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What the Cowboys offense should expect from the Ravens defense

The Baltimore defense is a force.

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns

The Baltimore Ravens are an interesting organization to look at for several reasons. One big example is that, despite having two different head coaches and seven different defensive coordinators this century, the Ravens’ defense has remained philosophically the same since their dominant defense carried them to a Super Bowl victory in 2000.

Each defensive coordinator, a list that includes Mike Nolan from 2002 to 2004, has added their own personal spin to it, but these Ravens defenses all generally look the same. They’re a multiple hybrid front that throws a whole lot of things at a quarterback. When Marvin Lewis was the coordinator for the 2000 Ravens, it involved a heavy dose of split mug fronts; when Rex Ryan was the coordinator from 2005 to 2008, it was exotic blitz packages; and with new coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, it’s just a whole lot of blitzing, period.

Martindale has been with the team since 2012, serving as the linebackers coach up until 2018 when he was promoted to defensive coordinator. Interestingly enough, he had been the linebackers coach for the Broncos in 2009 when Nolan was the defensive coordinator, and when Nolan stepped down from that position after disagreements with then head coach Josh McDaniels, Martindale replaced Nolan as the coordinator the following season.

In both that one-year stint in Denver and his time running the defense in Baltimore, Martindale has taken a very aggressive approach reminiscent of the one Rex Ryan brought back in his days with the Ravens. That’s because Martindale cut his teeth working with the Ryan family: Martindale coached linebackers at the University of Cincinnati in the late 90’s when Rex was the defensive coordinator, and he later coached linebackers for the Raiders when Rob was the coordinator.

As such, Martindale’s Ravens defense blitzes a lot. In his first year on the job, Baltimore led the league with a 39.6% blitz rate. Last year, they once again led the league, blitzing on 54.9% of dropbacks. And coming into Tuesday’s game with the Cowboys, Baltimore currently leads the league again with a 43.7% blitz rate.

This blitz-happy scheme has helped manufacture a lot of one-on-one matchups for Baltimore’s pass rushers, helping them succeed in pass rush plans. That’s helped the Ravens’ edge rushing rotation of Matt Judon, Pernell McPhee, Jaylon Ferguson, and Tyus Bowser combine for ten total sacks. They also added star edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue at the trade deadline, and while he’s been slowly integrated into the rotation, Ngakoue has already registered a sack and seven pressures.

But Martindale’s pressure doesn’t just come from the edge. Defensive tackle Calais Campbell, who was one of many to miss last week’s game and is questionable for Tuesday, is tied with Judon for the team lead in sacks. In addition to Campbell, the Ravens feature five different defensive backs with at least one sack on the year, while rookie linebacker Patrick Queen has racked up two of his own.

Martindale’s willingness to deploy his defensive backs as pass rushers coincides with his very aggressive coverages. He often rotates safeties in the backfield, uses a lot of trap coverages, and is unafraid to throw out a Cover 0 coverage on any down and distance. It’s risky, but his aggressive pass rush usually mitigates most of that risk.

It also helps that Martindale has an uber-talented secondary. Their top two cornerbacks, Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, are dangerous playmakers anywhere on the field. Veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith, even at age 32, is still potent in pass coverage, allowing completions on just 48.6% of his targets. Safeties Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott are the weak links of this defense, but Martindale’s creative and deceptive coverages mask a lot of their deficiencies and empower these two to do what they’re best at.

From the Cowboys’ perspective, the secret to beating this defense is easier said than done. It’s not hard to figure out: just hold up in pass protection long enough to beat the oft-undermanned coverage. And in theory, the Cowboys have the receivers to beat this secondary like a drum when they go into Cover 1 or Cover 0. But it’s the holding up in pass protection part that’s given so many teams trouble the last two and a half years.

Maybe if Dallas wasn’t short Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, and Zack Martin they might have a legitimate shot at this. But they don’t have any of those players for this game, and don’t even have backup left tackle Cam Erving or rookie center Tyler Biadasz, meaning we’ll see a heavy dose of Brandon Knight and Terence Steele against this fierce pass rush. That can’t possibly yield good results for the Cowboys, who should have a really rough day offensively against this defense.