The Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens square off tonight in Week 4’s Thursday Night Football on NFL Network. The Ravens are coming off a close victory against the New England Patriots, while the Browns are hoping to rebound after losing to the Buffalo Bills at home last week.
Crucially for the Browns, they are without many key players. Wide Receiver Mohammed Massaquoi was added to a list of absentees this past week. Massaquoi’s loss could be a blessing in disguise for the Browns as Travis Benjamin and Josh Gordon will now be more involved on offense.
Because the Browns have struggled running the ball, and the Ravens excel at shutting down the run, the Browns will likely be tempted to run their offense with multiple receivers more tonight than at any other point this year. The problem for the Browns will be that the Ravens are very comfortable in their nickel defense.
By shifting to three receivers, the Ravens will respond with more defensive backs, however that won’t create a matchup advantage for Trent Richardson inside. A key piece of the Ravens’ nickel defense is cornerback Lardarius Webb.
While neutral fans will miss an opportunity to watch superstar cornerback Joe Haden, they will get to see another young star at the position in the Ravens’ Lardarius Webb. Webb has only been in the league four years, and has already endured a torn ACL injury, but he has already established himself as one of the best defensive players in the whole league.
A huge reason that Webb is so coveted by coaches and analysts, is his versatility. While Haden has drawn comparisons to Darrelle Revis early in his career, Webb plays much more like Charles Woodson. He plays a specific role in the Ravens’ nickel defense as he switches from an outside cornerback, in base defense, to the inside defender with Jimmy Smith and Cary Williams lining up outside in the nickel.
Last week against the Patriots, Webb lined up in the slot on 55 plays. When Webb was in the slot, the Patriots more often than not went the other way on running plays. The reason for this being that Webb is phenomenal at diagnosing run plays and aggressively attacking them at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield.
The Patriots understood Webb’s abilities after watching him in previous games, most notably against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Webb, circled, is lined up inside of Jimmy Smith, to the bottom of the formation, and Cary Williams, to the top. The Eagles have receivers stacked to the right-hand-side with Webb covering and two defenders behind him.
Webb was watching the Eagles’ offensive line before the snap. Once they moved backwards at the snap of the ball, Webb knew that they were pulling and LeSean McCoy’s fake to run into the other flat was then moot. Neither stacked receiver has a chance of touching Webb because he is already moving past the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball. Neither receiver has even left their set as Webb sweeps by.
The Eagles’ blocking scheme dictates that the right tackle and right guard block down on the interior defensive linemen, while the two pulling players are responsible for the cleaning out whatever defenders are on the edge.
Webb’s presnap awareness and athleticism allows him to beat the pulling King Dunlap into the backfield. Dunlap has no chance of meeting Webb where he is supposed to and LeSean McCoy has no chance of getting free once he receives the football.
Webb doesn’t just arrive in time to tackle McCoy, he is able to knock the ball free with a very aggressive hit. McCoy has to hesitate slightly to receive the football from Michael Vick, Webb doesn’t waste time to allow McCoy to properly cradle it before locating the football and landing his helmet on it.
McCoy, who rarely fumbles the football, couldn’t hold onto the ball and coughed up the turnover.
It was that play that scared the Patriots into running away from Webb as much as possible. When Webb lined up in the slot in press coverage, the Patriots ran counters and hand-offs to the other side of the field, where they were stopped for minimal gain. Webb lined up in the slot in press coverage on 26 occasions. His ability to make plays consistently as he did against the Eagles, allowed the Ravens to trust him in that role.
Even though he is asked to be very aggressive against the run, Webb is also handed the responsibility of covering very talented receivers. Of the 55 plays when Webb was in the slot, he covered Wes Welker 39 times, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman and Brandon Lloyd twice, while lining up over nobody on one occasion.
Webb’s intelligence is what allows this staple of the Ravens’ defense to succeed, while he relies on his athleticism to then make those plays. His aggressive style can be exposed, but it takes an intelligent quarterback to do so.
From his inside position, Webb is often used to blitz the quarterback. Of the 55 plays in coverage from the slot, Webb blitzed seven times against the Patriots. The Patriots had done their homework however and were prepared whenever Brady was able to diagnose the defense.
Webb is met by Nate Solder, but not engaged by the left tackle as Tom Brady fakes the handoff to Danny Woodhead. Brandon Lloyd is already waiting at the bottom of the image for the screen pass with Wes Welker moving down the field to locate a defender.
Webb makes one leap of desperation to tip the pass out of the air, but Brady makes sure to put enough elevation on the football to make Webb’s presence redundant. Most NFL quarterbacks can make that play on a routine basis.
Webb’s movement puts the Patriots’ Brandon Lloyd in space with just one defender between him and the endzone. Because the Ravens’ safeties are such outstanding defenders, the Ravens can afford to use Webb so aggressively and live with his mistakes. Brandon Lloyd in single coverage with just one defender between he and the endzone for other teams is a major problem that likely leads to a touchdown.
For the Ravens, that simply isn’t an issue.
If the Browns are going to upset the Ravens tonight on Thursday Night Football, figuring out what to do with Lardarius Webb on offense will be one of the most important aspect of their preparation. Webb is not only an outstanding cover cornerback, the Patriots rarely targeted him or even looked his way last week, he is an excellent instinctive run defender and threat to rush the passer.
Cian Fahey writes for IrishCentral and the Guardian. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf