When Kyle Hamilton pictures the Ravens’ coaches’ office, he recalls the episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants” when the mini SpongeBobs in his brain office forget a name and, as they frantically try to find it, set everything on fire.
The team’s secondary coaches, especially, have had to work through the chaos of significant injuries. Yet each week they somehow manage to gather an impressive amount of information.
By the time the coaches bring each game plan and adjustment to the players, though, they deliver a finished product. And they present it in a way that’s so ordinary it’s extraordinary.
“I think that’s the best part,” Hamilton said. “They don’t do anything too crazy. They try to keep it as simple as possible.”
That’s been the theme of the season for the Ravens’ secondary: doing something simple with impressive results. Through four games, the Ravens are leading the NFL with the lowest allowed completion rate (30%) according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. They’ve allowed just 5.1 yards per attempt on throws of 10-plus air yards. That’s decreased significantly from last season, when they allowed a 54.7% completion rate and 12.0 yards per attempt.
The Ravens have also held their four opponents to a combined 1-for-13 on passes of 20-plus air yards. They’ve matched that single completion with one interception, made by Geno Stone against the Cleveland Browns, on deep passes. They rank fourth in pass defense-adjusted value over average, which calculates success based on down and distance compared to teams around the league).
And they’ve done all this without some of their star players. Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey has been out since August after having surgery on his foot. Starting safety Marcus Williams has been out since injuring his pectoral in Week 1. And various other players, including Daryl Worley and Jalyn Armour-Davis, have been in and out of the lineup.
Granted, the passing offenses they’ve faced have been similarly depleted — they’ve faced two backup quarterbacks (one a rookie), another rookie and a struggling/injured Joe Burrow through four weeks. It’s definitely a factor — “The starters are the starters for a reason,” Hamilton said — but it hasn’t changed the unit’s game plan or preparation. And the numbers aren’t just slightly better than average due to the weakened opponents; they’re among the best in the league.
How has a secondary with a rotating cast and few leaguewide stars put up such impressive numbers?
“Honestly, we just go into the week, only thing on our mind is get the job done,” Brandon Stephens said. “It really don’t matter what they say outside. Yeah, we got a lot of injuries, but it’s no excuse for us to go out there and not get the job done.”
It’s a next-man-up mentality that many teams cite. But not every team can back up words with results. So what’s really behind their success?
Linebacker Roquan Smith, who’s enjoyed the defensive backs’ success because it’s made his job a “crap ton easier,” said there’s a combination of factors that go into it. The first thing it comes down to is scouting, something coach John Harbaugh has also mentioned. The Ravens seem to have a knack for identifying talent and character in players other teams overlook.
That’s been proven by the way Worley, a journeyman who played just 16 games over the last two seasons, held steady through over 100 snaps in Week 3. Or through Stone, a seventh-round draft pick who’s made two big interceptions. The list goes on.
Identifying the players is one thing. The next step is developing them. And Smith has been impressed with the way he’s seen pass game coordinator Chris Hewitt and defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson develop the secondary. They put in “countless hours,” studying film and figuring out the tendencies of opponents as well as their own players.
Their understanding of their players’ strengths is evident in how they’ve changed their coverages. Last season, they played almost 35% of their snaps in “Cover 3″ zone, a three-deep zone in which two cornerbacks and a safety typically divide the deep part of the field into thirds. In Cover 3, the Ravens’ expected points added per drop-back was minus-0.01, right in the middle of the pack, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
This year, the Ravens have the second-best efficiency in the league in both Cover 3 and “Cover 4,” a coverage with four deep defenders, and they spend nearly half of their snaps in those coverages.
The coaches might be the masterminds, but they aren’t the ones on the field. So Wilson and Hewitt have to take what they’ve discovered about coverages, habits and tendencies and deliver the information to those who will step on the field to face the opponents. And they have to do it in a way that makes sense.
“Once you get that and are able to break it down and decipher it and decide how you want to feed it to your players, it carries big,” Smith said. “And it means so much to the guys because it’s so easy to understand it. They’re almost like dumbing it down for you in a sense.”
Hewitt and Wilson tag-team things, Stephens said, and they work well as a unit even though they bring different characteristics.
“D-Will is very meticulous, very calculated, very x-and-o approach to the game,” Hamilton said. “Gets us in the right spots and has us thinking the right way. Chris, I would say he’s very motivational and technical in the way we are moving our feet, moving in the post, how we do stuff on the field.”
They, along with defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, are harder on the team this year, Stone said, but in a way the players appreciate. And being hard doesn’t mean they’re close-minded. The coaches love discourse, and the players take them up on it with a good back and forth, letting them know what they see in real time.
Sometimes the coaches break out the analogies, too, although they’re not Nickelodeon-themed. After the win over the Browns, in which Hamilton made his first interception, he shared one of their science-themed comparisons during his locker room media availability. They told the players that when sunlight is scattered it doesn’t do much, but when it’s directed by a magnifying glass, it can start a fire.
“And we’re trying to start a fire,” Hamilton said.
No matter how well the coaches disseminate information, it eventually comes down to the players themselves to translate that to practices and games. Hamilton said it was clear from the first day of training camp how locked in this group is. In meetings, everyone listens carefully. On the field, everyone competes as if he’s the starter. And, away from the locker room, they’re building the chemistry needed to create a fire.
“We do a lot of things off the field now, guys starting to be together and hang out, just little things like that,” Stone said. “The camaraderie now, I feel like it’s probably the best I’ve seen it since I’ve been here ... I feel like this is what it probably was when it wasn’t COVID, but I feel like it’s been the best since I’ve been here.”
All that adds up to complete confidence on game days, no matter who is on the active roster and taking the field.
“As players, [we] just [have] the utmost confidence in every single guy that step out there on the field because we know once they step out there on the field with us, we all have the same mindset, ready for war, and we’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done,” Smith said.
Despite the impressive stats, there’s still more to see. Humphrey and Williams are back on the practice field, and the players who filled in for them have made a case that they deserve to continue playing a significant number of snaps.
“We’re all starting to hit our best strides,” Stone said. “It’s still early in the season. But the secondary, our thing was we’re going to be the best secondary in the NFL in takeaways. That’s what we’re trying to do right now.”