No Ed Reed or Ray Lewis this season for the Superbowl champs, but the Baltimore Ravens defense looks as good as ever.
The Baltimore Ravens have the hot hand in the AFC playoff race thanks to their sophisticated pressure defense. The Ravens have won four games in a row on the strength of a sack-happy, turnover-binging unit.
The latest success was Monday night's 18-16 triumph on the road over the Detroit Lions. The key was how the Ravens pressure schemes wrecked the NFL's third-ranked offense.
Baltimore mixed its coverage and blitz looks to baffle Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. The trend began in the opening quarter when Detroit faced a 2nd-and-11 at the Ravens 43-yard line.
Baltimore fielded its 4-2-5 nickel front. The four-man line had Pernell McPhee and Courtney Upshaw as ends, with Arthur Jones and Haloti Ngata inside at tackle.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees then shifted his two inside linebackers to create pressure. He put Jameel McClain on the outside next to Upshaw.
Pees also moved Daryl Smith between McPhee and Jones. Smith blitzed, looping around Jones, who slanted to the outside. The pair shared the sack, combining to drop Stafford for a five-yard loss.
The Ravens had initially shown a two-deep zone behind the pressure. But that soon changed to man coverage. As Smith blitzed, rookie safety Matt Elam rotated down behind him and locked up tight end Joseph Fauria in single coverage.
This was one of many times the Ravens blitzed Stafford. But they also got to him with a standard four-man rush. They did just that in the second quarter with the Lions facing 3rd-and-9 at their own 41.
The Ravens were again in a nickel look. This time, their front consisted of premier pass-rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil on the outside, with Ngata at one tackle spot.
Upshaw also aligned on the inside, as a standing rusher next to Suggs. Because he was standing, the Lions didn't know exactly whether he would blitz, or drop out into zone coverage.
In fact, all four linemen rushed the passer. It was Dumervil who got to Stafford first, after flattening his blocker with an awesome power move.
He hit Stafford as he threw, causing the pass to fall incomplete. Stafford had been aiming for star wide receiver Calvin Johnson in the slot.
But the Ravens smartly adjusted their coverage look pre-snap to double-cover Johnson. They had shown a Two Man look, with a pair of deep safeties behind man coverage underneath.
But one of those safeties, James Ihedigbo, drifted across to stay over the top of Johnson's route. That meant the Ravens had press coverage at the line and help deep against Stafford's favourite target.
As pointed out in the takeaways from Thanksgiving, the Ravens pressure schemes this season bear the hallmarks of defensive assistant Steve Spagnuolo. This play, with three defensive ends, including one standing to confuse the quarterback, with zone coverage behind the front, was pure Spagnuolo.
So was the blitz that led to a critical turnover in the third quarter. The Lions faced 3rd-and-1, but despite the short-yardage situation, emptied the backfield to field five receivers.
As they did, Smith changed the defense to a blitz look. The Ravens were still in nickel, but tweaked their line.
They had McPhee and Upshaw at end, but DeAngelo Tyson joined Ngata inside at tackle. The Ravens then filled gaps to challenge protection.
Ngata and Tyson shifted into both A-gaps, either side of the center. Smith and McClain then moved into both B-gaps, between the offensive tackles and guards.
This look forced the Lions to block down and inside. So when Smith and McClain blitzed, an edge-rusher was left unblocked.
It Was Upshaw who came around the corner untouched to get pressure. That meant Stafford didn't see Tyson, who had dropped out late into zone coverage, lurking in the underneath passing lane.
He intercepted the pass for one of the biggest plays of the game. This blitz design had Spagnuolo written all over it.
His fire zone schemes are founded on linemen dropping out into coverage behind second-level blitzers who attack through shifted lines.
Thanks to sophisticated pressures like this, the Ravens are fast becoming the team the elite of the AFC hope don't make the playoffs.
image: © kevygee