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2021 Opponent Scouting Report: Week Five Ravens Defense- I’m saying there’s a chance

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Detroit Lions Detroit Free Press-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

On October 11th, 2021 the Indianapolis Colts will travel to the team’s original home to take on the Baltimore Ravens. In this week five match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

Big time players make big plays in big games and in week five of the 2021 NFL season it doesn’t get much bigger than Monday Night Football. This will be the Ravens third primetime game and second time on MNF, already this season. They’ve shown they have big time players, our Colts haven’t shown much but they’ll be looking to change that this week.

Let’s see what we can expect in week five.


Defensive System

For as long as the Baltimore Ravens have been an NFL franchise, they have been known as a defensive powerhouse. Year in and year out the Ravens are revered defensively and for good reason. In 2000 the Ravens won the Super Bowl, that season both Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer started 8 regular season games, they combined to complete just under 57% of their passes for 3,080 yards, 20 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. They won the Super Bowl anyway on the back of their defense led by Ray Lewis. That Ravens team allowed an NFL record 165 points that season and 23 points total in the playoffs. 2012 was the only year the Baltimore Ravens finished the season with a winning record and a defense that fell out of the top 10 in either yards allowed or points given up.

Since being promoted from linebackers coach in 2018 defensive coordinator, Don “Wink” Martindale has yet to have a Ravens defense rank worse than third in the league in points allowed and his seventh place finish in yards allowed was a letdown compared to the fourth place finish in 2019 and the first place finish in 2018. This season things have not gone as well for Martindale to start the season, the Ravens are currently ranked 11th in points given up and 18th in yards allowed but some of the struggles are out of his control and we’ll talk about some of the injuries this unit has faced, later.

All stats and percentages that follow in this section are based on the first three weeks of the season unless specifically stated otherwise

The Baltimore Ravens are a base 3-4 team. Very rarely will they send four defensive linemen on the field at the same time. They will often send out two down linemen to go along with three or four linebackers, two of which will usually line up on or near the line of scrimmage. This team very rarely plays with fewer than five defensive backs on the field, with one exception and it’s an exception I expect the Colts to have something planned for- we’ll cover that at the end of this section.

Ravens matching up with 21 personnel

The Ravens defense has seen 21 personnel (2 running backs and 1 tight end- “21”) from their opponents 33 times. Two times the Ravens have sent out the 3-3-5 alignment they show in this clip. This run went for 15 yards and a touchdown, the other run with this defense on the field only went for four yards. Either way the Raiders caught them in a defensive front they don’t usually use to match up with the offense and they exploited it with a big run for six points.

No one runs on the Ravens

No one runs on the Ravens but it’s not because they’re amazing stopping the run. No one has run on the Ravens because outside of the Chiefs game, they’ve been ahead almost all the time. In their first three games the Ravens held the lead for 81 minutes. Through three weeks the Colts had held a lead for less than three full minutes. For the record the Chiefs should have tried to run more with the lead, they just didn’t.

When teams run on this defense and they run off the left edge or up the middle this Ravens team is allowing just 2.06 yards per carry against 35 attempts. When running off tackle or outside to the right, teams have rushed 30 times for 164 yards and two touchdowns. Giving up 5.47 yards per carry off the right side isn’t ideal but teams usually do run better to the right side of their defensive line.

Another interesting aspect of this run defense is the fact that teams are averaging 5.41 yards per carry on zone runs- most of this is overlap with the fact that a lot of zone runs end up going wide to the right side of the line, but it’s interesting all the same.

The Colts offense has struggled near the goal line

The Ravens defense has had some issues dealing with traffic when in man coverage and the Colts have a pretty solid blueprint of how to win against that coverage when they’re in position. Obviously if the Ravens can correct the problems they have had or switch things up in coverage, this point no longer stands.

A few other interesting things of note:

Through four games the Ravens are allowing 7.6 yards per reception on screen passes. Thus far they have allowed 646 yards after the catch, third most in the league.

The Ravens have blitzed on 32.9% of defensive snaps which is fifth most in the league. Their 10 sacks are just average but they’re getting pressure more than 30% of the time which is top three.

The Ravens will mix man and zone coverage and they don’t have statistically relevant tendencies toward any specific coverage, regardless of down. They have allowed a slightly higher completion percentage in zone coverage but through three weeks, I believe, all of their interceptions came while in zone and all of their defensive pass interference calls came while in man. Not that either of those things are surprising but they are interesting.

Something to look for this week from the Colts offense

I mentioned this right before I showed you the clip of the Ravens defense matching up with the Raiders use of 21 personnel and that was a little foreshadowing on my part. When pouring over the compiled numbers from this Ravens defense I remembered something I saw in the Colts week four game against the Miami Dolphins:

Prior to week four the Colts had been in 21 personnel only twice in three games. Against the Dolphins they ran nine plays, one incomplete pass and 8 runs that went for 86 yards and a touchdown. Why did the Colts work 21 personnel into their week four game plan? No doubt part of it was because it was working against the Dolphins, but I believe part of it was to show the Ravens how well they can run the ball with two backs on the field.

Here’s why; of the 33 times the Ravens defense has seen 21 personnel on the field through four games, they’ve matched up with it in their base 3-4-4 set 23 times. And when they haven’t matched up in their base 3-4 (meaning any other defensive front; 2-3-6, 2-4-5, 3-3-5, etc.) teams are completing 100% of their passes and averaging 7.5 yards per carry.

Coming into week four the Dolphins had allowed 3.31 yards per carry against 21 personnel and the Colts gashed them with the threat of Nyheim Hines and the effort of Jonathan Taylor. Obviously it helped the Colts win the game last Sunday but things could not have gone better if they were trying to establish a tendency and show productivity for the Ravens to plan for this week.

Since this is the NFL and I’ve learned enough to never say that I’m sure of anything when it comes to the NFL, I feel pretty good that the Colts are going to feature an offense with two running backs on the field, pretty often on Monday night. I believe that the Colts will have a plan to exploit whatever defense the Ravens send out. If they send out their base 3-4, Nyheim Hines becomes little more than a receiver for the Colts to work to try to get matched up on a bigger, slower linebacker. If they match up with a lighter box, they’ll run the ball with both Hines and Taylor and hope to find similar success other teams have had, even though we don’t have a large data set to pull from yet in 2021.

The Ravens coaching staff, collectively, is obviously smarter than some blogger who spends too much time watching film in his garage, so they know this too. The problem for them isn’t anticipating that the Colts might do this, their problem is figuring out if the players they have can even do anything about it if this blogger is right.


Defensive Line

Names to know:

Calais Campbell, Justin Ellis, Brandon Williams, Justin Madubuike, Broderick Washington Jr., Pernell McPhee, Odafe Oweh and Justin Houston.

McPhee, Oweh and Houston are listed as linebackers by the Ravens and they’re counted as linebackers when you figure out all of the defensive alignments I talked about in the first section but these three men will be used far more often to rush the passer and stop the run than they’ll be asked to drop into coverage. As Colts fans know, Houston spent the past two seasons as a Colt and so far this season he has one sack, while he narrowly missed another. McPhee is a solid rotational player but has never been someone to rack up big numbers as a pass rusher. Odafe Oweh was taken with the 31st overall pick of the 2021 NFL draft. So far he has looked very good against the run and has two sacks so far this season. Combined these three have four sacks through four games.

There was a time that the Colts didn’t have to play Calais Campbell every year and I miss those days. I’ve been told that one day Campbell’s age will get to him and he won’t be such a monster. So far, at 35 years old, that prediction hasn’t come true.

The Ravens do a really good job rotating their defensive line outside of Campbell and Oweh, no one has played more than 46% of their defensive snaps. Ellis, Williams, Madubuike and Washington Jr. should all see their fair share of snaps Monday night.

I did not like this at all

Tough to know when Bridgewater got dinged up

Here’s Oweh. I don’t think he meant to go high, I think he was excited about getting his second sack as a pro. Either way, I think he’s probably going to get his third pro sack on MNF.

Close

I don’t miss Justin Houston as much as I did before I saw Kemoko Turay pull down two sacks last Sunday, hopefully he continues to see more playing time moving forward. That doesn’t take away from the fact that Justin Houston is playing well at 32 years old.

Outside of Campbell, Oweh and Houston, no one on this defensive line, really stood out to me. It’s a fine unit but it isn’t reminiscent of the days of Haloti Ngata and Cory Redding. Despite the fact these Ravens have allowed the seventh fewest yards, they’ve also seen the fourth fewest number of rushes and I believe if the Colts choose to challenge this defensive line they will have success on the ground as long as they don’t abandon the effort completely if they don’t find success with their first few runs.


Linebackers

Names to know:

Patrick Queen, Tyus Bowser, Malik Harrison and Chris Board.

Bowser is used in a variety of ways on defense, sometimes he’ll rush the passer, sometimes he’ll drop into coverage, he has played 66% of the teams defensive snaps and 40% of their special teams snaps also. He’s a versatile athlete. Malik Harrison didn’t stand out to me, positively or negatively, while watching the tape. Chris Board has only played 37% of their snaps but he should be getting more as Patrick Queen’s almost 93% is way, way too high for such a disappointing player to be receiving.

Queen was a first round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Knowing this I had high expectations for the guy when I turned the Ravens games on, starting last week. Week one against the Raiders he played pretty well and I was expecting to see that trend continue.

Big hit

After week one the only time I’ve really seen Patrick Queen is when he’s doing something like this:

Having said that, Carson Wentz did try to giftwrap an interception for Queen the last time these two played:

So let’s hope Queen is bad this week and Wentz is better than he was the last time he played the Ravens.

The Ravens linebackers haven’t been that good in any facet of the game. Honestly I was expecting more out of this unit than what they’ve put on tape so far this season. Having said that it’s completely possible that against an injured (and maybe not very good) Colts offense, this linebacker corps will look really good. I’ve seen crazier things happen on a football field, even if the craziest things happen off the football field with Urban Meyer in a bar in Ohio.


Defensive Backs

The Ravens had a rough lead up to the 2021 season as far as injuries are concerned. Their Injured Reserve list currently has cornerbacks Khalil Dorsey, Iman Marshall, Chris Westery and Marcus Peters.

Peters is obviously the biggest name on the list and he was lost for the year via a non-contact torn ACL during practice four days before they kicked off the season in Las Vegas. Westery, Dorsey and Marshall probably wouldn’t have been better than replacement level players but had they been healthy they likely would have had an opportunity to compete for the playing time Peters’ injury created.

The healthy names to know at corner:

Marlon Humphrey, Anthony Averett, Tavon Young and Jimmy Smith.

Humphrey is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL and he has played well this season but beyond him there isn’t another starting caliber cornerback on the roster. Averett and Young would have been fine as this teams third and fourth cornerbacks but neither man seems equipped to be the guy opposite Humphrey. Jimmy Smith is 33 and has only played 43 snaps so far this season. Given their struggles at the position, if Jimmy Smith was an upgrade, he would have seen the field more in the two games he’s played this season.

Having said all of that, all of these guys have been better than Xavier Rhodes has been so far this season so don’t misunderstand me. These Ravens corners are on the back end of average for the league. The Colts corners are worse.

Safeties to know:

Chuck Clark, DeShon Elliot and Brandon Stephens.

Clark is the only Baltimore Ravens defender who has played every snap this season. Clark is a good safety. He’s an active tackler and is solid in coverage. He doesn’t generate many turnovers but he has racked up three passes defended this season which is as many as all of the Colts safeties combined!

DeShon Elliot is a good young safety who hasn’t been able to stay on the field this season. In week two against the Chiefs he was forced to leave they game early due to a concussion and he was injured again in week three against the Lions with a quad injury. At the time of this writing it’s unknown if Elliot will be available to play on Monday. If he can’t go then Brandon Stephens will continue to take his snaps. Stephens was a third round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft out of SMU. Stephens might develop into a nice player but he’s a rookie and as of right now he’s nowhere near the player that Clark and Elliot are.

Not their only problem in coverage

If you’re wondering who set the pick on Marlon Humphrey, it was Chris Westery. He’s on IR, but this defensive backfield has had problems all season long doing things like working through traffic when in man coverage. This play came in overtime and literally ended the game. The Ravens have a lot of guys with a lot of ability in the back end of their defense. Guys like Averett and Young could improve a lot this season with extended playing time and the same goes for these Ravens safeties.

Sometimes things just go your way

In hindsight I probably should have put this clip before the other one in this section, you know for dramatic effect, but you get it. They got lucky on this one, they played poorly on that one and lost the game as a result.

This unit would be excellent if it were completely healthy. As it stands its a fine group that has a lot of inexperienced players, playing big roles for this team. Inexperienced players in secondary's tend to give up a lot of receptions, at least I hope that’s true this weekend.


Final Thoughts

I believe the Colts are going to try to exploit their 21 personnel matchup issue on Monday night. I believe they can have success if they do. I’m just not sure it will be enough. I spent a lot of time in this article telling you how average a lot of these Ravens defenders are but this defense is so well coached they are much better than the sum of their parts. This isn’t a great defense, it’s too beat up for that (I didn’t even talk about the fact that starting defensive end Derek Wolfe is on IR). But it’s still an above average unit that should improve as the season goes on.

It’s not so good that the Colts can’t find a way to win the game, it’s possible. In order to do it on offense they’re going to have to play turnover free football, move the ball efficiently and score touchdowns, not field goals, when they make it into the redzone. Take away any one of those things and the Ravens are more than good enough to make this a tough night on national television. Ultimately I hope for a good injury free game and an improbable win for the away team.

Go Colts.