they used only 6 snaps last season), the Ravens used the latter version for most dime snaps, often kicking OLB Za’Darius Smith inside as an additional pass rusher.

The 2000 Ravens played primarily a 4-1 dime with Ray Lewis next to Corey Harris in level 2.  That team also played 55 snaps of quarter during the regular season, most often with 3 down linemen and Ray.  In 2001, still guided by Marvin Lewis, they switched primarily to a 3-2 dime where Jamie Sharper and Lewis were paired on passing downs as Harris took over the SS position full time.

Other Notes

  • Martindale worked with a group of defensive linemen that did not include their snap leader, Brandon Williams.  The Ravens played just 48 competitive snaps on defense, which allowed for a comfortable spread of workload, even with heavier packages.  Pierce (31), Wormley (29), Peko (20), Ellis (17), and Ricard (4) split the duties.
  • Domata Peko played 20 snaps and was in for much of the success the Steelers had with their jumbo package.  However, Peko himself was stout and had an outstanding instinct play that requires mention.  Not only did he sniff out the screen to Smith-Schuster (Q3, 4:06), but he contained the receiver all the way to the right sideline where Carr ushered him out of bunds for a loss of 5.  The Steelers threw 5 passes while he was in the game for -5 total yards.
  • Michael Pierce continues to amaze with power and athleticism.  He steamrolled Pro Bowl G David DeCastro for a pressure (Q2, 1:05).  Just 2 plays later, he recovered Hodges’ fumble forced by Judon.  He pancaked C Finney on top of RB Snell (Q3, 10:40) for a loss of 2 to force 3rd and goal from the 8.
  • LJ Fort played primarily in the dime package.  He generated 2 pressures (Q3, 14:18; Q4, 4:50).  He also drew a holding penalty on LT Villanueva (Q2, 7:20) which was declined when the run went for a loss of 4.
  • Matthew Judon had a strip sack for a loss of 11, but he lost his chance for a double-digit sack year when Hodges intentionally grounded the football (Q4, 11:29).  He finished with 9.5 sacks and was 4th in the NFL with 33 QHs.
  • Patrick Onwuasor got a sideline hug from Harbaugh along with a brief conversation after he tackled Whyte at the 6-yard line on the mishandled kickoff (Q4, 4:36).  Patrick had 3 special teams tackles on the day and it looked as if Harbaugh wanted to patch the relationship after a run in this week during practice was reported.  On defense, Onwuasor was in for the base and standard nickel packages.  He had a missed tackle at 6 yards on Snell’s 19-yard run (Q2, 13:38).  
  • Chuck Clark had a subtle gesture which is a clear indication this is now his defense.  The Steelers lined up on 1st and 10 (Q3, 13:16) with Peters opposite Washington, who motioned from right to left.  Peters followed Washington, but Clark stepped up and tugged at the back of Marcus’ jersey and sent him back to the ORS.  I’d like to say the story has a happy ending, but Snell ran past Washington’s block on Clark for a gain of 15.  Peters had his palms up with the realignment at the snap, which may mean it was a mistake, but it’s a good thing when your young defensive captain is bold enough to realign one of the team’s stars.

Star Treatment

Note: Individual plays use a shorthand where the field is divided into sections 1 through 5 and may include a division of air yards and YAC. For example, a 13-yard pass completed by the right sideline could be denoted as “PR13 (7 + 6) [5]”.

Anthony Averett:

  • (Q2, 7:38):  On 3rd/8, Hodges spun away from pressure and threw PL12 (6 + 6) [1] to TE McDonald with Clark soft in zone.  Averett had been called for defensive holding (termed “iffy” by Fouts) away from the ball.
  • (Q2, 7:20):  Anthony cleaned up on Ferguson’s edge bubble to drop Whyte for a loss of 4. 
  • (Q3, 14:18):  On 3rd/8, Hodges threw for Washington 24 yards [1] incomplete off fingertips with tight coverage by Averett.   
  • (Q3, 10:02):  On 3rd/8, he had tight coverage as Hodges threw for Smith-Schuster 13 yards [1] in end zone just out of reach.   
  • (Q4, 11:35):  With ATS, Hodges threw deep for WR Johnson 35 yards [1].  Johnson’s early jump threw off both Averett and Clark who had tight coverage and the ball dropped INC.
  • (Q4, 4:54):  He had tight coverage over the top on Washington but the ball sailed through the receiver’s hand 9 yards [1] INC. 
  • (Q4, 4:50):  Hodges short middle pass for Smith-Schuster caromed high off his fingertips.  Averett was unable to collect the interception. 

Anthony used the sideline well and it’s not a coincidence that passes kept landing just out of reach of Steelers receivers when he presented a tight coverage radius to Hodges.

Brandon Carr:

  • (Q1, 7:20):  He came unblocked off the offensive right side (ORS) for pressure as Hodges threw INC. 
  • (Q2, 7:38):  He blitzed unblocked off the OLS for pressure, but Hodges spun away for PL12 (6 + 6) [1] to McDonald.
  • (Q2, 6:55):  He crept to the OLS then stunted through left B-gap for a fast S-7.
  • (Q3, 4:06):  Brandon cleaned up on Peko’s screen recognition and containment to push Smith-Schuster OOB PR-5 (-6 + 1) [5]. 
  • (Q4, 13:23):  He made contact at the line of scrimmage but was carried by Snell for RL8.
  • (Q4, 4:27):  He blitzed delayed and unblocked, and forced Hodges intentional grounding in end zone for a safety.

Carr has good timing and is comfortable blitzing from depth, which helped him achieve some of this outstanding pressure rate.

Defensive MVPs

  1. Brandon Carr
  2. Anthony Averett
  3. Michael Pierce