Understanding the Baltimore Ravens’ Defense

Scared yet?

Well, you probably should be.  The Baltimore Ravens’ defense has been one of the most dominating units on either side of the ball for the past decade.

This Sunday the Denver Broncos will travel to Baltimore to face Ray Lewis and the Ravens’ defense.  In this article I will break down some basics of the Ravens’ defense using game film from their game last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers.  I will break down their general philosophy on defense, some of their specific tactics, and some good ways to beat their defense.

Understanding the Baltimore Ravens’ Defense

The N.F.L. is a  “quarterback driven league” (or at least that is what the pundits tell us).  So, we naturally think of the quarterback first and foremost when we think of football, both on offense and defense.  When hearing Rex Ryan (former Raven’s defensive coordinator) describe his defense as a “pressure defense” (as he does in his book Coaching Football’s 46 Defense) we then assume his defense is predicated on blitzing the quarterback.  While pressuring the quarterback is most definitely a major part of his defense that is not all there is to it.  Instead, when he says a pressure defense he means that his defense will pressure the entire offense. Ryan’s defense won’t just pressure the quarterback, they will pressure every single offensive player every snap.

Ryan defines pressure as, “applying the proper strategy for the situation in order to maximize your defensive force.” (pg. 15 Coaching Football’s 46 Defense Ryan and Walker)  Now what does this mean?  This means you have to pick your battles.  You cannot just blitz on every down.  Yes, you would be forcing the offenses’ hand, but the offense would also destroy you.  Instead, you need to consider your situation and play defense appropriately.  Ryan lists three situations in particular and how his “pressure defense” reacts to them:

  • Normal Situations

Normal situations are linked closely to the clock and circumstances of the game.  The primary objective in normal situations is to force the opponent to work for every yard and not give up the long pass or run.  Generally speaking, defenses selected for normal situations are delaying tactics designed to optimize pursuit and provide gang-tackling oppurtunties.  Normal situations call for a defensive orientation towards containment.

  • Penetrating Situations

Penetrating situations are circumstances when either you are enjoying the upperhand or looking for a turn of the tide.  Defenses used in pentrating situations require an ability to read on the run.  Extra effort is required to fill the proper pursuit angles, but the payoff is the high incidence of offesnive mistakes and turnovers forced by the attacking style of play.  The attacking type of defense used in the penetrtating situations is the backbone of the 46 package (or any Rex Ryan defense).  The physical makeup of the defensive unit is usually tailored for applying pressure in penetrating situations.

  • Prevent Situations

The prevent situation calls for implementing our nickel prevent package.  We use this look when it is late in the half or game and we are ahead.  Our primary purpose in the prevent situation is to delay the offensive team’s progress, preventing the long gainer or successful trick play.  The prevent package is also used in long-yardage situations after the pressure package  used in the penetrating situation has garnered a big sack or other type of loss. It can be used anytime the offense is facing an unusually long-yardage situation on a possession down.

Coaching Football’s 46 Defense pg. 15-16

To understand the Baltimore Raven’s defense we will then break down how exactly they apply pressure in a penetrating situation, how they prevent the offense from achieving success in a prevent situation, and how they stop the run and pass in a normal situation.

1.) Applying Pressure in a Penetrating Situation

The Raven’s will apply pressure in two basic ways.  They will either pressure the interior or exterior of an offensive line.  Their exterior or outside pressures are more common and can be thought of as their base pressures, but once or twice a game they will bring inside pressure to great effect.

A.) Outside Pressure

This first example of outside pressure comes from last week’s Ravens-Steelers game.  There is 10:15 left in the 2nd quarter and the Steelers are at their own 47.

The Steelers have come out in “10” or Jet personnel.  They have four wide receivers and a running back on the field.  They also have trips to the right.

The Ravens have come out in their Nickel 3-3-5 personnel.  They have 3 defensive linemen, 3 linebackers, and 5 defensive backs.

The Ravens drop two additional men into “the box” and are overloading the right side of the offensive line.

Seeing this all before the snap Charlie Batch is going to look at the trips side of the formation immediately after snapping the ball.  The blitzing defenders should leave one of his receivers either open or in single coverage.

This is what the defense does right after the ball is snapped.

None of the defenders who were overloading the right side actually blitz.  Instead, they cover the trips receivers.  The middle linebacker also fakes a blitz and drops back into coverage.

This means that the Ravens are only sending 4 rushers after the quarterback.  The Steelers are blocking 6 (5 offensive linemen + 1 runningback).  The offense has the advantage and no defenders should get through.

However, as we can tell in seeing the blocking assignments of the offensive line one Raven will go unblocked.

Anticipating the overload blitz on the trips side the runningback immediately heads to the right.  The right tackle also anticipates the blitz from the trips side and stays on the right.

The right guard and left tackle are both engaged by defensive ends.  This leaves the left guard and the center.

The center chases after the nose tackle as the nose tackle runs a stunt to the left of the formation.  This takes the center out of the play as a blocker.

The left guard intially excpects the middle linebacker to blitz and when he doesn’t all the left guard can think to do is pickup the stunting nose tackle.

This leaves a defender free to come rushing around the outside.

Here I have circled all 4 defenders in black who are not blocking anybody.  The center, left guard, right tackle, and the runningback.  Also notice the defender barreling down on the quarterback.

The quarterback is also probably just as confused as his offensive line.  By only rushing 4 the ravens still have 7 defenders to drop back into coverage.   This gives them almost a 2:1 advantage in coverage (7 defenders and 4 receivers).  There is no where for the quarterback to throw the ball and there is a free rusher.

Again the Ravens are going to bring outside pressure.  However, this time two things will go differently, the Steelers will pick up the pressure, and they will make a completion for positive yards.

Again notice how the Ravens have potential overloads on either side of the offensive line and have a middle linebacker right up on the line of scrimmage.

This time the Ravens are running what is known as a zone blitz, that is where a lineman who will typically rush the quarterback instead drops back into a zone to defend against the pass.  This is designed to further complicate the quarterbacks reads and to give the defense an additional instant to get to the quarterback.

Here is a good article by Chris Brown of Smart Football on the Ravens and the zone blitz.

In this case the defensive linemen dropping into coverage is the right end.  Notice how he will fake the blitz and then drop back into coverage.  The fake blitz is essential.  The goal of this fake blitz is to force an offensive lineman to dedicate himself to blocking a rusher who will in fact not rush.  This is what happened to the left guard in the blitz described above.  The middle linebacker took a step or two towards the quarterback at the snap and then dropped back into coverage.  That extra step or two forced the offensive line into accounting for him in their blitz pickup.

The opposite defensive end is running a stunt to the inside.  This stunt is again to maximize the amount of offensive linemen who will have to account for the defensive end.  By stunting across the right tackle and into the right guard the defensive end is forcing both players to account for him.

The nose tackle is just going to bull rush the center and hopefully draw a double team.

Meanwhile the two outside defenders on the left of the formation are going to attack the left tackle.  The inside of these two defenders is going to drive right at the left tackle outside foot.  This should force the offensive tackle to turn sideways to meet the defender.  Meanwhile the outermost defender will attempt to run inside the turned offensive tackle and behind the left guard who is blocking the non-rushing defensive end.

The Ravens hope to again get pressure from 4 defenders against 6 blockers.

This time the Steelers pick up the blitz.  Everything goes according to plan for the Ravens except for the runningback.  This time the runningback successfully blocks the outside rusher.

The quarterback looks to his “hot-read” his tight end.

The quarterback then realizes that the tight end has an extremely favorable match up.  The tight end is being covered by a defensive end and a dropping linebacker.  The tight end cuts under the defenders and is open for an easy gain.

B.) Inside Pressure

As I mentioned above the Ravens will typically only bring these inside blitzes in force once or twice a game.  However, they are extremely effective.

Here we see the Steelers in a typically 6 man protection scheme.  The Ravens have 5 defenders on the line of scrimmage so the Steelers offensive line just each take the nearest defender.  The runningback will then just chip any defender who beats an offensive linemen.

However, right before the snap the middle linebacker comes up to the line of scrimmage.  This really messes with the offenses protection scheme.

Now the runningback has to slide across the quarterback and meet the linebacker.  None of the offensive linemen can block the middle linebacker they are all preoccupied by the defenders they were assigned before the snap.

The runninback doesn’t stand a chance.  He has a power angle and is outweighed by the defender.

Here we see the middle linebacker pushing the runningback right into the quarterback.  But, just as importantly we see a defensive end stunting into the middle of the offensive line.  This stunt forced the right guard to account for the defensive end initially, but now the defensive end is free to run right down the center of the offensive line.

The runningback finally gets completely beat by the middle linebacker forcing the quarterback to step up into the pocket.

Where he is met by out stunting defensive end for a punishing sack.

Here is an image of the defensive lineman beginning his stunt.  We also can better appreciate the poor angle and lack of momentum the runningback has.

And here we see the quarterback is forced to step up into the pocket (following the yellow arrow) and is forced right into the stunting defender.

2.) The Prevent Situation

The Ravens like to play their prevent situation defense once they have put the offense in an unfavorable down and distance situation.  Typically this is when the offense is in 2nd or 3rd and long (7+ yards).  The Ravens will then rush just three (occasionally four) and drop eight back into coverage.  With eight in coverage the defense will force the quarterback to hold on to the ball for a long period of time.  As the quarterback is holding onto the ball the Ravens’ superior defensive line will either hurry the quarterback or sack him for a loss.

Let’s look at an example.

This first example comes with 13:28 to play in the 1st quarter of the Steelers Ravens game.

The Steelers are in “10” or Jet personnel and the Ravens appear to be in a dollar personnel set (3Defensive Linemen, 2 Linebackers, and 6 Defensive Backs).  Before the snap the Ravens have brought a linebacker up to the line of scrimmage to mess with the protection scheme of the Steelers.

Immediately after the snap the linebacker drops back into zone coverage.  The Ravens now have eight defenders in coverage and only three rushing the quarterback.

In these situations the Ravens like to play a lot of Cover 3 zone defense with a “pattern matching”  or “match zone” technique by the defensive backs.

Here is a diagram of a basic Cover 3 zone with a four man rush.

Notice that there are three defenders defending the deep zones (the two cornerbacks and the free safety).  The other four underneath defenders have split up the underneath zones.

For a more thorough read on the Cover 3 head over to Cripes! Get back to fundamentals.  For a good read on “match zone” also head over to Cripes! Get back to fundamentals.  For a good overview of the single high defenses head over to Smart Football.

Approximatively seven seconds after the play has started and Charlie Batch is still unable to find an open receiver.  He gets sacked for a loss.

3.) The Normal Situation

In a normal situation the Ravens will typically rush four, funnel the run to the middle of the field, and play solid zone defense.

In this example the Ravens have brought eight, almost nine, defenders into “the box.”  This allows them to do two things.

Firstly, it allows them to effectively stop the run.  With eight men near the line of scrimmage the Steelers will struggle to block every Ravens’ defender and find space for their runningback.

Secondly, it allows them to threaten every part of the offensive line with the threat of a pass rush.  Remember, they are a pressure defense.  This does not mean that they have to blitz all eight defenders, but having eight defenders near the line of scrimmage will force the offense to have  blocking scheme that can account for all eight defenders, something that is very hard to do.  This means that the receivers feel like they need to get open immediately and the quarterback feels like he needs to make his reads extremely quickly.  They are putting pressure on the entire offense.

At the snap the Ravens only rush four out of the eight defenders near the line of scrimmage.  However,  those four defenders they rushed got a favorable first step against the offensive line because the offensive line did not know who they would end up blocking.  Further, since the Steelers are sending out five receivers they only have five pass blockers.  This usually does not turn out well against the Ravens.  By looking at the picture you can tell the Ravens are already rapidly collapsing the pocket.

Here is a view of five out of seven of the other defenders.  These defenders are the ones in zone coverage.  You can see the deep safety standing in the end zone covering the deep middle third of the field (I have circled his zone in blue).  The two defenders you cannot see, the cornerbacks, are covering the other two deep thirds (these are the incomplete blue circles).  Meanwhile, the other four underneath defenders are covering the underneath side of the field (the yellow circles).

Every receiver is covered and the pocket is collapsing.  The defense is putting pressure on the offense.

Now let’s look at running play.

In this play the Steelers are going to run an Outside Zone run to the strong side (the right of the picture, where the tight end is).  The idea here is to have the offensive line take a quick side step at the snap, get good leverage on the defense, and open up cutback lanes for the running back.

The Ravens’ defense stops them cold.

At the snap the Ravens’ nose tackle (circled in red in the first image) blows past the center.  The guard is unable to help the center because in an outside zone run the guard is suppose to help the tackle with his defender and then head upfield to block a linebacker.

In blowing past the center the nose tackle forces the runningback to try and cut upfield straight away.

The Steelers’ runningback tries to cut upfield, but the nose tackle slows him down with his arm.  After being slowed down the runninback is a sitting duck and get nailed by the Ravens’ linebackers.

4.) Can it be beat?

Sort of.  Beating the Ravens’ defense takes a supreme amount of discipline and some excellent execution by the defense.  Below I will show two plays where the Steelers did beat the Ravens’ defense.  The first is a pass and the second is a run.

The Steelers have come out in their “11” or Possee Personnel group with a tight bunch to the wide side of the field.  The Ravens have responded by coming out in their nickel personnel package (Four defensive linemen, 2 linebackers, and five defensive backs).  The Ravens have also put eight men in “the box.”

As far as coverage goes the Ravens are playing in a Cover 1 man coverage with tight coverage on the outside.  This means there is one deep safety, five rushers, and five defenders in man coverage.

The Ravens are also running an outside blitz.  They are bringing the far defensive back around the outside to get to the quarterback.  The hope is the quarterback will be forced to hold onto the ball as his receivers get off the tight coverage and then by the time the receivers get open the quarterback gets hit.

After the snaps the Steelers successfully pick up the Ravens blitz.  The runningback catches the defensive back (see the black “T” in the diagram) and the offensive line creates a clean pocket (the black curve) for the quarterback.  This gives the Steelers single coverage (the black circles) on the outside with the receivers running deep routes.

Charlie Batch takes his shot.

As we can see their is only deep safety and he is responsible for a ridiculous amount of space (see the huge red circle).  This means that Batch could have thrown to either receiver and expected a good result.  Batch completes the pass and the Ravens don’t play tight coverage on a blitz for the rest of the game.

Now let’s look at some runs.

Again the Ravens have eight in the box in response to the Steelers coming out in “13” personnel.

The Steelers do run the ball, as the Ravens expected.  The Ravens’ linebackers instantly key onto the Steelers runningback (see the red arrows).

However, as soon as the runningback reaches the line of scrimmage he cuts to the outside.  This causes some real problems for the Ravens.

The Ravens have over pursued.  The defensive line pushed to far upfield and is unable to get outside.  The linebackers ran to far up to the line of scrimmage and have to take a bad angle to try and tackle the runningback.

Again, same situation.  The Ravens come out with eight in the box in response to the Ravens coming out in “21” or Pro personnel in a run heavy formation.

And again the Steelers do run the ball.  Notice that the linebackers and a safety are again instantly charging towards the line of scrimmage.

The Steelers runningback waits until he is right next to the line of scrimmage and then cuts outside for a big gain.

Well, that is it folks.  Hope you enjoyed the read.  Also, as usual, if you spot any typos feel free to point them out.  I am in a hurry and don’t have time to reread these for spelling.


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