When the Ravens wrap up the preseason tonight against the St. Louis Rams, most, if not all, of their defensive starters won’t play a single snap. That’s OK, though. After an offseason overhaul that included the loss of two future Hall of Famers, the defense surprisingly is facing fewer questions than the Ravens offense at this point.
Still, I keep getting asked about exactly how the Ravens are going to split snaps between Courtney Upshaw and Elvis Dumervil at strong-side linebacker and between Josh Bynes and Arthur Brown at weak-side linebacker.
The answer is simple: It will probably be a lot like how they were used during the first three preseason games and pretty similar to how the Ravens handled their rotation at both inside and outside linebacker last season.
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If you have been watching closely after, say, a tackle for a loss on second down, then you have seen Upshaw and Bynes run to the sideline along with one of the defensive linemen. They have been replaced by Dumervil, Brown and a third quarterback. It’s not exactly a full-scale hockey-style line change, but that’s the Ravens putting in their nickel package.
I wrote about the three-wide trend in a newspaper article last week, but one of big takeaways is that offenses use three-receiver sets on about half of their snaps, meaning that the nickel has almost become the NFL’s base defense.
So we can probably assume that barring an injury, Upshaw and Dumervil will play a similar amount of snaps at strong-side linebacker, as will Bynes and Brown at the weak-side spot.
Last season, Paul Kruger and Upshaw split time at the strong-side spot once Terrell Suggs returned to the field. At season’s end, Kruger, the pass-rush specialist, played 789 snaps and Upshaw, the run stopper, played 745, according to Football Outsiders.
At inside linebacker, Jameel McClain played 737 snaps and Dannell Ellerbe played 651. Both ended up becoming starters because of the injury to Ray Lewis, but their snap counts were similar before he got hurt.
So this season, look for Upshaw and Bynes on early downs and likely running situations and look for Dumervil and Brown when offenses have to throw the ball. I know it’s a simplistic way to look at it, but that’s probably how it’s going to go down, at least at the start of the season. And at season’s end, we’ll probably see that the snaps are split evenly at both spots.