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Ravens' C.J. Mosley catching on at pass coverage

The Ravens' C. J. Mosley, right, intercepts a pass intended for the Jaguars' Allen Robinson, in the first quarter last week.
The Ravens' C. J. Mosley, right, intercepts a pass intended for the Jaguars' Allen Robinson, in the first quarter last week. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

The critics have spoken. The reviews are in. Ravens inside linebacker C.J. Mosley's one-handed, tipped-to-himself, Manny Machado-in-purple interception Sunday was … pretty good.

"I'd give him a seven out of 10," wide receiver and catch commentator Kamar Aiken said this week. "If it was just the one-hander, it'd probably be a little bit higher."

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"I give it a six, maybe a seven," fellow wideout Mike Wallace said. "I like everything [about the play]. Just a little bobble. He didn't stick the landing."

In other words, he wasn't quite Odell Beckham Jr. Said Mosley, Wallace's locker room neighbor: "That's fair enough."

After last season, Mosley might have settled for catching Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles' 25-yard wobbler with his helmet. The Ravens finished 10th in the NFL in pass defense (234 yards allowed per game) in 2015, but that ranking seemed irreconcilable with the eye test: How could a unit that allowed 30 touchdowns and had just six interceptions be an upper-third performer leaguewide?

Over three games and three wins this season, according to analytics website Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric, the Ravens pass defense ranks eighth; it was 25th last year. Safety Eric Weddle has shored up the back end, as expected. An early-season schedule devoid of a top-20 quarterback, as measured by passer rating, also has helped.

But maybe the most overlooked development on defense is the improved coverage skills of its signal caller, who made what linebacker Zachary Orr called "the catch of the year, offensively or defensively."

"Yes, he has made some plays in the passing game; that is probably a really good observation," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Mosley on Monday. "He has had really good depth. … He shows a lot of range, spatial awareness, not jumping routes when he isn't supposed to, playing top-down type of zone coverage."

Mosley's two interceptions this season — a team high and tied for third most in the NFL entering Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders — are almost mirror images of each other. They are also unlike anything he did last year, if only because he went 16 games in 2015 without an interception.

In Week 2 against Cleveland, with the Ravens up five in the game's final minute and the Browns 30 yards from the end zone, quarterback Josh McCown took a snap out of a three-wide-receiver shotgun formation. As he scanned the field, Mosley dropped into zone coverage and defensive end Lawrence Guy shed his blocker inside, in front of McCown. Unable to step into his throw, McCown lofted a pass for Terrelle Pryor Sr. to the goal line. Safety Lardarius Webb would have had first crack at it had Mosley not gotten there before him.

There were two other teammates within 5 yards of Mosley as he secured the ball — with two hands — and fell at the 1. The Ravens repeat it like a mantra, but here was more proof: Takeaways are a team effort.

"I feel like we work well as a team at just understanding and just learning from film," cornerback Shareece Wright said.

For as much is made of the learning curve young quarterbacks face in their transition to the NFL, there is the other side of the ball to consider. The best linebackers grasp pass routes, too.

In his understanding of the game, Mosley was precocious enough to relay plays from the sideline as a rookie starter in 2014. But his conception of aerial attacks had not matured. Even last year, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus, he had the third-worst coverage rating among the NFL's top 40 overall linebackers.

"I'm definitely more comfortable at my position and in my drops," he said. "I feel like as you get older, you start to see route concepts more. You can kind of picture them easier."

Mosley and the Ravens defense will have their biggest challenge yet this season when they play against quarterback Derek Carr and the Raiders (2-1). Carr threw for three touchdowns and 351 yards — more than 100 apiece to receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper — in a 37-33 Raiders victory out west.

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Mosley's acrobatic interception Sunday was ready-made highlight fodder, but it was his offscreen movement that explained how he got to the ball — how he's become one of PFF's top 20 linebackers in coverage, essentially.

At the snap, with two wide receivers out wide and a tight end flanking either side of a single-back formation, Mosley watched a play-action fake unfold. He did not step to the ball, and even before Bortles' empty hand extended to running back T.J. Yeldon, Mosley was backpedaling. Only two Jaguars receivers had moved past the line of scrimmage.

"Both of their tight ends stayed in to block, so obviously, when that happens, that's max protection, so they're looking to take a deep shot down the field," Mosley said.

He continued to fall back into zone coverage, reading Bortles' eyes, which were unmoving, as if painted on. When Jacksonville wide receiver Marqise Lee's route stayed vertical to his right, Mosley figured Allen Robinson, wherever he was, would be crossing over to the same side. "If somebody goes in, somebody else got to come back out, or vice versa," he explained.

Bortles reached the end of his seven-step drop when another Ravens pass rusher got to another quarterback — this time, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, who shoved his way into Bortles' airspace. Bortles' shoulder opened up as he wound up, and he short-armed the throw to Robinson. Perhaps because of the ball's unsteady delivery, Mosley first thought it would sail over his head.

He continued to fall farther back. When Mosley extended his right hand for the ball, like a center fielder leaping at the outfield wall, he was 19 yards from his starting position, all covered in reverse.

"The quarterback's not expecting him to be there," Orr said. "Then he tried to throw it over his head."

Mosley still didn't see Robinson behind him, so he tried to bat the pass to himself. Athleticism took over. His hand deadened the ball's flight — "He's been on the JUGS machine a lot," Aiken said — and it fell softly to the ground as he did. Mosley brought the interception to his chest before an on-the-ground spin move, like something a break-dancer might pull off, took him from his back to his knees, then his feet.

Finally moving forward, Mosley ran the pick back 11 yards, to the Ravens 40, and returned to a sideline of high-fives and helmet taps. Bortles stared at the ground, hands on his knees, then looked to the heavens.

"I don't know what he saw on that one," Mosley said, "but just happy to be in the right spot."

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