The Baltimore Ravens defense has been excellent this season and is currently in the top five in several defensive categories. They are the No. 3 defense in the NFL in points allowed, total yardage allowed and rushing yards allowed, and they are fifth in passing yards allowed. They also currently lead the league with 38 quarterback sacks.
Those are impressive statistics to be sure, and they’re even more impressive when you consider that the Ravens are playing that well on defense with a new defensive coordinator, Chuck Pagano. When Pagano was promoted from the Ravens' secondary coach, one thing that the Ravens said that they wanted to focus on was pressuring opposing quarterbacks.
The Ravens had a good defense in 2010, but also had a hard time bringing consistent pressure. Much of that problem was because of the scheme run by ex-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison. Under Mattison, the Ravens focused more on coverage and less on pressure. Mattison also stressed bringing pressure with the Ravens' base defense.
The problem is that the Ravens' base defenders are not really pass-rushers. Defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody are excellent run defenders, but don’t offer much explosion when rushing the passer. Even Cory Redding and Jarret Johnson—who can both bring pressure on occasion—are not great pass-rushers. The only real threat that the Ravens had was Terrell Suggs, and he was often double-teamed out of the picture.
The Ravens struggled to pressure quarterbacks in 2010 because their scheme did not fit the players on the defense. The Ravens defensive isn’t built to rush the passer with their base defensive line like the New York Giants. The Ravens just don’t have those types of players. They are built to stop the run, force teams to pass the ball and bring the pressure in passing situations with multiple fronts.
The good news for the Ravens is that Chuck Pagano has installed and is running the perfect scheme for the Ravens' defensive personnel. Pagano is obviously much more committed to bringing pressure, and that shows in the defense’s overall effectiveness.
That being said, the Ravens defense hasn’t been perfect this season. In fact, the defense went through a three-game stretch before the last game against the San Francisco 49ers where they only had four sacks. Not surprisingly, the Ravens defense also allowed their highest yardage totals in those three weeks and gave up an average of over 400 yards of offense and less than two sacks per game. To put that into perspective, the Ravens defense was only allowing 263 yards on average before that three-game stretch.
The difference in those games was obviously the pass rush, but why did the Ravens defense have a hard time bringing pressure all of the sudden? The answer to that question is complicated. There were different things happening in each game, but the underlying factor was that the opposing teams were doing a good job at neutralizing the Ravens' pass rush with the running game, quick passes and max-protect pass-protection schemes.
Another problem that the Ravens were having was a similar problem from last season. When the Ravens needed to bring pressure with a four-man rush, they were having a hard time doing it. This hurt them in situations when they were trying to beat an offense that had them on the ropes—like the Seattle Seahawks did in Week 10.
The good news is that the Ravens may have found the answer to their problems. Against the 49ers last week, the Ravens broke out of their pass-rush struggles in a big way. They were able to bring intense pressure on 49ers quarterback Alex Smith all game, and racked up nine sacks in the game—which was their highest total of the season, tying a franchise record.
The difference against the 49ers was that the Ravens relied more on two of their young pass-rushers, Pernell McPhee and Paul Kruger, in passing situations. McPhee has been one of the Ravens' most impressive rookies so far this season, and Kruger is having a breakout season after switching back to outside linebacker from defensive end. With Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata, McPhee and Kruger were relentless in the Ravens' four-man pass rush, which was a huge factor in the Ravens win.
Going forward, there’s no question that McPhee and Kruger have earned more playing time, and the Ravens' new-found ability to bring intense pressure bodes well for their ability to win a championship this season. If the Ravens can continue to bring consistent pressure with only a four-man rush, there isn’t a team in the league they cannot beat.