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Baltimore Ravens

Ravens film study: With ILB Roquan Smith’s arrival, here are the defense’s winners and losers

If every trade has winners and losers, the biggest immediate windfall in the Ravens’ deal for All-Pro inside linebacker Roquan Smith goes to the centerpiece player himself.

Smith, traded Monday by the rebuilding Chicago Bears for a second- and fifth-round draft pick in 2023, along with Ravens reserve inside linebacker A.J. Klein, arrives in Baltimore after a promising reset. The Ravens lead the AFC North and are favored to advance to the postseason — ESPN’s Power Football Index says they have an 84% chance to win the division and a 94.7% chance to make the playoffs. They have a talented defensive front and secondary that complement Smith’s skill set. And they have a general manager in Eric DeCosta who might be more receptive to Smith’s contract demands ahead of his path to free agency next offseason.

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“Roquan is a player that we have long admired both on and off the field,” DeCosta said Tuesday in a statement after the team’s deal was finalized. “He fits our culture seamlessly and plays like a Raven at all times. We are confident that Roquan makes our team stronger.”

Smith’s arrival should bolster a Ravens defense that’s dazzled in some weeks and disappointed in others. Here’s who stands to gain and lose the most from Monday’s trade.

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Winners

Mike Macdonald

When the Ravens played Cincinnati in Week 5, they all but dared the Bengals to run the ball. According to TruMedia, the Ravens had six or fewer defenders in the box on 72.9% of their plays, the second-highest rate for any NFL defense that week. Compare that with how former defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale approached Cincinnati last year: six or fewer defenders in the box on 33.3% of the Ravens’ snaps in Week 7, and on 64.3% of their snaps in Week 16, when they were running out of viable defensive backs.

Part of that disparity can be attributed to the Ravens’ blitz-heavy looks under Martindale. Part of it can be attributed to game flow. But over the first half of his first season as the Ravens’ defensive coordinator, Macdonald has distinguished himself from his predecessor with his willingness to devote more resources to the unit’s pass defense.

From 2019 to 2021, Martindale’s final three seasons as coordinator, the Ravens finished the year with six defenders in the box on 45% to 46.6% of their defensive snaps, a middle-of-the-pack range. This season, the Ravens’ light-box rate has risen to 58.4%, the fifth highest in the NFL, according to TruMedia.

The results have been mixed. With defensive tackle Michael Pierce lost for the season and a patchwork early-season rotation at outside linebacker, the Ravens rank 25th in the NFL in run defense efficiency this season, according to Football Outsiders. Their success rate against the run has fallen from fourth to 17th, according to TruMedia. (A play is considered successful for the offense when it gains at least 40% of the yards to go on first down, 60% of the yards to go on second down and 100% of the yards to go on third or fourth down.)

In Smith, though, the Ravens have added a downhill run defender who can make the tackles that Queen sometimes misses and who can fill the gaps that Bynes sometimes can’t reach. Smith’s technique isn’t perfect — instead of trying to stack and shed incoming blockers, he’ll often try to slip them in space — but his production is consistent. According to ESPN, Smith ranks 16th in run-stop win rate among linebackers this season, which would be the highest rank of his career.

His solid tackling can also help a run defense that ranks eighth in the NFL in average rushing yards allowed before contact but just 17th in average yards allowed after contact, according to TruMedia. Only inside linebacker Bobby Wagner, a Ravens target in free agency this past offseason, has more tackles over the past five years than Smith (607).

If he can help boost the Ravens’ run defense, the trickle-down benefits on their pass defense would be immense. The calculus for every opposing play-caller would change: Does it make more sense to call a run play against a light but still-stout box, or a pass play against a secondary with an even greater numerical advantage? That’s a bind that every defense desires.

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Roquan Smith’s arrival shouldn’t keep Patrick Queen, pictured against the Browns on Oct. 23 in Baltimore, off the field. If anything, it should free him to do more of what he’s best at: Shoot gaps as a run defender and harass the quarterback as a blitzer.

Patrick Queen

Queen, still only 23, hasn’t emerged as the star that the Ravens envisioned he’d become when they drafted him two years ago. But after a slow start, the former first-round pick has turned in one of the best stretches of his NFL career. Over the past four weeks, Queen’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ No. 15 off-ball linebacker.

Smith’s arrival shouldn’t keep Queen off the field. If anything, it should free him to do more of what he’s best at: Shoot gaps as a run defender and harass the quarterback as a blitzer.

With Josh Bynes typically lining up as the Ravens’ “mike” linebacker — the inside linebacker aligned to the strong side of the field — Queen has played on the weak side, where his speed and anticipation skills are better featured. In his starring Week 7 performance against the Browns, Queen notched the first of his back-to-back tackles for loss by reading Cleveland’s presnap motion, beating a guard to his gap with a diagonal burst and throwing down running back Kareem Hunt.

Smith played as the weak-side linebacker in the Bears’ 4-3 scheme, but he has experience lining up in the middle and as a strong-side linebacker. In some situations, his and Queen’s roles will likely be interchangeable, an emphasis in Macdonald’s more malleable defensive schemes.

While the Ravens’ blitz rate has fallen sharply this year, Smith’s dependable track record in coverage over the middle could free Macdonald to unleash more of Queen’s pass-rushing ability. According to Pro Football Focus, Queen has 13 pressures and four sacks over just 61 pass-rush snaps this season, impressive numbers for an inside linebacker.

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Smith’s explosiveness as a blitzer (16 1/2 career sacks) and Queen’s steady improvements in zone coverage should make the Ravens’ defensive tendencies harder to discern. That, in turn, should make their top two inside linebackers more difficult to game-plan against. On any given passing down, either could blitz, drop into a shallow zone, carry a receiver into a deep-middle-third zone or shadow a running back as he releases into the flat.

The arrival of Bears linebacker Roquan Smith, right, sacking Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz on Oct. 13 in Chicago. should bolster a Ravens defense that’s dazzled in some weeks and disappointed in others.

Losers

Malik Harrison

Harrison opened last season starting next to Queen, a throwback thumper paired with a more new-age speedster. It was not a successful partnership. Harrison lost his starting job just five games into his second year, a span during which he recorded 16 tackles and played more than 55% of the Ravens’ defensive snaps only once. After Harrison was shot in the calf on Halloween night last year, he played just one defensive snap over the Ravens’ final 10 games, contributing mainly on special teams.

This season, though, Harrison has reached new heights at a relatively new position. He’s played over half of his defensive snaps at outside linebacker, according to PFF, where he played situationally at Ohio State. He has 21 tackles (one for loss) in eight games, grading out well and helping the Ravens’ injury-depleted outside linebacker group set the edge on early downs.

Smith’s arrival, and the return of Tyus Bowser (Achilles tendon), could put Harrison back on the back burner, though. At inside linebacker, the Ravens have Smith, who played every snap for Chicago’s defense this season, and Queen, who’s been sidelined only occasionally (94% snap share). At outside linebacker, the Ravens should get even stronger on early downs with Bowser, who’s stout against the run, reliable in pass coverage and, most important, potentially dynamic as a pass rusher. On the other side is Odafe Oweh, another young, versatile edge defender.

Where does that leave Harrison? He’s still a special teams linchpin (third-most snaps on the team). He can still help out in rushing situations; 14 of his 24 third- and fourth-down appearances have come with the offense needing 3 yards or fewer, according to the play index site nflfastR. And he can still continue his development at both inside and outside linebacker, giving the Ravens’ front office another option in 2023 if Smith proves to be a one-year rental.

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Kyle Hamilton

Geno Stone’s elevation to starting safety hasn’t dramatically altered when the Ravens use Hamilton. Over the team’s first five games — before starter Marcus Williams was sidelined indefinitely by a Week 5 wrist injury — the first-round pick played more on third down (45 snaps) than on any other down, despite their relative scarcity.

Over the past three weeks, even as Hamilton’s playing time has surged (85 combined defensive snaps), he’s remained primarily a passing-down presence: 26 snaps on first down, 26 on second down and 33 on third and fourth down. Rarely has Hamilton shared the field on a third-and-long with Bynes, who’s typically made way for a Ravens defensive back; coaches have used the rookie as a box safety, lining him up over tight ends in the slot, blitzing him from the edge, and dropping him into shallow and deep zone coverages.

Now, though, the Ravens have two inside linebackers with the experience and skill set to handle such a role. Smith and Queen are both productive blitzers. They both have the speed to run with running backs and to carry wide receivers down the seam. And they’re both multiyear starters.

Hamilton’s role in the short term won’t disappear entirely; he can still be an asset in coverage against athletic tight ends. But if Humphrey and Marcus Peters are aligned as the Ravens’ outside cornerbacks, and Smith and Queen are playing together, and safeties Chuck Clark and Stone remain every-down defenders, snaps could be hard to come by. In the slot, the defense has relied more on rookie Damarion “Pepe” Williams (177 slot snaps, according to PFF) and Brandon Stephens (82) than on Hamilton (57 snaps).

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Harbaugh said Monday that Hamilton made some “excellent plays” Thursday against Tampa Bay, but acknowledged that the Ravens’ staff is “kind of figuring out where he fits in what we’re doing.” Hamilton has shown flashes as a blitzer and as a run defender, in man-to-man coverage and zone coverage. Unless he overtakes Williams and Stephens, though, those might not be enough to keep his more regular role.

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Week 9

Ravens at Saints

Monday, 8:15 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 2 1/2

“Roquan is a player that we have long admired both on and off the field,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said Tuesday in a statement after the team’s deal was finalized. “He fits our culture seamlessly and plays like a Raven at all times. We are confident that Roquan makes our team stronger.”

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