For the third week in a row the Cowboys will take on an opponent from the AFC North as the Ravens travel to AT&T Stadium. Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of their defensive personnel.
The Ravens run a 3-4 system similar to the Steelers where they only have a handful of defensive linemen who are primarily run-stoppers, and then they replace them with pass-rushing linebackers in nickel and dime formations. With that said, the leader of this group is nose tackle Brandon Williams, a monster against the run at 6-1, 340 lbs. Williams may be the best run-stuffing nose tackle in the league and it’s almost certain that he will make his first Pro Bowl this year, and perhaps even an All-Pro team. Williams has a low center of gravity, plays with great leverage, and actually has surprising explosiveness to shoot gaps. He isn’t much of a pass-rusher as he usually comes off the field in nickel and dime situations, but he will be one of the biggest tests of the year for Travis Frederick and the interior of the Cowboys line.
The other two starters on the Ravens three-man line are Timmy Jernigan, a second-round pick in 2014, and Lawrence Guy, a journeyman who has bounced around the league but found a home with the Ravens last season. Jernigan is a very good interior pass-rusher who plays with great leverage and has impressive explosiveness off the snap. He has notched four sacks in both 2014 and 2015, and he already has five so far in 2016. He is also strong against the run, not to the level of Williams, but he is a capable run defender. This is one of the best defensive tackle duos in the league, and likely the best duo the Cowboys will have faced so far considering that Bennie Logan missed the first Eagles game.
Despite both Jernigan and Guy lining up at similar spots on the field, namely on either side of Williams, Guy plays more as a defensive end while Jernigan is more of a tackle. Guy is primarily asked to use his length at 6-4, 305 lbs. to hold up as more of a classic 3-4 defensive end, while Jernigan plays more as a penetrating defensive tackle.
Nose tackle Michael Pierce and defensive end Brent Urban round out the depth chart, although don’t expect to see them play many snaps. Pierce, a 6-0, 339 lb. rookie undrafted free agent, has impressed against the run and even has two sacks, but he generally only plays about 15 or so snaps a game.
As mentioned previously, this defense is similar in style to what the Steelers run, so the linebacker unit is a deep, versatile group that will line up at different spots and bring pressure from different angles. The leader of this group is inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, the 17th-overall pick in 2014 who made the Pro Bowl and was Second Team All-Pro as a rookie. Mosley is a true three-down linebacker and is one of the best pure linebackers in the league. He has good size at 6-2, 241 lbs., is excellent in coverage (three interceptions so far this year, 20 pass deflections for his career), is a very good blitzer (seven career sacks), and is very strong against the run (over 100 tackles in each of his first two seasons). He isn’t quite at the level of a Luke Kuechly or Bobby Wagner yet, but he isn’t far behind. Mosley is the complete package.
Next to Mosley is Zachary Orr, another three-down linebacker who joined the Ravens in 2014 as an undrafted free agent. Orr didn’t play much over his first two seasons but has cemented himself as a three-down player this season, and over the first nine games he actually leads the team in tackles. Expect to see a lot of Orr and Mosley on Sunday as these two almost never leave the field for the Ravens.
The best pass-rusher on the team is veteran Terrell Suggs, a 6-time Pro Bowler, 2-time All-Pro, and the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Suggs is nearly at the end of his career at 34 years of age but he hasn’t shown much drop off, posting double-digit sacks each of the last two years with six so far this season. Suggs is a ferocious, physical competitor who will almost certainly be the focus of the Cowboys offensive line in passing situations. Opposite Suggs is Albert McClellan, a long-time Raven who only took over as a starter this season. McClellan is more of a natural linebacker, as opposed to an undersized defensive end/pass-rusher, like Suggs and most 3-4 outside linebackers are. He isn’t much of a pass-rusher but he is versatile enough to hold up in coverage while setting the edge against the run.
Za’Darius Smith and Matt Judon will rotate in with Suggs and McClellan, especially in pass-rushing situations. Smith racked up 5.5 sacks last season as a rookie, although he only has one so far in 2016. He is more of a power edge player at 6-4, 275 lbs. who will use his hands and strength to bull rush offensive lineman, rather than beat them with speed around the edge. Judon is a rookie undrafted free agent who is starting to carve out a role with three sacks over the last three weeks.
The best cornerback on the Ravens is former first-round pick Jimmy Smith. A physical corner at 6-2, 210, Smith does a great job of using his size, but also has impressive speed and ball skills. Smith has been a good corner since entering the league in 2011 but he has elevated his play this year to a new level and looks in line to make his first Pro Bowl. Watching him matched up with Dez Bryant should be quite interesting as Smith is one of the few corners in the league who can match Bryant’s physicality.
Across from Smith is rookie Tavon Young, a fourth-round pick who stepped into the starting lineup when Shareece Wright went down with an injury. Young has played well, even grabbing two interceptions, but he is a player the Cowboys will most certainly target, especially with Smith on the other side. Jerraud Powers, a journeyman eight-year veteran who joined the team from Arizona in the offseason will come in as the slot corner in passing situations. Powers is a dependable veteran but this is another player the Cowboys should be able to take advantage of.
The Ravens have an excellent safety duo, led by Eric Weddle, a former Pro Bowler and First Team All-Pro. Weddle is in his first year with the Ravens after leaving the Chargers and has played very well, ranking second on the team in tackles, and adding two interceptions and a forced fumble for good measure. At this point in his career Weddle is more of a box safety who the Ravens will drop down to support the run and blitz while keeping former cornerback Lardarius Webb in deep coverage. Weddle can still hold up against the pass perfectly fine, but the Ravens like to use his physicality closer to the line of scrimmage. Speaking of Webb, he looked like he was developing into one of the best corners in the league about five years ago; although shortly after signing a lucrative long-term deal with the team he tore his ACL in 2012, against the Cowboys coincidentally enough. Since then Webb has not been able to rebound to his pre-injury form as a cornerback but he has since transitioned to free safety and has played very well. He has great range and can of course come down and cover the slot with his experience as a cornerback, as can Weddle who has plenty of experience covering tight ends and backs in man coverage.
This isn’t quite an elite secondary on par with a Denver, Arizona, or Seattle, but it is definitely one of the better ones in the league as they are very physical and versatile.
What The Cowboys Can Take Advantage Of:
- Lack of edge pass-rushers outside of Suggs, the Ravens will generally rely on blitzing and confusion to get pressure, which can open the defense up for big play opportunities
- Over-aggressive secondary that can sometimes be taken advantage of for big plays (see Odell Beckham’s 200+ yard game against them)
What The Cowboys Must Fear:
- Excellent overall defense with play-makers at all three levels
- Powerful interior defensive linemen; the Ravens rank first in the league in rushing yards allowed
- Versatile linebackers who can cover, blitz and tackle, particularly Mosley who is one of the best in the league
- Physical, versatile secondary that ranks in the top five in passing yards allowed