NFL teams are no strangers to using different personnel up front, but it was the Ravens’ frequent substituting at the safety position that garnered attention in their 29-7 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
Injuries at the cornerback position earlier this season sparked plenty of shuffling in the secondary, but the return of Lardarius Webb and the emergence of veteran Dominique Franks have helped stabilize the position. In contrast, safety became a mix and match with starters Matt Elam and Darian Stewart and reserves Terrence Brooks and Will Hill all playing extensive snaps against Atlanta’s high-powered passing game.
“Everybody’s got a role,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “Everybody has something they do a little bit better, so I’m trying to put them in those roles. They’re starting to understand how we’re trying to play it. They keep practicing the same stuff and getting after it.”
The strategy helped contribute to a convincing win in which the Baltimore defense limited quarterback Matt Ryan to 228 passing yards on 44 attempts as the Falcons didn’t score until midway through the fourth quarter.
Stewart and Brooks received the most playing time as they each participated in 44 of 66 total defensive snaps while Elam and Hill played 22 each. Despite using such an unconventional platoon system, the Ravens appeared relatively seamless in their communication with the rookie Brooks and the just-activated Hill on the field for long stretches of time.
“We were on the same page for the most part,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “There were three or four things. There are going to be things that we have to anticipate going forward, because people watch you, they attack you, they cause problems for every unit. The technique, the fundamentals, the eyes, the communication were all very good in the back end.”
After being moved to the 53-man roster on Saturday, the 24-year-old Hill made his 2014 debut and collected two tackles while mainly playing close to the line of scrimmage. The University of Florida product made a tackle for a loss and registered one of the Ravens’ nine quarterback hits on Sunday.
Despite his off-field transgressions that have included three suspensions in his first three years, Hill earned a reputation with the New York Giants as a safety with range and the ability to excel in coverage, skills most Ravens safeties haven’t displayed to this point in the year. Pees has spoken glowingly of Hill’s potential, so it wasn’t surprising to see him receive extensive playing time.
“I know they have a great deal of confidence in me now,” Hill said. “My coaches kept coming to me after every drive I was in there and let me know if I did something wrong. They were pretty satisfied with my play.”
Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from the division of playing time was Elam playing only 22 snaps against the Falcons. The 2013 first-round pick has struggled in pass coverage in his brief career, but it’s been difficult to evaluate him since he played out of position at free safety last year and was forced into nickel duties due to injuries at cornerback earlier this season.
With Brooks appearing to be gaining confidence as a deep safety in obvious passing situations and Hill quickly being thrown into action after such a long layoff, Elam may suddenly find himself competing with Stewart just to remain on the field on a consistent basis.
For now, both coaches and players appear to be on board as the Ravens were able to stop an offense that ranked third in the NFL in total yards entering Sunday’s game. Opponents will adapt and look for patterns, so it remains to be seen how long the safety platoon lasts.
But it’s difficult to argue with the results of a convincing win.
“It’s going to be great,” Elam said. “With the help up front and keeping guys fresh in the back end, we can run around and knock people off [the ball]. We feel like the sky’s the limit.”