There’s this thought circulating that the Baltimore Ravens are trying to replace Ed Reed. Reed, who left for the Houston Texans in free agency, can’t be replaced nor do the Ravens want to replace him specifically; they want to replace their entire defense of years past.
Albeit successful, the Ravens defense was a bit stale at times, lacking the multiplicity of some of the NFL’s best defenses, hence why they appeared unstable. They were able to get away with their staleness because of Reed’s unusual ability to quickly cover real estate and cover up mistakes, but now things are changing. Now they have Michael Huff and Matt Elam manning the two safety positions, both of whom are now interchangeable in their defense.
That versatility is precisely why the Ravens are going to be a more dynamic and potentially better defense than in years past, even without Reed.
The defense may cover less ground in the back end now that Reed’s gone, but they’re more versatile because of their interchangeable safeties. That’s something head coach John Harbaugh alluded to in a recent interview, and it’s something that all defensive coaches wish to have. Why? Because the more versatile pieces a defense has, the more versatile it is, and the more unpredictable it becomes.
Huff and Elam’s versatility will be the key to the Ravens’ defensive overhaul. The former, especially, is one to watch because he’s a seasoned player who has played both safety (free and strong) and cornerback (perimeter and nickel) positions dating back to his days at the University of Texas. What’s impressive is that he’s played well at them over the past few years, which is incredibly difficult to do, and he now gives the Ravens flexibility to play him in the deep centerfield like Reed did for so many years or in the box or slot, which Reed didn’t do much.
One reason Huff’s been able to succeed at multiple positions is because of his ball skills. He does a good job of tracking the football, enabling himself to make plays on the ball even though he doesn’t always force turnovers. One turnover he did force last season was an interception against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 6.
He was lined up on the “nub” (tight end only) side of the offensive formation as the field (wide side) side cornerback. The Oakland Raiders defense had two deep safeties, one of which was free safety Matt Giordano. Giordano was lined up to the receiver side and set to bracket Julio Jones with the cornerback at the top of the screen. Opposite of them was Huff, a deep third zonal defender who had the freedom to eyeball quarterback Matt Ryan.
At the snap, Huff slowly shuffled with his back to the sideline as he watched Ryan dropback. He then shifted his eyes to the route combinations being ran up the middle of the field, where tight end Tony Gonzalez ran a dig route away from him and Jones ran a post route at him.
When Jones crossed the middle of the field, Huff sped up and tracked the route, running outside the near hash where he’d ultimately intersect the pattern and the thrown ball.
Now that Huff is going to be playing safety again, he’ll have more opportunities to make plays like those. He does a good job of tracking the football, making him potentially a quality single-high safety, and he also has the ability to matchup in man coverage with receivers because of his experience as a perimeter and slot cornerback.
That versatility will allow the Ravens to be more multiple this season, hence why they’ll be using interchangeable safeties between Huff and Elam. It’s not something they’ve done in the past, however, because of Reed’s range, which they won’t be able to replicate. As a result, they’ve had to change their defensive structure, which may ultimately be for the best.