Breaking Down the Return of Vaunted Baltimore Ravens Defense

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistSeptember 23, 2013

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 22: Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs #55 of the Baltimore Ravens gestures to the crowd during the second half of a preseason game against the Carolina Panthers at M&T Bank Stadium on August 22, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens' 30-9 victory over the Houston Texans in Week 3 of the NFL regular season didn't just move the team to 2-1. With Ray Lewis on the sidelines, the Ravens defense returned to the dominant unit it had so often been during Lewis' tenure on the field.

Matt Schaub only threw for 194 yards on 35 attempts. Arian Foster and Ben Tate combined for 21 carries and 90 yards, with neither player having a run longer than 10 yards. Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins were contained, as was tight end Owen Daniels, while the Texans as a whole gave up three sacks and one interception.

Even those numbers don't tell the whole story.

Two of the Texans' first three drives started at the Texans' 40-yard line and the Ravens' 29-yard line. On both of those drives, the Ravens held the Texans to just three total points. At that stage of the game, when the Ravens offense was at its worst on a day when it was never close to its best, it was vital that the defense didn't give up a touchdown.

Once Lewis left the Ravens, the leadership mantle fell onto the shoulders of Terrell Suggs. Suggs set the tone early for the Ravens. 

The Texans were without All-Pro left tackle Duane Brown. Brown has been arguably the best left tackle in the NFL over the last few years, so Suggs was always going to benefit from his absence. On the first play of the Texans' second drive, Suggs beat Brown's replacement, Ryan Harris, but let Schaub slip out of his grasp.

On Schaub's very next dropback, the quarterback wasn't going to get away.

Instead of going after Harris, Suggs moved to the other side of the field and lined up as a left defensive end. The Texans had a tight end on the other side of the field alongside Harris, something that likely only happened because of the depth of the Ravens' front seven. Whether it's Arthur Jones, Elvis Dumervil or Chris Canty playing on the other side of the defense, the Texans must respect their ability against Harris.

Suggs explodes off the line, immediately attacking the outside shoulder of Derek Newton, the Houston right tackle. As the yellow line shows in relation to the red lines, Suggs' burst off the snap puts him further down the field than any of his teammates.

Newton initially did well to cut him off outside, but this is only the beginning of the play as Suggs spins inside.

Without their star left tackle, it's natural that the Texans wouldn't slide their protection to the other side of the field. On this occasion, they needed to because huge space was created for Suggs to work in.

Newton's feet are moving towards the sideline as he reacts to Suggs' initial movement, which creates a massive gap between him and his right guard. His right guard never has a chance to react to Suggs, because he is occupied by the left defensive tackle while the center engages the right defensive tackle. The left guard is unoccupied, while the runner in the backfield is on the wrong side of the field.

From there, Suggs has position on Newton and the strength to fend him off while he tries to strip the ball from Schaub in the pocket. Schaub was able to protect the football to prevent the fumble, but he couldn't get away from Suggs.

The Ravens have 11 sacks in three games. Suggs and Dumervil, their two primary pass-rush threats, have combined for five sacks in their first three starts together, but they should have many more.

In Week 1, Dumervil and Suggs were able to dominate their opposing offensive tackles. Peyton Manning repeatedly got rid of the ball before they could complete the play.

Against the Texans, Suggs only had that one sack and Dumervil didn't get to the quarterback. That is the real beauty of the defensive front seven, however. The versatility and talent in this defensive unit are special. No other team in the league has an edge-rush combination as good as Suggs and Dumervil, but nobody else has an interior presence like Haloti Ngata either.

Ngata wasn't healthy last year. So far this season, that doesn't appear to be the case.

Ngata had a sack against the Texans, as did fellow defensive lineman Arthur Jones. They join fellow interior defensive lineman Chris Canty on the sack sheet. Canty took down Manning in Week 1, while linebacker Daryl Smith has 1.5 sacks, sharing one with fellow inside linebacker Arthur Brown.

Because the Ravens have so many threats and the Texans were missing their star left tackle, the offensive game plan for the Houston side was cautious. 

The Texans don't run the most expansive offense in the NFL, but just like they did in previous weeks this season, they moved to a pass-heavy unit once they fell behind early on in the game.

Unlike the Broncos, who were able to pick apart the Ravens' secondary with their variety of receiving weapons, the Texans are top-heavy in terms of receiving talent. Andre Johnson is an elite player, but he hurt his leg early in the game. Johnson stayed on the field until the third quarter, but he was hobbling to his spot on the field and was noticeably slower moving in his routes.

That put the pressure on tight end Owen Daniels and rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

Hopkins was coming off a huge game against the Tennessee Titans last week, but the Titans don't have an elite cornerback on the level of Lardarius Webb. The Titans threw away from Webb for much of the game and the Ravens cornerback was on Hopkins often early in the game.

Hopkins made a handful of very nice plays, but when the Texans were desperate for points later in the game, he was unable to get the better of Webb in the way he had the Titans last week.

The Texans needed a big play here, so it's natural for Schaub to look to his most talented available receiver. Hopkins is lined up to the bottom of the screen with Webb in press coverage. Schaub sees a deep safety, with each cornerback pressed tight to his available receivers. His pre-snap read tells him where to go with the football.

Schaub shows good eye discipline; he keeps his focus on the deep safety during his dropback. This should keep the safety in the middle of the field and allow Schaub to find a one-on-one matchup deep down the field.

As he closes to the top of his drop, Schaub immediately looks to Hopkins' side of the field. While he turns his head, he doesn't take the time to look at where he is throwing, however.

Ultimately Schaub forces the ball to his receiver, who is expertly covered by Webb.

Instead of giving his receiver a chance to make a play like he did the week before, Hopkins has already been taken out of the play by excellent coverage from Webb. Ultimately, the ball lands in a spot where Webb should intercept it, though he is unable to pull it in. 

There were still 44 seconds left in the third quarter when this play occurred, but the Ravens were leading by 15 points and the Texans were facing a 2nd-and-15. In a way, this play told the whole story of the game. The Texans were always playing catch-up despite taking the lead early on, and the offense didn't have enough variety in the passing game to expose the Ravens' weaknesses.

On the very next play, Schaub found Keshawn Martin on a pass that would have gone for a first down. Martin beat Jimmy Smith, but he inexplicably tried to catch the ball with one hand instead of making sure of it with two.

That was one of Schaub's better throws, but there weren't anywhere near enough of those on the day.

Multiple times early on when in scoring position, Schaub targeted receivers underneath on 3rd-and-long. Admittedly, he didn't have the weapons to make big plays without the injured Johnson and Hopkins dealing with Webb, but he at least had to be more aggressive to give his team a better chance of winning the game.

Those red-zone throws came when Hopkins and Johnson were on the field and healthy together.

Missed opportunities hurt, but maybe more painful than anything else was a terrible interception that Schaub threw at a crucial point in the game.

The Ravens had just sustained a long drive that resulted in three points. The score was 6-3 and the Texans had an opportunity to extend their lead just before halftime.

On 1st-and-10, Schaub and the offense were at the Houston 35-yard line with 2:49 left in the half.

Johnson had just suffered his first knock that would send him to the sideline for a play. This meant that Martin was the wide receiver to the top of the screen, with Daniels, Garrett Graham and Hopkins in a bunch to the left.

Schaub has time in the pocket. He uses that time to survey the field during his drop. Schaub should see the zone coverage underneath and immediately understand what is and isn't available to him.

Instead, Schaub makes a throw that made it easy for the defense.

The Texans cleared out the space with Graham and Hopkins running deep, but Daniels faked an out route before turning back towards the centre of the field. At this point, Schaub has already decided to throw the ball to Daniels. Even though he had just looked directly at him, Schaub never considers the presence of Smith, circled in red.

Smith runs right towards Daniels and beats him to the spot where the ball is going to land. Schaub has put the ball in a perfect position for him to catch the ball and keep running towards the end zone for a touchdown.

This play deflated the Texans. Even though they came back to score a field goal before the end of the second quarter, the Ravens still entered the second half with a lead—despite their offense being totally dominated by the Texans defense.

As well as the Ravens played on defense against the Texans, their display is overshadowed by the inability of the Texans quarterback and his limited offensive arsenal.

The Ravens are built to beat an offense like the Texans' unit.

The Texans want to run the ball, which allows the Ravens to keep their front seven on the field as much as possible. The Texans don't have a wealth of receiving options, so the team's lack of depth in the secondary never became an issue. Players such as James Ihedigbo, Michael Huff, Matt Elam, Jimmy Smith and Corey Graham were made to look good by the Texans in the same way the Broncos receivers embarrassed them in Week 1.

In other words, the Ravens are in that tier where they can dominate specific types of offenses while being overwhelmed by others. This wasn't a game that stated the Ravens will have the best defense in the league this season; it was a statement that their defense can be very, very good in the right situation.

There is a lot of talent on this unit, especially up front, but there's a ways to go before it can match the Ravens defenses of the last decade or so.

Cian Fahey is a columnist for Bleacher Report, the Film Room Writer for FootballOutsiders and a Staff Writer for FootballGuys. You can follow him on Twitter @Cianaf


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