By Matt Vensel
4:00 PM EDT, October 1, 2012
My, have the footballs been flying. In case you needed more proof that this has become a passing league, six NFL teams have averaged 40 or more pass attempts through four games. The New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions, who have a combined one win between them, are closing in on 50 passes a game. Heck, even the Ravens have thrown the ball 159 times in their four games, which is the seventh-highest total in the league.
And trust me, the Ravens defense, which ranks 29th against the pass, is also aware of this continuing trend.
Opponents have thrown 162 passes in their four games. Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton threw 37. Philadelphia’s Michael Vick threw 32. New England’s Tom Brady threw 41. And Cleveland’s Brendon Weeden threw 52. Those four combined completed 60.5 percent of their passes against the Ravens for an average of 296 yards per game. However, Baltimore has only allowed two total passing touchdowns while intercepting four passes.
The pass-happy approach by their opponents has meant that the Ravens have been using their nickel package even more than they did a year ago, when they employed five defensive backs on the field nearly 50 percent of the time. In 306 defensive snaps in 2012, cornerback Lardarius Webb has played 299 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Fellow starter Cary Williams has played 294. And third cornerback Jimmy Smith has played 185.
“You have to have three starting corners, so to speak, because people can put you in that personnel group anytime they want and put those guys on the field anytime they want,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “You better have at least three who can cover. We think we have more than that. We’ve got a number of guys that can cover. But covering is a challenge [due to the offensive] scheme and by the talent you go up against.”
I haven’t gone through the tape of all four games to count specific formations, but based on the above numbers, the Ravens have played three cornerbacks roughly 60 percent of the time. In the nickel package, Webb shifts inside to handle wide receivers in the slot or blitz the quarterback (both are things he excels at). Smith replaces Webb, lining up on the outside opposite of Williams.
Baltimore’s core philosophy on defense has always been to eliminate the run then get after the quarterback aggressively. The Ravens have gone a good job at the first part, allowing 3.2 yards per carry, which partially explains why teams are passing so often against them. As a result of that, run-stuffing nose tackles Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody have seen their snaps decrease as the Ravens have been forced to get away from their traditional 3-4 and go with more of a two-linemen look in the nickel package. Kemoeatu has played 132 snaps and Cody has played just 79.
If the Ravens keep struggling to generate a steady pass rush and cover players down the field -- they allow 7.7 yards per attempt, which is the 11th-most in the NFL -- you can probably count on opponents continuing to throw the ball 40 times a game against them and on Webb, Williams and Smith getting a lot of playing time. But even if the Ravens stabilize their pass defense, recent history shows their cornerbacks are still going to be tested often.
“The league is kind of set up that way,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a challenge. We need to get better, and not just our corners. I think our corners have done good things and all of our pass defense has done good things. But we’re capable as being as good as anyone. We want to get to playing that kind of pass defense.”
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