Ravens’ Defense Finds Answers in Seattle

It is, I think, important to remember that both defenders that had their hands on the ball ended up scoring.

When, with about five minutes left in the second quarter, Marcus Peters intercepted the pass intended for Jaron Brown, he darted the full 67 yards down the sideline for the score.  With just under four minutes left in the game, D.K. Metcalf caught a short pass along the offensive left sideline.  As he tried to switch hands, the wet ball slipped away from him.  Raven defensive back Marlon Humphrey fell on the ball at the Seattle 18, but wasn’t content with possession.  Hustling to his feet, Marlon raced down the invitingly open sideline for the touchdown.

In the aftermath of the game – a 30-16 Baltimore victory over Seattle (gamebook) (summary), the assembled media was quick to shower praise on Lamar Jackson, the second year starter at quarterback who guided the team to this road victory over a top opponent.  But the offense on this day managed a modest 340 total yards and scored 1 touchdown.  The difference in this game – and something for future opponents of both the Ravens and Seahawks to keep in mind – was the Baltimore defense, whose two defensive scores capped off an afternoon of nearly total domination.

Last year saw the rise of what I called Neanderthal football teams – old school style offenses that committed to running the ball and imposing their will on their opponent.  Baltimore is pre-eminent among that club.  Their stated intent, in fact, is to revolutionize offensive football around the talents of Jackson.

That full revolution may or may not come to pass.  To this point, the Baltimore offense is pure Neanderthal – with all the advantages and limitations that come with this style of play.

Primary among the advantages of Neanderthal football is game control.  A brilliant defensive coordinator can design all kinds of exotic blitzes and coverage schemes to inhibit the passing game.  There is no brilliant defensive strategy to stop the run.  If you are getting gashed at the line, the only thing you can do is commit more defenders to the run – and that usually doesn’t work out in the long run.

So, if you can’t stop the Raven running game (and most people haven’t), then it will relentlessly pound your defense into submission, five or six brutal yards at a time.  Your offense will spend agonizing stretches of the afternoon wandering aimlessly along the sideline, while your battered defense will stand, hands on hips, sucking air and waiting for the next hammer blow.

In Seattle on Sunday, Baltimore held the ball for 17:38 of the second half – almost all of that on two devastating drives that decided the contest.

The game was tied at 13 with 6:51 left in the third when Seattle’s Jason Myers missed wide right on a 53-yard field goal attempt.  Now, with 6:46 left in the quarter, the Ravens took over at their own 43.  Five minutes and 26 seconds later, the 11-play, 62-yard Baltimore drive ended when Jackson knifed into the end zone from 8 yards out – Baltimore’s only offensive touchdown of the game.

Now, Seattle was trailing by 7 with just 1:20 left in the quarter. The Seahawk offense was only able to buy its defense a mild breather as their 7-play, 3:33 drive ended with a punt early in the fourth quarter.

Now it’s the Ravens again.  With 12:47 left in the game and the ball at their own 10, Jackson and the Raven embarked on a brutal 13-play, 96-yard drive that ground the next nine minutes even off of the clock.  When the Baltimore field goal finally allowed the devastated Seattle defense off the field and permitted the Seahawk offense back into the game, quarterback Russell Wilson and company faced a 10-point deficit, with just 3:47 left to play.  Their first play from scrimmage in that next drive was the Metcalf fumble that was returned for the game-icing touchdown.  Whether the long wait on the sideline – and the Seattle offense at that point had run all of 7 plays over the previous 18 minutes of football time – was a factor in Metcalf’s unforced error is hard to say, although that is the sort of thing that happens when your offense spends its afternoon watching from the sideline.

During those two back-breaking drives, Baltimore ran 24 plays, gained 158 yards, averaged 6.58 yards per offensive snap, and drained 14:26 off the clock – nearly a full quarter’s worth of time on those two drives.  True to their Neanderthal DNA, only 7 of the 24 offensive plays ended up being pass plays.  Jackson was sacked once, and actually threw the ball only 6 times completing 3 for 37 yards.  The Raven “passing attack” averaged 5 yards per play.  The 17 running plays in those two drives amassed 123 yards (Seattle managed just 106 rushing yards for the entire game), and averaged 7.23 yards per.

This is all the more impressive (and scary to future Baltimore opponents) when you take into account that Seattle realized that this would be the game plan.  They knew that Baltimore wouldn’t try to beat them through the air.  But even with extra focus on the relentless Raven running game, the Hawks were unable to derail it.  By game’s end, Baltimore had run the ball 35 times for 199 yards (116 from Jackson).

Baltimore gets this week off, as they prepare for a Week Nine showdown against the defending world champions.  Whether the New England brain-trust can generate a blueprint for slowing down the Baltimore running game, or whether Revolution Baltimore will grind the Patriots under their wheels will be one of the more compelling stories of Week Nine.

I will be so bold as to say that a significant part of the Patriot game plan will be to play from ahead.  One of the great limitations of a run-dependent offense is a pronounced difficulty in coming from behind.  In their Week Six matchup against winless Cincinnati, Baltimore surrendered a touchdown on the opening kickoff, falling behind 7-0.  That 7-point deficit is the largest that they have overcome this season to win (and they did squeak by Cincinnati 23-17).  In their two losses (33-28 to Kansas City and 40-25 against Cleveland), the Ravens fell behind early.  They trailed the Chiefs 23-6 at the half, and Cleveland 24-10 after three quarters.  Forced into passing situations, Jackson threw for just 267 yards against KC, and 247 yards (with two interceptions) against the Browns.

Jackson’s passing numbers against Seattle weren’t awe-inspiring.  He finished 9 of 20 for 143 yards, and they were that good because Lamar held the element of surprise when he threw.  Even when he would drop back to pass, Seattle realized that he was at least half looking for a running lane, so Seattle could never comfortably play full out pass defense.  Jackson is so shifty and ungraspable, that you can’t even full-out pass rush him.  Seattle learned this lesson the hard way in the second quarter.  On a third-and-ten, they brought Jamar Taylor on a corner blitz from Jackson’s right.  Flushed from the pocket, Lamar simply (and easily) sprinted around left end for 28 yards and the first down.

To date, the only way to contend with the Baltimore running game is to take it away from them with a sizeable lead.  And that will mean contending with the Baltimore defense.

The Raven defense has had its hiccups this year.  In their consecutive losses, they surrendered over 500 yards of offense in both games.  They played significantly better in their victories over the 2-4 Steelers and the 0-7 Bengals.  Seattle would present a better measuring stick of their improvement.

As Seattle charged onto the field, they carried with them the league’s fifth-ranked offense (by yards) and seventh-ranked by points.  They were ranked ninth in running the football – averaging 130.5 yards a game, and featured in Chris Carson the league’s fifth-leading rusher who was also second in carries.

But the offensive pride and joy was Russell Wilson and the passing game.  Ranked eighth in yards only because Seattle runs the ball so frequently, Wilson came into the matchup as football’s top rated passer (124.7 passer rating).  His 14 touchdown passes were second most in the league, and his touchdown percentage of 7.4% was the league best – even more impressive when weighed against the fact that Wilson had yet to throw an interception in 2019.

It wasn’t a timid passing game, either.  Wilson came into the night averaging 9.02 yards per pass attempt – football’s second highest average – and to that end had discovered in Metcalf one of the league’s bright new stars.  DK entered the game leading the NFL in yards per catch.

This last point was a primary concern for Baltimore’s defensive unit.  Mostly a man-to-man unit, they had surrendered more than their share of big plays – to the point where Baltimore ranked twenty-fifth against the pass, and their 13.1 yards allowed per completion was thirtieth out of the NFL’s thirty-two teams.

In my mind, this would be the game.  If the Ravens couldn’t manage to contain the deep-strike game of Wilson to Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, then they would be faced again with that early deficit and would have to rely on Jackson’s arm.  The game’s final statistics – as much as the defensive scores – spoke to Baltimore’s success.  In what ended up as his worst statistical performance of the season, Wilson completed just 20 of 41 passes for only 241 yards.  He averaged just 5.88 yards per throw, threw his first interception of the year (to Peters) and finished with a stunning 65.2 rating.  For their parts, Lockett finished with just 61 yards and Metcalf with 53.  In the second half, Tyler caught just 2 passes for 8 yards, and Metcalf hauled in just 2 of the 5 thrown his way for just 7 yards.

That was the game – Lamar Jackson and his Neanderthal offense notwithstanding.  Seattle managed just 3 points in the second half.  The defense clearly profited from the time-of-possession advantage provided by the offense.  But when it was their turn on the tundra, they rose to the challenge.  There were three defensive imperatives, and Baltimore succeeded in all three.

Imperative number one was to stop the run.  In its purest form, Seattle’s offense is a bit like Baltimore’s in that everything builds off the running game.  Once the running game gets started, then Wilson can be at his devastating best with his up-field, play-action passing game.

But on Sunday afternoon, the Baltimore defensive line made sure that that wouldn’t happen.  Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce are two members of the Baltimore squad that infrequently get recognized.  Their contributions to the team’s success are rarely flashy.  In fact, they spend a large part of every game on the bottom of large piles of humanity around the line of scrimmage.  But don’t underestimate their importance in this win.

Williams and Pierce are run stuffers.  They are the large bodies in the middle of the line that inhibit opponents’ running attacks, and are a prime reason that the Raven defense currently ranks third in the NFL against the run.  On Sunday, they checked Carson and the Seahawk running attack, holding him to 65 yards on 21 carries – with none of his efforts gaining more than 9 yards.

Imperative two called for finding an answer for Metcalf and Lockett.  Part of that answer had come via trade during the week, in the person of Marcus Peters, who plugged right in to the starting left cornerback role.

Baltimore played a lot of man coverage in this game, with mostly acceptable results.  In Peters, Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore now has three cornerbacks who they can comfortably leave on an island even against very good receivers.  These three were not perfect – and there was more than one Seattle receiver running open deep against them – but for the most part their man coverage was tight and adequate.  Since the Ravens infrequently flipped their corners, Seattle was usually free to select the matchups they wanted – mostly Metcalf against Peters, Lockett in the slot where he would be shadowed by Humphrey, and David Moore or Jaron Brown opposite of Carr.

For some reason throughout the game, Seattle believed they could take advantage of Carr deep.  Almost all of their receivers lined up to the offensive left and tried to get behind him.  By game’s end, 9 passes had been thrown in Brandon’s coverage area, resulting in 4 receptions for just 30 yards.  For the season, 40 throws at Brandon Carr have resulted in 19 completions (47.5%) for just 201 yards and 1 touchdown.  In passer rating points, throws against Brandon score a 70.9.  Future offensive coordinators looking for weak spots in the Baltimore defense should start to realize that Carr isn’t one of them.

But against Seattle, Baltimore wasn’t a man-heavy defense.  Especially as the game wore on and the run threat began to diminish, the Ravens went to a cover 4 concept, with deep drops from the linebackers underneath.  Whether this will become a consistent part of their game plan, or whether this tactic was specific for the Seahawks will be determined over the rest of the season.  But as far as Seattle is concerned, Baltimore understood that they are not a dink-and-dunk passing attack.  Their game is the quick strike – Russell Wilson looping deep passes that drop down the chute into the waiting arms of Lockett.  Throughout most of the last part of the game. Baltimore gave plenty of room under their deep drops, knowing that Wilson wouldn’t exploit them, and couldn’t beat them doing that even if he did.

So, between their press coverage off the line, and their smothering deep zone coverages, Russell Wilson almost never had anywhere to go with the football.  And he almost never had time to make that decision.

Imperative three was the pass rush.

Over and over this season, we have seen high-powered passing attacks (in Kansas City, Los Angeles and everywhere in between) silenced by intense pressure.  It is the oldest of axioms – no quarterback, however great, can beat you when he’s on his back.  And Russell Wilson spent most of Sunday afternoon on his back – or nearly there.  A testament to his greatness is that Baltimore finished the afternoon with only one sack in spite of consistent company in his backfield.

Never afraid of a blitz, Raven defensive coordinator Don Martindale never hesitated to send the house (a few times anyway).  Many other times, he showed the threat of an all-out blitz, with defenders then falling back to clog the passing lanes.  Almost every time that Baltimore showed blitz and backed out, the Seahawks seemed confused.

My favorite of these moments came early in the third quarter.  Carson – in the backfield to Wilson’s right – had his eye on Anthony Levine, who lined up in the A-gap in a blitzing attitude.  At the snap, Levine backpedaled, making Carson think he could release into the pattern.  But the Ravens had a stunt on.  As Patrick Ricard cleared center Justin Britt out of the way, Carson slipped through that opening.  As Chris was escaping the backfield, Matt Judon poured in through that same opening to get immediate pressure and force another errant throw from Wilson.  As they passed each other, Carson couldn’t help but watch Judon race into the backfield.  He even inadvertently pointed at Judon as if to say, “shouldn’t I be blocking you?”

Of all of Baltimore’s star players, Matt Judon probably garners the least attention.  But Matt was one of the primary forces behind the Ravens’ victory.  Stunting or not, Matt was more than any of the Seattle linemen could handle.  The scoresheet only officially credited him with one assisted tackle and one quarterback hit, but this doesn’t begin to reflect the impact Matt had on the game.  He all but lived in the Seattle backfield and was principally responsible for Russell Wilson’s long and frustrating afternoon.

While the Ravens will now prepare for New England, Seattle is left with some apparent vulnerabilities that future opponents may try to exploit.  As the game progressed, it was clear that Seattle missed the intermediate routes run by the retired Doug Baldwin.  The passing attack – as of Sunday, anyway – now rests squarely on the shoulders of Lockett and Metcalf.  Will the cover-4 look that Seattle saw so much of from the Ravens become a trend against them?  Until Seattle can develop or find a receiver that can do what Baldwin did, Metcalf and Lockett will see more than their share of attention.

And then, there is the Seattle offensive line.  The Seahawks haven’t been blessed with much health or consistency here so far this year.  Germain Ifedi has played every snap this year at right tackle, but is playing on an ouchy knee.  Left guard Mike Iupati had an early season foot injury that has cost him some time getting familiar with his new line mates.  And just in the last two or three games, George Fant has reclaimed his left tackle position (in spite of a balky shoulder) and rookie Jamarco Jones has taken over at right guard.  So there is a lot of youth, injury, and unfamiliarity here – and it showed against Baltimore.

Seattle is 5-2 and in no need to panic over one game.  Going forward, more production from the receivers would be helpful.  But the offensive line simply must get better – both for Chris Carson in the running game, and especially to keep Russell Wilson from getting beaten up in the passing game.  How they respond to this beating will ultimately define their season.

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