Throughout its history, the Baltimore Ravens have generally been known for great defense. Since the Ravens’ first season in 1996, the team has ranked in the top 10 in Football Outsiders’ Defensive DVOA metrics 21 different times, in the top five in 13 separate seasons, and first overall in four seasons (1999, 2003, 2006, 2011). The 2000 Ravens defense ranked among the greatest in NFL history ranked second in the league behind the Tennessee Titans; the best Ravens defense ever by DVOA was the 2008 unit (-27.6%; Defensive DVOA is better when it’s negative).
The point is that this is not a franchise used to defensive regression. Which is why the 2021 season was so alarming. Baltimore ranked 28th in Defensive DVOA, the worst such ranking since the inaugural season of 1996. The Ravens ranked fourth in run defense… and 30th against the pass.
Injuries certainly played a part. Only Marlon Humphrey and Anthony Averett managed more than 550 snaps among Baltimore’s cornerbacks. Marcus Peters missed the entire season with a torn ACL. Jimmy Smith, who hasn’t played a full season since 2015, lost more games to injuries and COVID. Humphrey was lost for the rest of the season in early December to a torn pectoral muscle.
Things were similarly thin in the Ravens’ safety corps — Deshon Elliott (now with the Lions) managed just six games, and outside of Chuck Clark, things were pretty patchwork back there, and Clark allowed 31 catches on 45 targets for 448 yards, 182 yards after the catch, four touchdowns, two interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 112.1. Third-round rookie Brandon Stephens played the second-most snaps among Baltimore’s safeties, and he allowed 33 catches on 42 targets for 506 yards, 234 yards after the catch, four touchdowns, no interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 148.6.
Peters coming back to the field will obviously help the cornerback group, but general manager Eric DeCosta and his staff worked overtime in the offseason to build the safety position back up. The Ravens signed former Saints safety Marcus Williams to a five-year, $70 million contract with $37 million guaranteed. Then, they selected Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton, the best player in the 2022 draft class according to those people at Touchdown Wire, with the 14th overall pick.
Moves that had to happen if the Ravens were going to get back to the kind of defense expected of the franchise, with some fascinating new wrinkles thrown in.
It’s time to go to the tape and see how it could shake out.
In 2021, the Ravens blitzed on 31.1% of their defensive snaps, the sixth-highest rate in the NFL. That was a serious downturn in blitzing frequency for the team under former defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale. Baltimore led the league in blitz frequency in 2020 with a 44.1% rate, and they did the same in 2019, blitzing on 54.9% (!!!) of their snaps.
Blitzing that much allowed the Ravens to create pressure through scheme and deployed personnel more than the presence of an alpha-dog edge defender. The downside of such a blitz-heavy defense, of course, is the vulnerabilities left in the box, to the boundaries, and in the deep third. That really became clear for the Ravens as their secondary injuries piled up.
When the Ravens replaced Martindale with Mike Macdonald on January 27, 2022, it was a combination of new school and old home week. Macdonald spent 2020 creating a Michigan defense that featured several 2022 draft picks, including second-overall pick Aidan Hutchinson, 31st overall pick Daxton Hill, and 45th overall pick David Ojabo, who went to Baltimore, and might have been a top-10 pick had he not suffered a torn Achilles tendon during his pro day on March 18.
For Macdonald, fixing the Ravens’ defense should be right in his backyard. He was a coaching intern for the team in 2014, a defensive assistant in 2015 and 2016, the defensive backs coach in 2017, and the linebackers coach from 2018 through 2020. So, he’s got the Ravens scholarship already, and now, the Double Harbaugh scholarship. From what he’s said, Macdonald’s prescription for this defense is not at all the same old thing.
“The first thing you want is a cohesive unit,” he said in February. “You want everybody to have each other’s backs. There’s a certain style it takes to play like a Raven. You want it to be multiple. You want it to be flexible and adaptable. It needs to be complimentary, light enough when you can adjust to certain things and simple for the players so they can go play the way you expect them to go play.”
“The aggressiveness – absolutely – is going to carry over, but I think you’ve got to look through the lens [of], ‘What does aggressiveness actually mean?,'” Macdonald said. “It’s about keeping the offense off balance and where they’re not really believing what they’re seeing on a down-to-down basis. So, a lot of times, that will come with the schemed-up pressure – that’ll happen. A lot of times it could be a fake pressure, it could look like this coverage and play like another one. You’re changing the stress points of the zones and things like that and just trying to create doubt at all times. You want to be the one pushing the envelope, rather than the other way around.”
As for the blown assignments that ultimately plagued and doomed this defense last season, Macdonald appears to be all over that idea.
“That’s definitely going to carry over,” Macdonald said. “If you can go over the situation with the guys, let them know what you’re going to call in certain situations, and they’re on the same page, you find the execution is better.”
Going to a business in front/party in the back methodology requires safeties who can do all kinds of things, and can also nail the specific assignments that best match their skill sets. That’s why the Ravens signed Williams and selected Hamilton. But let’s start with Chuck Clark, the lone true holdover from last season.
Macdonald also replaced a legendary blitz-heavy defensive coordinator at Michigan in Don Brown, and he cut that rate down pretty significantly. Partially because when you have Hutchinson and Ojabo as your edge-rushers, you don’t need to do a lot of exotic things. And partially because those more straight fronts allowed him to dial up more interesting things in coverage. If we’re looking at the Staley/Fangio model of modern defense in the NFL, it’s probably more like that.
With chaos all around him, Chuck Clark was one of the few bastions of consistency in the Ravens’ 2021 secondary. He played 1,023 snaps, dividing time between the line of scrimmage (115 snaps), the box (302), free safety (449). the slot (125), and outside corner (32). Statistically, 2021 marked the worst season of Clark’s career as a starting safety, but given that he was often asked to do things he wasn’t really comfortable doing, that can be forgiven to a degree.
“Everybody’s role is what it is,” head coach John Harbaugh said of Clark’s place in in the secondary, and his place on the team in the long term. “That’s why, as a coach, you’re so excited about … The idea is to have as many good players as you can have and have them in the right spots and the right roles. I love the fact that we have very versatile players in the backend and at safety. So, to me, Chuck is a big part of this team, and I’m planning on Chuck being here. I’m not going to worry about all the other stuff. The other stuff is the other stuff. It’s part of pro football, I understand it. But I love Chuck Clark, I love the way he plays, and I’m very happy that he’s a Raven.”
Clark is at his best when he’s closer to the line of scrimmage — either as a box player, blitzing, or faking a blitz look to cover a tight end underneath, as he did against the Browns on this pass deflection, defending tight end Austin Hooper.
Clark can also create pressure on overload blitz looks from the edge, where he uses his speed to the pocket, and through blockers, to get to the quarterback. Clark created this quick release incompletion from Drew Lock to tight end Noah Fant. (Seahawks fans, you might want to avert your eyes here).
While Clark is a decent deep safety — especially in two-high looks where he doesn’t have to take the entire deep third as his responsibility — you don’t really want him on that wall all the time. Clark played 449 snaps at free safety, the most he’d ever played in his career, and this was likely a major reason for his statistical regression. Clark isn’t a smooth transition player when asked to cover quick receivers on deeper drops; he can get turned around pretty quickly. This 26-yard pass from Justin Herbert to Mike Williams shows that pretty clearly.
But if he’s dropping to flat, hook, or curl responsibilities, Clark is in his element. That’s where the Ravens should keep him for the most part, and with Williams and Hamilton around him, there’s no need to put him where he doesn’t belong.
Selected by the Saints in the second round of the 2017 draft out of Utah (which has become an underrated DBU in recent years), Marcus Williams transcended his role in the Minneapolis Miracle to become one of the more dynamic, if slightly less consistent, deep safeties in the NFL.
When we say “slightly less consistent,” we are underscoring the issue for effect. And here’s more on Bret Saberhagen for you millennials.
Marcus Williams is the Bret Saberhagen of safeties.
Per @PFF, his opponent passer rating allowed per season:
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) May 19, 2022
Williams did excel in Dennis Allen’s aggressive, man-based in 2021, allowing just eight catches on 16 targets for 112 yards, 29 yards after the catch, one touchdown, two interceptions, and the aforementioned passer rating of 54.2. As long as Williams doesn’t get too aggressive, he’s just fine, and he has the full-field range the Ravens definitely did not possess at the position in 2021.
On this deep pass deflection against the Eagles, watch how Williams (No. 43) lies in wait on the Jalen Hurts scramble drill, and then crosses the field at blinding speed to break up the deep pass to running back Miles Sanders. When you get to the Kyle Hamilton section, and you start watching how Hamilton crosses the field with demonic speed and very bad intentions, you start to get a sense of how Not Fun this might be for opposing receivers.
Williams can also run in-line faster than most fast receivers. We saw it on this interception against the Packers, when Aaron Rodgers tried to hit Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a deep slot post. Problem 1 was that Rodgers seemed to slightly overthrow it. Problem 2? The only guy in range to get the ball was Williams.
And because Williams is so quick and easy in his deep transitions, he’s great at getting in place for deep deflections. Cowboys receiver CeeDee Lamb found that out on this play.
The Ravens do not seem concerned about the year-to-year variance.
“It’s some of the things we saw on tape when he played in college at Utah and then just having had the chance to watch him in the NFL,” DeCosta said of Williams when the signing was official in March. “Great instincts, eyes, range, ball-hawking ability. [He’s] a good support player down low. He can come down effectively and make tackles. [He’s] just a guy that has an opportunity to make critical plays in critical situations. We’ve played against him.
“I also think that just talking to other people about him, I can’t tell you the amount of either players that have played for us in the past – Eric Weddle, for instance – who reached out to me about Marcus, as well, and people like that. But [he] just kind of fits us. Over the years, I’ve referenced players, like Rod Woodson, Ed Reed – guys that can make game-changing plays at the right time – and we’ve seen the impact that those type of guys can have on the NFL and in the games now, especially with, I think, the impact of the passing game that we’ve seen, the rise of the passing game over the last 15 years or so. I just think Marcus is a guy that really fits us and makes us a better defense.”
When you get a guy who just might be the best player in any draft class with the 14th overall pick, as happened with Kyle Hamilton… well, that’s just one more classic example of the Ravens letting the draft come to them. Hamilton’s skill set and versatility gives the team all kinds of options they didn’t have before, and while we’re not going to compare him to Ed Reed, it’s also true that the Ravens haven’t had a safety like this since Mr. Reed was patrolling the defense and nuking everything (and everyone) who came his way.
“This is a situation where, honestly, we thought this guy would be gone by pick 4 or 5, maybe,” DeCosta said after the pick was made. “So, just too good of a player, and it was kind of a no-brainer, to be honest, for us – it wasn’t even contemplation. Had the phone been ringing at that time, we would not have traded out away from him. And just these kinds of players, we feel, are unique, and he can help us in so many ways.
“You’ve watched us play; you’ve seen the NFL game change; you’ve seen how tight ends now are such weapons. We think this guy can cover tight ends; we think he can play split safety; this guy can play down in the box. He’s a very smart guy, he fits our defense, [and] our coaches are very excited. We think that with Marcus [Williams] and with Chuck [Clark], with him, with guys like Brandon Stephens, with Geno [Stone], we think we have a lot of moving pieces, chess pieces, that will help us be a very good defense.”
What makes Hamilton special? Everything, really. While he might not be the ideal deep-third defender at 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, Hamilton has the movement skills of a safety standing four inches shorter and weighing 20-30 pounds less. The height/weight/speed combination is just rare.
A three-year player and two-year starter for the Fighting Irish, Hamilton played all over the place in Notre Dame’s defense, tallying 313 snaps in the box, 437 in the slot, 644 at free safety, 29 at the defensive line, and 15 at cornerback. And over those three seasons, Hamilton allowed 39 receptions on 82 targets for 388 yards, 149 yards after the catch, one touchdown, eight interceptions, 14 pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 25.9.
So, here’s a player who does everything at a stupidly high level. You can work with that.
Hamilton can work the entire field as a match defender because his transition skills are top-notch. He’ll use his hands to establish the landmark, and run the route right with the receiver — no matter where it goes. This interception against Florida State is a master class.
Here’s his second interception against Florida State, and this is the first example of many where Hamilton’s insane ability to work from one side of the field to the other in a very short times shows up as a major asset. He starts the play on the defensive right seam, and somehow not only gets to the left boundary, but has the wherewithal to make the pick. There are not many safeties in the NFL who can pull this off; Devin McCourty at his best has plays like these — and Devin McCourty is 5-foot-10, 195 pounds. Again, guys this big and rangy are not supposed to have movement skills like these.
You will hear that Hamilton has issues covering in the slot, and in man coverage underneath, but… I dunno, you guys — this rep against Cincinnati looks pretty good to me. When you can have a safety who trails motion and goes to the boundary downfield like this, I think it’s a plus.
This was a 31-yard run for Purdue’s King Doerue, but watch how Hamilton careens over to stop it from becoming a house call by outrunning everybody on the field. All that closing speed you see in coverage is just as evident when he’s playing the run.
So… yeah. Hamilton is just a rare bird who can do everything. You can build your entire defense around him.
Mel Blount was 6'3", 205. KYLE HAMILTON IS BIGGER AND TALLER THAN MEL BLOUNT AND HE'S DOING THIS. https://t.co/lJyHM8f8uW
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) April 14, 2022
As Hamilton and center Tyler Linderbaum (the team’s other first-round pick) were introduced to the media on April 29, Harbaugh once again laid out how this safety plan came together.
“We’ve got Chuck Clark. Chuck’s been here for a long time. He he’s one of our best players on defense. He wore the green dot, he’s a leader, he’s a play-caller, and I know Kyle is excited to work with Chuck and learn from him. And then we just signed Marcus Williams. He’s one of the best safeties in football, and he’s got his unique style, and Kyle will learn from him too, and they’ll feed off each other and play with each other, create some versatility, some flexibility for Brandon Stephens. He can still continue to play safety, he can play a nickel role for us, he can maybe play some corner, as well, and he’s a very versatile player. And then you’ve got young guys like Geno [Stone]. Geno is in there doing well.
“And then, don’t forget Tony Jefferson II. Tony Jefferson II brings a lot of unique abilities, too. So, all of those guys are really versatile football players, so the ability to … As I said before, you play free … We talked about it just now; we’re talking about playing free safety, playing strong safety, playing nickel, playing dime, and every now and then, you’re going find yourself in the mike position by alignment, by matchup. So, all those guys are going to play those spots, and that’s exactly what we want.”
Harbaugh was then asked jokingly if the Ravens might throw a few four-safety packages out there with all this talent.
“Hey, why not? (laughter) We’ll just come up with a new personnel group. [Defensive coordinator] Mike [Macdonald], you here? Where are you at Mike? (laughter) We will come up with something like that. I just think it speaks to … That’s what you want as a coach, and it speaks to our scouts. Our scouts do a great job of studying these guys, led by [director of player personnel] Joe [Hortiz] with all the college scouts, and then watching [executive vice president & general manager] Eric [DeCosta] work the draft yesterday in the first round.
“And the way it was going, it didn’t go the way that we expected. I’m going to be honest; we had a conversation a couple weeks ago here, and I was just joking; I’m like, ‘What are you doing here? I don’t even know what you’re doing here. It’s nice to meet you. I thought we would get a chance to talk. You go to the same school as my daughter. Did you know that?’ (laughter) And he didn’t. But it was just fun, because I just didn’t think this chance was really going to happen, and then here we sit, because we make our plans and then God laughs, and that’s what’s beautiful about it. But then watching Eric; the poise he had, he saw it coming, the trades he made, adding, moving back and different opportunities that we had, the possibilities that would come up, and to come out of it with this result, with these two guys … [They’re] the kind of guys that I think fit Eric’s personality – just good, tough, hard-nosed, determined, gritty, smart people [who] come from great families – and that was something that was meaningful to us. I congratulate Eric and his staff, because this thing was a great job.”
However it went, and however they got here, the Ravens are in a much better position to have a great defense in 2022 than they were in 2021, and it all starts with the safeties.