Unveiling some unusual schemes, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees mixed and matched his personnel in a quest to get more athleticism on the field against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
It was an effective strategy during the Ravens' 55-20 blowout victory over the Raiders at M&T Bank Stadium.
Between lining up rookie outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw at defensive tackle, inserting extra linebackers into the game and running a "dollar" package that featured two defensive linemen, three linebackers and six defensive backs, Pees' creativity was on display.
"Coach Pees is trying to get the players on the field and be dominant on the field," said Upshaw, the Ravens' second-round draft pick who had four tackles, one for a loss and a pass deflection. "It's a speed defense. To beat a team like the Oakland Raiders, you need speed on the field. It's fun. I'm lined up against bigger guys, but I've got to apply the pressure."
Limiting the Raiders to 72 rushing yards and generating three sacks and one interception while giving up 422 yards of total offense as quarterback Carson Palmer got in a few deep shots, the Ravens' oft-maligned defense had one of its better games.
By removing hefty nose guards Terrence Cody and Ma'ake Kemoeatu from the game at times, the Ravens gave up a lot of bulk inside and replaced the girth with quicker, lighter players like Upshaw.
"Courtney is small for a defensive lineman, but he's a big boy," defensive end Arthur Jones said. "He's strong as a bull. I think offensive linemen underestimate him at times. He's a hell of a player. Being in the trenches is no joke."
Drafted in the second round, the mobile former University of Alabama All-American is beginning to contribute more.
"Courtney definitely didn't surprise us because we saw him in practice," Ravens offensive guard Bobbie Williams said. "He's a heck of a player for us. We've got a couple tricks up our sleeve."
The Ravens used three cornerbacks in Cary Williams, Corey Graham and Chykie Brown with starter Jimmy Smith out with a groin injury, substituted safety James Ihedigbo to work in behind starting safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard and kept working in a heavy dose of linebackers Upshaw, Jameel McClain, Dannell Ellerbe, Albert McClellan, Paul Kruger and Terrell Suggs.
"We added a new little wrinkle, and got some extra linebackers on the field, and those guys went out there and worked," said McClain, who finished with 10 tackles. "With the talent that we had, we utilized it well."
Since Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was sidelined with right knee and right shoulder injuries, the Ravens felt a need to switch things up.
In particular, Kruger emerged as a playmaker in Ngata's absence as he registered two sacks, six tackles and intercepted a Palmer pass that he batted to himself.
"Not having Haloti out there is a huge hindrance to us," Kruger said. "We had to really pick up the slack and make the plays that we needed to make. He's really the anchor of our defense, so we need to get him back as quickly as we can. .. The coaches have been doing a great job of creating different packages, and putting us in the right position."
Kruger was definitely in the correct position in the second quarter when he leaped to get a piece of a Palmer throw intended for wide receiver Derek Hagan then hauled in the turnover.
The turnover led to a 34-yard Justin Tucker field goal that extended the Ravens' lead to 20-3.
"I just put my hands up and the ball just happened to bounce the right way," Kruger said. "Luckily, the ball fell down right into my hands. It's something that Dean Pees has been harping on us all week. We've been practicing it. It's a credit to the coaches, just making sure we had all the little things in our mind."
The Ravens used some looks where there were no traditional defensive linemen on the field, going smaller to catch the Raiders off guard.
For a defense that has had its struggles this season, it was an encouraging day.
"At the end of the day, we trust and believe in what Dean Pees calls and we trust and believe in those guys that's out there on the field and their ability to make plays," cornerback Cary Williams said. "We just want to continue to ascend as a group and get better each week."
Pollard and Ellerbe tied for the team lead with each recording a game-high 11 tackles, including Pollard contributing a sack on a safety blitz.
The Raiders were playing without their top two running backs in Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson due to high-ankle sprains, but this still qualifies as progress for a run defense that entered the game ranked 28th in the league with an average of 139.5 yards surrendered per contest.
"We were filling in the spots, trying to get the best matchups and let people catch their breath," said McClellan, who recovered a fumble. "It gave us more freedom."
Overall, the changes seemed to provide a boost for a defense that has had issues all season stopping people.
"I think we're making steps, but we're not where we need to be and want to be," Ellerbe said. "We're going to continue to grind and put our head down and get there."