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From their film study to their sack dances, Ravens defensive backs are embracing the art of the blitz

Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey talks about the trash talking that took place at practice with Lamar Jackson and the offense.

Maybe the Ravens’ least likely and most impressive pass rusher Sunday was a cornerback who now mostly plays safety, a 33-year-old who “looked like he was 22 years old,” a player so unaccustomed to blitzing that he had one sack over his first 176 NFL games.

In just 49 snaps against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Brandon Carr nearly had two. In the second quarter, Carr snuck up to the line of scrimmage, looped inside two other rushers and sacked Devlin Hodges for a 7-yard loss. In the fourth quarter, he blitzed again, this time from his safety post, flying in unblocked. Hodges couldn’t sidestep the pressure, so he threw the ball to no one — from 3 yards deep in the end zone. A flag flew: intentional grounding.

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The Ravens have held eight straight opponents to 207 or fewer passing yards not just because of how well their defensive backs cover, but also because of how well and how often they blitz. Just two NFL defenses blitzed on over 40% of their plays this season, but only the Ravens (54.9%) sent five or more pass rushers more than half the time.

Under defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, it has become a game of pass-rush Whac-a-Mole: The pressure never stops coming, and the order’s never predictable. There are only so many mallets.

“Our goal as a defense is to try to put as much stress on protection rules that teams have, and the end-all goal is to have a free runner to the quarterback,” Martindale said Tuesday, joking that Carr ran Sunday like he was in his early 20s. “But what you're seeing is anybody that comes off the bus can blitz for us, and they know that. We talk about that every day. And sometimes they run into a wall, but they do it 100 mph, and they can beat somebody, too. So it's been a lot of fun seeing these guys grow.”

Of the AFC’s six playoff teams, only the Bills had their defensive backs get after the quarterback like the Ravens. Carr (two sacks in 2019), safeties Earl Thomas III (two) and Chuck Clark (one) and cornerback Jimmy Smith (one) all took one down this season. In the NFC bracket, only the Philadelphia Eagles had more defensive backs (five) register a sack.

Martindale’s commitment to pressure has necessitated an unorthodox football education for the secondary. Coach John Harbaugh said Monday that the Ravens’ coaching staff spends “a lot of time” teaching defensive backs how to rush the passer. Instruction this season started as far back as May’s organized team activities.

The Ravens take pointers where they can get them. Clark, who had 2½ sacks over four years at Virginia Tech, “blitzed a lot in college,” he said Tuesday, “but I’d definitely say it ramped up this year.” So he studies the Ravens’ edge rushers in film study and picks their brains around the team facility: How do they win with their hands? How do they get around an offensive tackle? It’s almost never as simple as knifing through a gap.

“We work on that really hard, and our guys take it seriously,” Harbaugh said. “It’s good to see it pay off like that. We plan on blitzing everybody. I mean, anybody can blitz in this system, so he better know how to do it, because you’re going to get called upon at some point.”

And Harbaugh means anybody. Humphrey didn’t record a sack in the regular season, but not for lack of trying. According to Pro Football Focus, he blitzed more than twice a game over the Ravens’ first 13 games. Humphrey is maybe the team’s top cornerback, but he’s also its nickelback, and Martindale hasn’t shied away from taking advantage of his proximity to the ball.

Thomas’ transformation has been the most radical. Over his nine seasons with Seattle, Thomas was the quintessential center-field safety, a patrolman in the Seahawks’ Cover 3 schemes. He blitzed just 15 times from 2013 to 2018, according to Pro Football Focus, and left the team last offseason with just five career quarterback hits and no sacks.

In Baltimore, Thomas blitzes every game, a reality he was still coming to grips with last month. "I kind of got spoiled early on with the system that I was in in Seattle,” Thomas said after the Ravens blitzed Buffalo’s Josh Allen into submission in Week 14. “I'm getting used to it now. It's becoming second nature.”

Philosophically, the Ravens’ pass-rush approach aligns with their run-game ethos. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman wants to overwhelm opponents at the point of attack, win with numbers, force players into uncomfortable situations. So does Martindale. That the Ravens have Thomas, Humphrey and cornerback Marcus Peters, three Pro Bowl defensive backs, makes the prospect of pressure even more appealing.

“We’re a pressure team,” defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt said Thursday. “We have been for as long as I’ve been here, since 2012, but we’re going to try to get after the quarterback. … [If] you can’t win with four [pass rushers], you bring five. You can’t win with five, bring six. And, hey, if they hold all [six] in, we’re going to bring seven."

Said Clark: “Whatever they're doing, got to be a fast decision. So something's got to happen quick.”

It’s not as easy as the Ravens make it look. Asked whether he could envision a Matthew Judon-like career for himself, Clark looked unsure. “Man, them boys be banging every play.”

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Humphrey seemed to delight in the pass-rush thrills familiar to an outside linebacker. He was less thrilled about having a 300-plus-pound lineman fully prepared to fold him in half.

“You know, I mess with [starting offensive tackles] Orlando [Brown Jr.] and Ronnie [Stanley] all the time, like, ‘You guys couldn’t block me,’ ” Humphrey said Thursday. “But those guys block me all the time in the game.”

Judon was the only other player to sack Hodges on Sunday, raising his total to a team-best 9½ this season, but his influence was obvious on Carr’s two big rushes, and not just the plays themselves.

In Week 2, after Carr sacked Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, he spun to his feet with some swagger. It was a rather nondescript celebration. On Sunday, though, after his sack and Hodges’ intentional grounding, Carr posed for the M&T Bank Stadium crowd as he reproduced Judon’s trademark wipe-your-nose gesture. The defensive back had a sack dance.

AFC divisional round

Titans/Texans/Bills@Ravens

Jan. 11, 8:15 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

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Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

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