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Ravens film study: How Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe can bring ‘sack city’ to a middling pass rush

"There’s a ton of uncertainty right now with timelines and when people are going to report," said Ravens tight end Mark Andrews.

The Ravens’ blitz last season was never better than it was in Week 14. On Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen’s 46 drop-backs inside New Era Field, he was hit 12 times. Against 30 blitzes, he completed seven passes, according to ESPN Stats & Info. He missed all 11 throws under duress.

Maybe no game better epitomized Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s try-and-stop-us ethos. And maybe no game better showed the relative limitations of a blitz-free strategy.

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Of the Ravens’ six sacks in their 24-17 win, just one came with an initial four-man rush. Even that had a caveat: Outside linebacker Matthew Judon and defensive tackle Michael Pierce split the sack, but only after Judon had left his post as a quarterback spy. He was tired of waiting. Allen had had an eternity to throw.

The Ravens blitzed more than any team in the NFL last season not only because they could rely on their secondary to withstand pressure, but also because their pass rush struggled to generate its own. In Buffalo, even the Bills’ gift-wrapped breakdowns weren’t converted. On one second-quarter play, Pierce flew past the center, a sack there for the taking on a four-man rush. But he couldn’t wrap up the elusive Allen, and the play ended with an incompletion.

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With an offseason makeover, the Ravens have given their sturdy defense another way forward. Over the past two weeks, they lost Pierce, who signed with the Minnesota Vikings; traded defensive end Chris Wormley to the Pittsburgh Steelers; and couldn’t close on a deal for defensive lineman Michael Brockers, who re-signed with the Los Angeles Rams after concerns emerged about a late-season injury.

More significant, though, are their additions and retentions. The Ravens traded for Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell and signed free-agent defensive end Derek Wolfe, both projected starters, while re-signing defensive end Jihad Ward and defensive tackle Justin Ellis. Starting defensive tackle Brandon Williams will return, and Judon, a Pro Bowl pass rusher, has been designated with the franchise tag.

In Martindale’s defense, Campbell (31½ sacks since 2017) and Wolfe (career-high seven sacks in 12 games last season) will be valuable chess pieces. But their arrivals are unlikely to rewire Martindale’s factory settings. In 2018, the Ravens blitzed on nearly 40% of their plays, according to Pro-Football-Reference. Last season, they got up to nearly 55%. And before heading to Buffalo, Harbaugh told reporters there that he usually wanted to blitz “even more” than Martindale had. “So we both have the same problem.”

Even with a top-five defense, pressure was the problem last season. For all of Martindale’s exotic packages and waves of blitzers, the Ravens finished 21st in sacks and 14th in ESPN’s pass-rush win rate, which measures how often a defender beats his block within 2.5 seconds.

With this revamping, Martindale has a defensive front with versatility that might strain even his imagination. And a more diverse pass rush should produce a more effective pass rush.

What they bring

Wolfe and Campbell would have ranked second and third, respectively, on the Ravens last season in sacks. But their pass-rush profiles would have looked out of place in Baltimore.

According to a review of last season’s games, all but one of Wolfe’s seven sacks came on four-man rushes. The same was true for Campbell, who had 6½ total. Judon, meanwhile, finished with nine sacks in 2019; just one came on a four-man rush.

The difference was partly philosophical. In Denver and Jacksonville’s schemes, the star was a jet-quick edge rusher: the Broncos’ Von Miller and the Jaguars’ Yannick Ngakoue (Maryland). The defense’s outside speed was a stressor, but so was the threat of slingshotting inside.

It was in those exchanges where Wolfe and Campbell thrived. Five of Wolfe’s sacks last season came on stunts, in which he switched an assignment or gap with another player crossing behind or in front of him. (Think of stunts, also known as twists, as a kind of pick-and-roll against an offensive lineman.) Campbell got four that way, including two in one game.

The Ravens went about their business differently. They ran plenty of stunts, too, and often effectively. But of their 37 sacks last season, just three were recorded by a player looping outside or penetrating inside on a stunt. By themselves, Wolfe and Campbell combined for three times as many.

With Campbell, in particular, the Ravens will be more dynamic up front. In a dominant Week 3 game against the Tennessee Titans, he had three sacks and averaged a pressure once every 3.9 pass-rushing snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Over 39 pass-rushing snaps, he lined up everywhere from over the nose tackle to out past left tackle.

But it was as a three-technique lineman, aligned over a guard’s outside shoulder, where he was most dangerous. On his first stunt-produced sack, he engaged the left guard and then the left tackle with his 6-foot-8, 300-pound frame, freeing Ngakoue to duck around and zoom into the backfield. Quarterback Marcus Mariota scooted out of the way, but the pressure ruined his rhythm, and Campbell got the clean-up sack.

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Later, with Dawuane Smoot and Campbell starting from opposite three-technique spots, Campbell was the designated looper. It was a new twist, but the same result. With three interior linemen unable to block the defensive ends’ quick exchange, Campbell got into the backfield easily, his long stride carrying him into the hole. Campbell missed the takedown, but his pressure forced Mariota into Smoot for another sack.

In Denver, Wolfe’s role was to get Miller easy shots. “I am Steve Nash,” Miller joked in 2016, referring to the Dallas Mavericks’ former star point guard. “As much as I want to be [Dirk] Nowitzki.” But Wolfe benefited in much the same way that Nowitzki did from Nash’s gravitational pull.

When Wolfe and Miller ran stunts together, sometimes the tackle responsible for Miller would simply forget about the other guy. For being 6-5 and 285 pounds, Wolfe blindsided linemen surprisingly often last season. That left him free to get after the quarterback himself, or to clean up what Miller had left behind.

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Wolfe won in the pass rush in other ways — on one sack against the Titans last season, he walked the right guard back into Mariota with an impressive long-arm move before knocking over both. Until suffering a season-ending elbow injury in Week 12, he was on pace for a nine-sack year.

But Nash-Nowitzki-level chemistry is earned over time, and now Wolfe and Campbell are starting over in Baltimore.

How they fit

They will have help. And they’ll need it, maybe as much as the rest of the Ravens defense needs them.

Campbell turns 34 in September. Given Martindale’s preferred approach to defensive line rotations — Williams led all Ravens ends and tackles with just a 53.9% share of the snaps in 2019 — Campbell’s unlikely to play 11 games with 50-plus defensive snaps, as he did last season.

Wolfe was likewise on the field far more often than not last year. But with his age and injury history — he turned 30 in February and has dealt with neck issues — he could see a somewhat reduced role in Baltimore, too.

There should be more than enough talent to accommodate them, whether as stunt partners or potential blitzers. Judon, one of the NFL’s better edge rushers, can line up anywhere. Ward is a versatile defender who flashed at times last season. Outside linebacker Tyus Bowser had a career-high five sacks in his third year. Jaylon Ferguson, who started opposite Judon over the season’s second half, made strides over an up-and-down rookie campaign. An instant-impact inside linebacker or pass rusher could fall to general manager Eric DeCosta in this month’s draft.

With Martindale’s willingness to blitz safeties and cornerbacks, and the elite talent still in that defensive backfield, the 2020 Ravens won’t have to rethink how they pressure the quarterback. When Campbell saw a tweet last week highlighting his new defense’s secondary, he replied with a prediction: The average time between a snap and a pass attempt is 2.5 seconds, Campbell wrote. If the Ravens could get it to 2.8 seconds or longer, “it’s gonna be sack city.”

A defense this aggressive — and also now this talented? The Ravens might not even need that much.

“The thing I like about ‘Wink’ is that he’s very creative, and he uses people in different positions,” Campbell told Baltimore reporters during a conference call Thursday. “I’m eager to see how he uses me. To my knowledge, he tries to draw up blitzes for certain players to come free, and I’ve always kind of appreciated the mind of a really good defensive coordinator and just why he’ll draw up certain blitzes and what he sees.”

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