A few weeks ago, safety Geno Stone was in a defensive meeting, reviewing film of the Ravens’ pass rush. One clip stood out, a pet play of defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s: Inside linebacker Patrick Queen steamrolls into the guard blocking defensive lineman Justin Madubuike, blindsiding him and clearing Madubuike’s path to the passer.
It was a football play that looked a lot like a basketball staple: the pick-and-roll.
“They actually said it in the meeting,” recalled Stone, an all-state basketball player in high school in Pennsylvania. “They were like, ‘They look like Shaq and Kobe right now.’ And I feel like it’s showing.”
No pass rush in the NFL has been better than the Ravens’, which leads the league with 44 sacks, tied for the most over the first 11 weeks of a season since at least 2000, according to TruMedia. Perhaps that’s because no pass rush borrows as much from basketball.
The Ravens’ top four pass rushers all played the sport in high school, and another played in college. Their pass rush guru, Chuck Smith, encourages players to think of the craft in basketball terms. The plays themselves evoke comparisons in the team’s locker room to screens and corner 3-pointers, to defensive traps and games of one-on-one.
“How you set up your whole offense in basketball is just the same way you do it on defense for the pass rush, honestly,” said Queen, who played early in high school before dropping the sport to focus on football and baseball. “Everybody’s doing their job and being able to sacrifice for the other person. Honestly, that’s all it is, is commitment, hard work between the five [players in basketball], and then just grinding it out. And when you’ve got your layup, make a layup. Got your shot, take a shot, make it. It’s really all the same, honestly.”
Former Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, a basketball fan, embraced the similarities between the sports over his years in Baltimore. He compared Patrick Mahomes to Michael Jordan, Deshaun Watson to LeBron James, Russell Wilson to Stephen Curry. In 2020, he said the NFL, “like the NBA, is all about matchups.”
Under Macdonald, who served as a position coach under Martindale, the Ravens’ pass rush has weaponized that philosophy. They hunt for matchups like the NBA’s best offenses. Sometimes that means letting outside linebackers Jadeveon Clowney (6.5 sacks), Kyle Van Noy (six) and Odafe Oweh (four), all of whom lettered in basketball in high school, take on offensive tackles, mano a mano.
“You’ve got to win your one-on-ones,” said safety Kyle Hamilton, the son of a former professional basketball player and a former Division I hoops recruit himself. “It’s like a one-on-one basketball game: Clear out, let them do their thing, and I like my guy over there.”
But iso ball has its limitations. The Ravens’ best pass-rush schemes look a lot like the NBA’s best offensive sets, dragging opponents into a hornet’s nest of movement and deception. Who’s coming? Who’s going? By the time the pass protection gets everything figured out, the Ravens might have already dunked on the quarterback.
When anyone can drive to the hoop, everyone’s a threat to score. Fourteen Ravens have at least one sack this season, from defensive tackles to defensive backs. In the team’s Week 3 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, Hamilton — until then, mostly a deep-lying safety — rushed the passer 12 times, according to Pro Football Focus, and finished with three sacks. Each time, he blitzed from the slot, bluffing coverage until the last second, when he would fly in, unblocked and unaccounted for.
“I kind of like to equate it to a full-court trap, half-court trap,” Hamilton said. “When they get across half-court, act like you’re in man-to-man, and then once they cross half, go blitz, trap in the corner. They go and turn over the ball or throw an errant pass.”
On all three of Hamilton’s sacks against the Colts, and on both of nickel back Arthur Maulet’s sacks this season, the Ravens schemed up unobstructed runs at the quarterback with fewer pass rushers than their opponent had pass blockers. “That’s an easy corner 3,” Queen said, comparing the rushes to one of the most efficient shots in basketball. “Wide open.”
The Ravens’ sacks rarely come that easily, though. Perhaps the defense’s most effective pass rush game this season, the “pick stunt,” has the artistry of a Stephen Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll but the blunt-force impact of a demolition derby.
In the Ravens’ playbook, it’s usually the smaller player, a linebacker like Queen, who’s the “screener.” He’ll line up over the center before the snap, next to a “roller” like Madubuike, who’s matched up with a guard, scrambling the offensive line’s protections so as to render double teams impossible. But rather than barging through the “A” gap and taking on the center or a waiting running back, the screener will slam into the guard’s side, ideally bouncing him out of the picture and, depending on how the protection holds up, freeing both himself and the roller for shots at the quarterback.
“A lot of guys probably aren’t anticipating a linebacker coming to crash your hip, you know what I mean?” said left guard John Simpson, who estimated that the Ravens runs more pick stunts than any defense in the NFL. “Schematically, it’s crazy, man. But they’re killing it.”
Added Clowney, a veteran of countless more conventional end-tackle stunts: “It’s all setting each other up. … In basketball, set them up for assists sometimes — you pick for them sometimes, they pick for you.”
The Ravens’ basketball backgrounds are embedded in their defensive DNA and reinforced through their coaching. Smith, the first-year outside linebackers coach, has told the Ravens’ defenders to think of their blockers as defenders and the quarterback as the hoop.
Some of the sport’s on-field influences are obvious; others are almost imperceptible. Hamilton, one of the NFL’s biggest and best safeties, credited basketball for his footwork and movement skills. Clowney has dusted several opposing tackles this season with an outside-inside crossover move. Madubuike, who leads the team with 9.5 sacks and also played in high school, has added a hesitation move — a “hesi,” in basketball parlance — to his arsenal. Outside linebacker Tyus Bowser, who played football and basketball at Houston, has shown a keen spatial awareness in pass coverage over his career.
“I feel like basketball players are very athletic,” Oweh, whose brother Otega is a sophomore guard at Oklahoma, said after Thursday’s win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Hours earlier, he’d worked himself free of a double team with a spin move that he likened to a box-out. “They can make that transition. But obviously, it’s a little bit more physical sport. But you can tell by the way that the guys are athletic that they have that type of background.”
Tying it all together is a humility that works in football and basketball and, well, pretty much anywhere. Maulet, asked about his surprising pass rush production this season, said he was “just doing my 1/11th,” and added: “Everybody’s just knowing that they have to do a certain thing for this pressure to hit, right?”
Madubuike, who occasionally drops into coverage on obvious passing downs to free up a pass rusher elsewhere, said the Ravens know they have to trust their teammates. “Don’t be selfish,” he said. “Be selfless.” It’s not just a pass rush ethos, either: Stone said these Ravens seem to delight in teammates’ success more than their own.
“It is one-on-one matchups a lot of times, but it’s also teamwork and playing together,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “You can’t get sacks if the quarterback’s running away, so you have to work together. I’ve never seen a sack that was just completely one-on-one.”
Because if you’re trying to play like Kobe Bryant, why not play with Shaquille O’Neal, too?