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Boston Herald
Boston Herald
2 Dec 2023
Tribune News Service

NextImg:The Ravens’ unusual approach that’s helped them lead the NFL in sacks: ‘Being in the same room helps’

Nineteen plays and nearly nine minutes. That’s dog years in a football game, but that’s how long the Chargers had possession on a drive that spanned 69 yards and parts of the third and fourth quarters Sunday night at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, where quarterback Justin Herbert was attempting to rally Los Angeles from a 10-point deficit against one of the NFL’s best defenses.

Then on third-and-14 from the Ravens’ 16-yard line and with Baltimore showing blitz but only rushing four players, outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney ripped past right tackle Trey Pipkins III, hit Herbert as he was about to throw, causing a fumble, and recovered the loose ball.

Afterward, Ravens coach John Harbaugh called it the turning point of the game, which Baltimore went on to win, 20-10, to enter its bye week with a 9-3 record that is best in the AFC.

“I told him on the sideline [that] he saved us,” defensive tackle Michael Pierce said. “Anytime you’re getting stops on drives like that, normally those end in touchdowns. Anytime you get those turnovers, it’s big time. It made a big, big difference in the game.”

It was also emblematic of the 30-year-old Clowney’s resurgence — his 7 1/2 sacks are on pace for a career high — and a testament to a unit that has been as good as any in the league this season. The Ravens lead the NFL in sacks (47), touchdowns allowed per game (1.3), yards per pass (4.6) and yards per play (4.2), and are second in points (15.6) and yards (273.9) allowed per game. Much of that success can be attributed to not the ability of Baltimore’s front seven but its connectivity. Unlike many teams around the league whose defensive line and linebackers meet separately, the two position groups gather in the same room every day in Baltimore.

“When you have the outside backers in one room and then the defensive front in another room, then you have two guys on the edge and two of my guys on the inside, there’s a disconnect there sometimes,” Ravens defensive line coach Anthony Weaver said. “I think just the sheer nature of us being in the same room helps.”

It also simply makes sense in today’s fast-paced NFL, where speed has become more valued over size and simulated pressures and confusion are at the heart of the league’s best defenses, including the Ravens’.

“I think you look at that room, we’re connected like a puzzle,” first-year Ravens outside linebackers coach Chuck Smith said. “You can’t put a puzzle together without making sure all the pieces fit. The edge guys do some of the same things that the interior guys do, or we’ll replace them when it comes to the different fronts and different positions.”

To the point, with under two minutes to play and the Chargers facing fourth down on Baltimore’s 46 as the visitors clung to a three-point lead, the Ravens again showed blitz but this time dropped Pierce and fellow massive defensive tackle Broderick Washington into coverage. Doing so took away Herbert’s passing lanes just long enough for cornerback Arthur Maulet to race in and force a hurried incompletion.

There are several other examples of Baltimore moving its players around the field like it’s a chess board.

Outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy lining up in the gap between the guard and tackle. Defensive tackle Travis Jones in the gap between the tackle and tight end. Outside linebacker Odafe Oweh lining up over the nose tackle. Clowney lining up in multiple spots.

But in order for that to work, there has to be communication, and for there to be good communication, being in the same room is paramount.

“It really is the evolution of the NFL, particularly when you’re in the base three-man front, because our guys who play on the edge — think about it, those guys are truly hybrids,” Smith said. “Jadeveon Clowney was probably a defensive end when he was in South Carolina, so when you look at it from the standpoint, this is the evolution.

“I believe a lot of teams are going to start doing that because you can’t be in two separate rooms and try to come together and say, ‘You know what, let’s piece this [together] again,’ so it’s basically like I’m putting the puzzle together. Then we’ll wait and try to figure out how to put the other part together, so we’re putting it all together at the same time.”

It’s paid off in a big way.

One of the goals the defensive staff under coordinator Mike Macdonald had coming into this year was to lead the league in sacks. So far, mission accomplished. The Ravens’ 47 sacks are six more than the next closest team, the Buffalo Bills, and just one shy of Baltimore’s total from last season when it had the fourth-most sacks in the NFL.

“I also would like to lead the league in beating up quarterbacks, honestly,” Smith said. “Putting quarterbacks [down] on the ground where they lean to get back up. So, that’s the kind of goal that we’ve got. We want to put hands on quarterbacks, and that can affect the game. The sacks come after that.”

And almost everyone has been a contributor. The Ravens have 15 players with at least a half-sack this year after defensive tackle Travis Jones got on the board for the first time Sunday. Defensive tackle Justin Madubuike has a team-high 10 and is the first Ravens player to reach double digits since Terrell Suggs in 2017, and right behind him are outside linebackers Clowney, Van Noy (six) and Oweh (four).

It’s been a team effort in every sense of the word, starting in the meeting room.

“Everywhere I’ve been, that’s been in the structure. It’s always been like that; the outside backer coach handles his room, and the defensive line [coach] handles their room,” said Weaver, whose playing career included stops with the Ravens and Houston Texans and whose previous coaching stints were with the New York Jets, Bills Cleveland Browns and Texans. “It just becomes hard when if you’re in a four-down rush, and two of my guys are in there, and two of your guys are in there, sometimes there’s a disconnect in terms of what you’re seeing from a communication standpoint. When you’re all in the same room, you can talk about all those things throughout the week and it makes it more cohesive on game day.”