The Baltimore Ravens have taken great pride in their run defense for the better part of the last decade and beyond, and there's reason for those good feelings.
From 1998 through 2009, Baltimore finished out of the top five in Football Outsiders' rushing DVOA metrics just once – in 2002, when a cap hit/restructuring led to the departures of several veterans. But the Ravens bounced back almost immediately with new schemes (a move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and later to more hybrid fronts) and an infusion of new talent, and they've kept that going longer than anyone has a right to expect.
Through the 2010 season, that formerly impenetrable Ravens front has been springing leaks.
Baltimore currently ranks fifth in defensive rushing DVOA, but they're allowing 75 percent of the short-yardage runs against them on third or fourth down to be converted for first downs or touchdowns, which is the second-worst percentage in the NFL.
In addition, while the Ravens have seen an upswing in run defense performance of late, they ranked 20th in run defense DVOA in Weeks 1-9 of this season – it's only since that they've put up the best run-stopping efficiency in the NFL.
Part of the reason the Ravens got off to a slow start was the efforts of one Peyton Hillis, who ran for 144 yards on 22 carries against them in Week 3. It was Hiliis' breakout game in a season that few people expected – he's now the centerpiece of the Cleveland offense, and one of the league's most efficient backs.
However, his physical style is starting to wear him down, and with Baltimore finding their touch against backs of his caliber of late, you can understand why Ray Lewis and Co. have been making some rather brash statements about the guy who flummoxed them earlier in the year.
"A blind cat will find a meal every once in a while," Lewis said on Wednesday. "We understand the two big runs we gave up against them. My son could have run through the holes that we gave him in Baltimore. We just don't do that. When you find yourself getting caught out of gaps, that's what happens and it's his job to run through them. But when we get back to Cleveland this weekend, it'll definitely be a different outcome."
The Ravens actually did keep Hillis in line early in the game – of his first 12 carries, six were for three yards or less, but you could see the defense start to bend as Hillis kept banging against it.
Though there were two runs of 10-plus yards before, Hillis really broke through with 4:06 left in the first half. The Ravens lined up in a four-man nickel look with cornerback Chris Carr (25) lined up to blitz – really, this was an ideal situation for Hillis, and I have to wonder what the Ravens were thinking, bringing a corner blitz and dropping a ‘backer against a team obviously led by a power running game.
Hillis took advantage behind textbook blocking as right guard Floyd Womack and right tackle John St. Clair doubled end/tackle Trevor Pryce (90).
Left guard Eric Steinbach absolutely blew up linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (59) with a perfect pull block, and left tackle Joe Thomas took endbacker Terrell Suggs out of the play with Suggs' own pass-rush move. Where the Ravens' line discipline really broke down was up the middle – center Alex Mack was able to push tackle Cory Redding out of the way one-on-one.
This was a personnel issue as much as anything – if you have Haloti Ngata in Redding's spot, that's probably a different tale. Mack is great, but Redding is more a hybrid pass/run defender, and Ngata has been destroying opponents all season.
Still, Lewis was pushed out of the lane far too easily by an ancillary Womack second-level block, and this was a great example of the Browns' new focus on power blocking all the way around. That extended to receiver Chansi Stuckey, who blocked Carr out of the play, and Mohamed Massaquoi, who took care of Fabian Washington upfield out of a twins left formation.
With such fundamentals up front, all Hillis had to do was to blow through the lane provided and drag safety Dawan Landry about 10 yards downfield for the final 25-yard gain.
The Ravens are playing better run defense these days, but before they mouth off, they'd better take a harder look at the tape – it wasn't just their own lapses that provided Hillis' big day. The Browns' blocking had a lot to do with it, and a repeat performance is the key to a Week 16 upset.