With Thursday’s trade for Minnesota Vikings defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, the Ravens emphatically answered whether they’d make yet another trade deadline upgrade.
But Ngakoue’s return to Maryland raises its own set of questions — about his unique skill set, about the Ravens' playing-time crunch, about defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s second-half plans.
The Ravens know what they had to give up to acquire Ngakoue: a 2021 third-round draft pick and conditional 2022 fifth-round pick. They know what they’re getting in the former Terps star: one of the league’s most productive pass rushers. But here are three variables to consider as Ngakoue joins an already elite defense.
Can the Ravens rely on Ngakoue in coverage?
The Ravens ask a lot of their pass rushers. Sometimes, they ask them not to rush the passer.
That’s why defensive end Calais Campbell has a career-high seven coverage snaps in just six games this season, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s why outside linebacker Matthew Judon has dropped into coverage 15.6% of the time, and why Tyus Bowser’s done it 23.3% of the time. Under Martindale, getting to the quarterback isn’t always the best thing a pass rusher can do. On some plays, confusing him might be.
Which makes Ngakoue’s integration into the Ravens' complex, chaotic defense all the more interesting. If you’re going to play for Martindale, you’re going to have to do a little bit of everything: Play the run, rush the passer and, yes, help out in pass defense.
The Ravens' top four edge rushers through the season’s first six weeks — Judon, Bowser and fellow outside linebackers Pernell McPhee and Jaylon Ferguson — had a combined 119 coverage snaps, according to PFF. Their pass-defense usage has varied; Bowser’s rate, for instance, is one of the NFL’s highest for an edge rusher. But even McPhee, a stout run stopper, has dropped into coverage on 15 of his 200 defensive snaps, or 7.5% overall.
Ngakoue has no such experience. Over four seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars and six games with the Vikings, he largely played under a simple binary: He was either rushing the passer or defending the run. Ngakoue saw a career-high 27 coverage snaps in 2016, his rookie year, but since 2018, he hasn’t played more than 2% of his snaps in pass defense. This season, he has just six in 310 snaps (1.9%).
Ngakoue has the physical tools to hold up in coverage. On a third-and-long play in the Vikings' loss Sunday to the Atlanta Falcons, he lined up across from Hayden Hurst and looked fluid in tracking the former Ravens tight end’s out-breaking route. But Ngakoue didn’t have to cover him long, either; a Minnesota blitz forced the ball out of quarterback Matt Ryan’s hands quickly.
In the Ravens' blitz-heavy schemes, Ngakoue likely won’t have to take on many man-coverage assignments. More likely, he’ll be responsible for underneath zones. If he proves he can tackle in space and grasp the Ravens' schemes, he’ll make the defense all the more dangerous when he’s actually rushing the passer.
What will the edge-rusher rotation look like?
Over the past three weeks, the Ravens pass rush’s best stretch of the season, no edge defender played more than 75% of the team’s defensive snaps in a game. But a clear hierarchy did emerge.
At the top was Judon, with 133 combined snaps, or about 63.3% of the total share. Next up were Bowser (105 snaps) and McPhee (103). And after them were Jihad Ward (87), a defensive end with edge-rusher responsibilities, and Ferguson (78).
Now comes Ngakoue, who played over 74% of the Jaguars' defensive snaps every year from 2017 to 2019 and 72.9% of the Vikings' snaps this season. How will he fit in?
The Ravens' approach to early downs could be one clue. While McPhee is a stout enough run stopper to line up over guards, the defense also seems to trust Judon, Bowser, Ward and Ferguson to hold their own and set the edge. In recent games, the team hasn’t excluded anyone from its rotation on first and second downs.
Ngakoue, however, is not an especially strong run defender. With his weight (a listed 246 pounds), tight ends can displace him, and his limited wingspan, tackles can initiate contact easily.
But the Ravens acquired Ngakoue primarily because of his pass-rush ability. And with well over half the NFL’s 32 teams passing more often than they run on early downs, the Ravens would seemingly get more out of a dynamic sack artist than they would a more balanced edge rusher on a first-and-10 or a second-and-7.
However the snaps are divvied up, the consequences will be far-reaching. With free agency approaching for all but Ferguson, this is a group of edge rushers who can’t afford to defer. While a long-term deal might be unlikely for the 31-year-old McPhee, Ward is only 26. Bowser is only 25. Judon, 28, is playing on the franchise tag.
There’s no payday without production, and there’s no production without playing time. With Ngakoue’s arrival, the pass rush should be better, but the opportunities will be fewer.
Will the Ravens blitz less?
Some defensive coordinators would see a weak offensive line as a reason to scale back their blitzing.
Then there’s the Ravens' Martindale. Against a banged-up Philadelphia Eagles offensive line Sunday, the Ravens sent five or more pass rushers after quarterback Carson Wentz 25 times, according to Pro-Football-Reference. The week before, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow saw 21 blitzes. Both are season highs.
Even with a slightly less aggressive approach this season, Martindale is still one of the NFL’s most blitz-happy coordinators. A year after leading the league with a 54.9% blitz rate — no one else was even above 44% — the Ravens trail only the Pittsburgh Steelers with a 46.1% share in 2020.
It’s a style that Harbaugh favors. To hear him explain it, Martindale is the one who has to talk the coaching staff into fewer high-pressure packages. Before the Ravens' Week 14 game against the Bills last season, Harbaugh told Buffalo reporters, “I’m usually the one who wants to blitz even more, so we both have the same problem.”
With Ngakoue’s arrival, the Ravens can assemble a four-man pass rush that, on paper, shouldn’t need much help. Judon is fifth in the NFL in ESPN’s pass-rush win rate, which measures how often a pass rusher is able to beat his block within 2.5 seconds. (Martindale’s blitz schemes likely help boost his success, but he’s still winning more than a quarter of his pass-rush snaps.) Bowser has been unlucky not to get at least a few more sacks, and Ferguson has shown a strong bull rush.
In the interior, Campbell is coming off a three-sack game and remains a weapon on slants and stunts. Defensive end Derek Wolfe thrived in Denver next to Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller — like Ngakoue, an explosive pass rusher who can turn the corner or run by a guard. Defensive lineman Justin Madubuike, a productive pass rusher at Texas A&M, should improve as his rookie season carries on. And McPhee, like Judon, can kick inside and trouble interior linemen.
Whether that’s enough to convince Martindale to drop seven defenders into coverage over and over is still to be determined. The Ravens blitz not just because they want to take down quarterbacks but also because they want to rush their process. If Ngakoue’s addition doesn’t change those plans, Martindale probably won’t change his.
Nov. 1, 1 p.m.
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