Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports is examining the biggest weakness of the 2009 season for every NFL team and explaining how the franchise can address the issue. The series continues with the Ravens, who finished second in the AFC North (9-7).
Biggest problem in 2009: A defensive aversion to shotgun offenses
It's not often that one is able to use the words "Baltimore Ravens defense" and "vulnerable" in the same sentence – after all, through different players, schemes and coordinators in the past decade, defense has been the Ravens' consistent strong point.
In 2009, however, Baltimore's secondary was a real problem. The Ravens allowed 300.5 yards per game – third best in the NFL – but the team's 6.7 yards per attempt allowed and 31.3 first-down percentage through the air were decidedly average. That vulnerability really showed up against shotgun sets: On 385 attempts against them, the Ravens' defense allowed 9.3 yards per play when teams ran shotgun, which was fifth worst in the NFL.
The difference showed up in advanced metrics as well. The Ravens had an outstanding -11.8 percent Defensive DVOA, Football Outsiders' per-play efficiency metric, overall – but just -1.6 percent (much closer to league average) against shotgun offenses.
Cornerback Domonique Foxworth(notes), who came over from the Atlanta Falcons and signed a four-year, $27.3 million contract with $16.5 million guaranteed before the 2009 season, was the most obvious culprit. According to FO's game-charting and play-by-play metrics, Foxworth finished tied for sixth worst in the NFL in first downs/touchdowns allowed in coverage with 33, and third in passing yards allowed in coverage with 794.
Teammate Fabian Washington(notes) led the league in most average yards after catch allowed with 6.2. Lardarius Webb(notes), a third-round pick out of Nicholls State in 2009, was probably the team's best cornerback – and while that's good for Webb, it isn't a good thing in the grand scheme of things.
But that's in an overall pass-defense sense. Perhaps the most telling example of the shotgun schism came in the Ravens' 31-26 win over the San Diego Chargers, the best shotgun team in the NFL. Baltimore's defense gave up a season-high three passes of 30 yards or more against the shotgun (five overall). The most damaging play was an 81-yard touchdown by running back Darren Sproles(notes) – a score that was the product of a quick-swing pass to the right side and Washington cheating inside to cover receiver Vincent Jackson(notes). Washington simply left the sideline open, and Sproles rumbled for a good 50 yards before a Ravens defender was even in his vicinity.
The 2010 solution: Look to blitz, drop to cover
When the Ravens blitz and leave their defenders to play man coverage on islands, they generally struggle. No matter how Baltimore's front seven is at getting to the quarterback, the team sets up feast-or-famine situations because they don't have elite cornerbacks who can cover short to deep without safety help. In the fourth quarter against the Chargers, the Ravens went with a different look and it probably won them the game.
In Week 2 with 4:35 left in the game, and the ball at the San Diego 7-yard line, quarterback Philip Rivers(notes) lined his Chargers up with two receivers in a twins formation to the left and two tight ends to the right. This looked like a power play to the right, except that it was third-and-10 and the Chargers had passed and failed on first and second down.
The Ravens knew that the pressure was on Rivers to make something happen, and adjusted their scheme to coverage as opposed to pressure. As receivers Chris Chambers(notes) (89) and Vincent Jackson (83) ran a cross-up and Sproles headed toward the sideline, outside linebacker Antwan Barnes(notes) (50) backed into short coverage. Safety Chris Carr(notes) (25) had already backed into his regular coverage spot after giving a blitz look at the line, but when Ray Lewis(notes) (52) moved to the line on the strong side – effectively closing off anything short to the right – Carr knew he'd be needed in the flats.
Rivers threw to Chambers but Washington (24) had time to jump the route and bat the ball into the air, where Barnes intercepted it at the San Diego 17 and ran it back four yards. Because the Ravens had defenders in the flat and the seam, there weren't the same sort of opportunities for Sproles and Jackson which there would have been in different circumstances.
Had Baltimore gone with the kamikaze-blitz concept – or played a simple, readable zone – Rivers could have carved them up. But bringing a pressure look, forcing an offense to adjust, and then calling off the dogs is an optimal path to defensive success when your cornerbacks need more help than the elite. Until the Ravens find or grow such cornerbacks, they'd do well to help the guys on the back end – especially in shotgun sets, where enemy quarterbacks have that much more time to scan the field and find weaknesses in coverage.
- the Ravens