NFL media guidelines prohibit reporting on personnel specifics during training camp, but on Sunday, the Ravens made clear what reporters could not: With safety Earl Thomas III out, DeShon Elliott is in.
“He’s worked hard all through the offseason, and it’s his time,” coach John Harbaugh said after Elliott’s second full practice with the first team. “So here we go.”
With his easygoing attitude, Joker fandom and entertaining social media presence, the 2018 sixth-round pick is in many ways a polar opposite of the problematic Pro Bowl player he must now replace. Elliott’s congeniality and work ethic have made him a favorite in the same Ravens locker room that Thomas gradually isolated himself from.
But all of Elliott’s goodwill will be for naught if he can’t step in and play. He hasn’t done that much yet. Elliott missed his rookie year after suffering a preseason forearm injury, and he averaged less than seven defensive snaps per game last year. Thomas, by contrast, played nearly 900 defensive snaps over 15 games.
Elliott’s final appearance of 2019 — a Week 6 win over Cincinnati in which he tore up his knee — might offer the most extensive preview of his abilities. He played a career-high 25 defensive snaps and helped hold the Bengals to 255 yards of total offense in a 23-17 win.
It’s admittedly an incomplete preview of Elliott’s potential. So much has changed in the past 10 months for an October 2019 snapshot to have much predictive power. But there are hints of what could lie ahead for the Ravens — some of it good, some of it bad.
After safety Tony Jefferson suffered a season-ending injury in Week 5 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chuck Clark was elevated to starter. And with Cincinnati’s reliance on “11″ personnel — the Bengals lined up with one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers on over 80% of their snaps in Week 6 — Elliott’s role in the secondary grew out of necessity.
Elliott shared every defensive snap with Clark and Thomas that afternoon. He lined up over tight ends in man-to-man coverage, was deployed in a “Robber” technique (a zone coverage intended to disrupt quick, in-breaking routes), played in a variety of zone shells and even helped defensive back Brandon Carr bracket slot receiver Tyler Boyd.
But Elliott was most commonly used as a center-field safety, patrolling the deep middle third of the field. Like Thomas, he was rarely tested in coverage there. On one occasion, he still managed to make an important play.
Midway through the third quarter, with the Ravens leading 17-10 and Cincinnati facing third-and-4 at midfield, quarterback Andy Dalton targeted Boyd deep down the right sideline. Boyd positioned himself to bring in the catch over cornerback Marlon Humphrey, but he couldn’t completely secure it. Just as Boyd extended the ball out with his left hand, Elliott arrived to knock it away.
He hadn’t gotten there in time to make a play on the ball in flight — no safety could’ve — but he hadn’t given up on it, either.
One quarter later, Elliott made a solid open-field tackle after wide receiver Alex Erickson separated from cornerback Maurice Canady for a 21-yard gain.
Elliott, not surprisingly, looked at times like he hadn’t played much in the Ravens’ complex system.
Early in the second quarter, the Bengals’ presnap motion led to a coverage breakdown in the middle of the field. As Boyd motioned from left to right, Thomas passed him off to Elliott, who mirrored him. When Dalton snapped the ball, Elliott continued in Boyd’s direction, where Carr was already positioned. That left a huge hole for tight end C.J. Uzomah, who caught a pass and turned upfield for a 22-yard gain.
Later in the quarter, Elliott dropped deep into the middle of the field at the snap. His movement seemed to trace the path of a question mark flipped horizontally — but his loop took him away from the path of a crossing receiver on a play-action pass. Pressure on Dalton and impressive spatial awareness from Thomas and Humphrey helped keep a throwing window from opening.
One play later, on third-and-12, a quick snap and more presnap communication in the secondary left Elliott unable to put his mouth guard in as he raced to his receiver in the slot. But he was ultimately not targeted in coverage, and Dalton’s deep pass fell incomplete.
Statistically, the difference in Week 6 between the Ravens’ defense with Elliott (5.5 yards allowed per play) and their defense without him (4.5 yards per play) was not especially significant. It was a small sample size of plays over which Elliott often had very little control.
But when the Ravens open their season Sept. 13 against the Cleveland Browns’ dynamic receiving corps, Elliott’s workload will likely be greater. And so will the pressure.
“DeShon’s been ready to go ever since he got here as a rookie,” Ravens pass defense coordinator Chris Hewitt said Sunday. “I’ve been really impressed with him from the time that he came in here. He’s a hard-charging kid. He knows the defense. He’s in his third year. He’s had some unfortunate injuries. ... But he’s definitely deserving to play, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do when he gets out there. He’s definitely ready to go, and he has great chemistry out there with the rest of the guys. They’re hyped up to have him out there.”