Posted 10/4 by Jene Bramel, Exclusive to Footballguys.com
An in-depth look at the Ravens 46
Can Bart Scott, Adalius Thomas and Ray Lewis all be top 10 LBs in 2006?
Questions about the Raven linebackers were common this offseason. Was Ray Lewis washed up? Could Adalius Thomas produce like he did in 2005? What kind of numbers could Bart Scott produce as a WLB with Lewis, Thomas, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs surrounding him? What kind of impact would the 46 defense have on their numbers?
Well, the Ravens are a quarter of the way through their 2006 schedule and all three linebackers (and Suggs) are likely ranked among the top ten players at their positions regardless of scoring system. The question now becomes: Can one team's defense continue to produce this many top ten players at one position? The answer lies in how the Ravens deploy their players within the scheme.
While the Ravens will line up in a more traditional seven man front at times, here's how the Ravens will often align in defensive coordinator Rex Ryan's version of his father's 46 defense:
The 46 defense is designed to maximize pressure on the offense by putting eight men in the box to stop the run. It also puts six men on the line of scrimmage and includes multiple blitz packages to disrupt the pass offense. In most cases, Adalius Thomas aligns at SLB, Bart Scott as the Jack'LB (another term for WLB), and Terrell Suggs as the RUSH LB. In reality, Thomas, Scott, Lewis, Suggs, (and SS Dawan Landry) have the freedom to align wherever the best matchups are for the defense. The SLB and RUSH spots are interchangeable as are the JLB and SS roles with the right personnel.
This offseason many observers, myself included, didn't think it was likely that both OLBs would have enough tackle and big play opportunity to be consistent IDP options. The boxscores from the past four weeks (and the end of 2005) suggest that the flexibility of this scheme could make this situation one in which talented players in playmaking roles transcend the usual poor production of the "SLB" or a WLB in a five man front (eg. 3-4 RILB).
But what is it about this scheme that makes the OLBs just as valuable as the MLB? In traditional seven man fronts (both 4-3 and 3-4) the SLB often has too many blockers to contend with to make tackles. In the 46, the WLB (or SS) comes across the formation to overload the strong side of the formation behind a defensive line that is expected to disrupt the bulk of the offensive line blocking. It leaves both of them free to make plays on running downs. Coupled with the frequent blitz opportunities and the extreme flexibility the Ravens personnel exhibit, there are plenty of chances for both Scott and Thomas to make plays in all phases of the game (run support, pass rush, and coverage).
The proof is in the boxscores. The Ravens have followed three different gameplans out of this scheme this season and have filled up the boxscore with every one. Against the Bucs, they employed a lot of zone coverage and infrequent blitzes against a young QB and suspect OL and still had three sacks and three interceptions. Against the Raiders mess of an offense, they brought much more pressure and six sacks and three interceptions. Finally, last week against the Chargers, they flooded the box to stop the run and spread 34 total tackles (26 solo) among the three linebackers. It looks more and more likely that the scheme will provide opportunity for Thomas, Scott, and Lewis regardless of matchup.
If you've made it this far and are a true defensive junkie you're probably just as excited as I am to see how the 46 fares against the Denver zone blocking schemes and variation of the west coast passing offense. Teams that can protect their quarterback (the Broncos have given up only four sacks in three games and none since week 1) can beat this defense by moving the ball before the pressure can get to the quarterback. Still, it should be the same faces filling up the boxscore.
Falcon SLB Michael Boley is making the leap to a stud NFL linebacker and his improved play is translating into solid fantasy boxscore production. Despite being undersized by traditional standards as a SLB, Boley is shedding blocks easily, making plays in coverage and has even lined up at DE on some passing downs while DE John Abraham recovers from a groin injury. He's quickly becoming an every week starting option. With Demorrio Williams playing much better behind an improved defensive line (read: Grady Jackson), Ed Hartwell may have a hard time forcing his way back into the lineup.
Don't be too concerned about the drop in production from Kerry Rhodes this week. The Jets played a lot of Cover 2 and 3 looks against the multiple receiver sets of the Colts to protect their banged up cornerbacks. Rhodes played a little closer to the line of scrimmage as the Colt running game continued to gash the front seven in the second half. Expect a return to solid stats against the Jaguars this week.
Leave Bengal LB Caleb Miller on your waiver wire this week and don't give up on Landon Johnson just yet. Although Miller started at WLB against the Patriots and put up a solid 13 total tackles (7-6-0), he's unlikely to hold up as an every down player and probably heads back to the bench after the bye. If starting SLB Rashad Jeanty can't make it back from a foot injury, the Bengals will work hard to get rookie LB Ahmad Brooks ready to take some significant snaps on the strong side during the next two weeks. Either way, Miller will be headed back to the bench and Johnson back to the more productive WLB role.
If your team is short on linebackers over the next couple of weeks due to bye conflicts or injury, take a hard look at rookie Giant LB Gerris Wilkinson. Although not confirmed by the Giant coaching staff yet, Wilkinson got all the first team reps at WLB during the bye week over veteran Brandon Short. He'll be replacing Carlos Emmons, who has been very productive on the weak side when healthy in 2005 and the first three weeks of 2006.
From our IDP Forum Message Board: With all the discussion about "interchangeable safeties" and the ever-increasing number of FS among the top performing DBs, is it time to re-think the traditional SS > FS bias in determining IDP value?
Yes. For those of you who aren't message board regulars, Rozelle posted a quick study comparing one week's worth of boxscore data for the FS and SS positions. In that particular week, the FS group out-tackled the SS group, calling into question whether the "SS are more likely to make tackles than FS and are therefore more valuable as IDP options" line of thinking is a valid generalization any longer.
While there are a few sampling issues with that data set, the larger question is still valid. In true RTD fashion, I think the correct answer is that a true IDP shark shouldn't trust general guidelines but instead look deeper into schemes and responsibilities to make the best decisions on safety prospects. There are too many specialists and scheme variations to routinely say that a SS is clearly better than a FS, just as it's becoming more and more difficult to say that WLBs are clearly better options than SLBs.
We've discussed the Jet "interchangeable" safety issue in this space in the past. A closer look at the responsibilities of each safety made it clear that Kerry Rhodes was a better option than Eric Coleman. Similar situations have happened in the past. Darren Sharper, while in Green Bay, was a very solid option from the FS position and it was due to his responsibility as an "up" safety in that particular Packer scheme. Greg Wesley, Bob Sanders, and Nick Collins are other free safeties who are so solid in run support that they often outshine their SS counterparts. In general, it's still worth looking at the strong safety first in standard scoring leagues, but routinely ignoring the free safety without considering talent, scheme, and responsibility is a mistake that could keep you from acquiring a very good fantasy option.
Confused about defensive terminology or have something you'd like to see broken down? RTD welcomes all questions (and comments) by e-mail to mailto:email@example.com.
Best of luck in Week 5.