Like any good sick, twisted, and sadistic defensive coordinator, Don “Wink” Martindale clearly seems to have the desire to make life miserable for quarterbacks. So far in 2019, his approach seems to be working. The Ravens now rank 7th in the NFL with 19 takeaways. 15 of those have come during their 8-game winning streak. Opposing quarterbacks are playing to a 79.5 passer rating, good for 4th lowest in the league.
Part of Martindale’s approach is to blitz early and often. In fact, the Ravens blitz more than any defense in the NFL. Against the 49ers in Week 13, Martindale drew up a pressure scheme on San Francisco’s second possession of the game that created a critical turnover and kickstarted Baltimore’s offense.
This was 3rd-and-6. First, look at the Ravens’ personnel and alignment. They were using a dime personnel package (6 DBs). Note that Baltimore’s 5 biggest defenders (LBs, DTs, DE’s, etc.) were all aligned to the left of the right tackle.
With linebacker Matthew Judon looking like he was going to rush to the offense’s left and defensive tackle Brandon Williams aligned head up on the center, that meant the 49ers had 3 offensive linemen on the left side to handle Baltimore’s 4 “Bigs.”
To ensure they had enough men to protect, and to make sure that they were matching big on big, the 49ers’ best approach was to slide to the left.
The Ravens clearly anticipated that their alignment would force this protection, and they had a stunt called that was designed to attack it. Judon would actually bluff inside to the center’s left before looping around Brandon Williams and Jihad Ward, who were slanting inside.
The idea was to force a full slide to the left, which would get Judon free to the quarterback off the outside shoulder of the right tackle.
For all intents and purposes, it worked. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey (#69) did end up seeing Judon mid play and came off of the slanting Ward to pick him up. This freed Ward up to get a rush in Jimmy Garoppolo’s face, though.
Safety Chuck Clark (#36), who was also blitzing off the right edge, finished the play after avoiding running back Jeff Wilson’s block.
The result was a sack fumble recovered by the Ravens.
It isn’t just their pass rush and blitz schemes that make the Ravens Defense a versatile group. As the team has evolved during the season and made moves to improve their defensive backfield, they have been able to increase the coverage looks they show opposing offenses. We’ve seen cornerback Brandon Carr take on a hybrid role and align at safety fairly often. We’ve also seen Martindale have Carr and cornerback Marlon Humphrey end up as the two deep safeties with Earl Thomas and Chuck Clark playing in the box or blitzing.
The versatility of their defensive backs makes it difficult for quarterbacks to anticipate what the coverage will be purely based on matchups and alignment. The man and zone-coverage indicators that most defenses provide aren’t always in place with this defense as a result. This enables Baltimore to disguise more effectively and delay the quarterback’s decision making.
Earl Thomas’s presence has also given Martindale more disguises to work with. Thomas has made the middle of the field a scary place for opposing passing games. We’ve seen him attempt to rob passes in the middle after initially aligning in many different positions. Take the below play. Thomas started in the flat before sneaking into the middle post-snap.
Nothing special happened on this play, but it’s worth showing because you don’t see this look very often around the NFL. Perhaps the Ravens will get a big play out of it down the stretch this season.
On the below 3rd down against the 49ers, Thomas appeared to be blitzing off the offense’s left edge. He ended up lurking in the middle of the field and providing help on tight end George Kittle, who was aligned on the other side of the formation.
Garoppolo decided to work a route on the outside that wasn’t open. There’s a good chance he wanted to stay out of the middle because of Thomas. The 49ers were forced to settle for a field goal.
The threat of the unknown that is the middle of the field for the Ravens Defense certainly contributed to George Kittle’s uneventful day. The ability to have multiple defensive backs who are capable in coverage certainly helps too. Baltimore used an assortment of defenders to match up to Kittle in man coverage throughout the afternoon, including cornerbacks (Carr and Peters). The Ravens didn’t have to sacrifice much coverage elsewhere to do it.
Yes, Baltimore was gashed in the run during the middle portion of the game. They had some trouble dealing with San Francisco’s outside zone runs. The 49ers clearly had a plan to attack the outside, perhaps to mitigate all the things the Ravens like to do inside. Baltimore adjusted down the stretch, though, yielding just 15 yards on 7 carries after the 49ers tied the game at 17 late in the 3rd quarter.
The Ravens are a team firing on all cylinders on both sides of the ball right now. Early in the season, their defense was an issue, repeatedly giving up big plays due to lots of miscommunication and blown coverages. They were a group in disarray that threatened to hold the team back. Now, they look primed to play a significant role in a possible Super Bowl run.
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