Thursday, September 15, 2011

Defensive play of the week

I love this play. I'll eventually want you to focus on Ravens OLB Jarrett Johnson, but first here's the entire play. Ed Reed's first interception of the game:

highlight on
This is kind of the generic Ravens defensive highlight. Haloti Ngata flushes Big Ben from the pocket, and Ed Reed ball hawks the ill-advised throw. Ho-hum. You've seen a play just like this 20 times on SportsCenter, the last three years.

What makes it especially interesting for me is the read that Jarrett Johnson makes. He's #95, and at the snap he is lined up at left end, just outside of Ngata. He starts out sort of in the midde of your screen, at the bottom of the group of Ravens at the line of scrimmage.

A YouTube uploader (not me) provides another view, emphasizing JJ's action on the play:

This is amazing to me. Ngata and JJ get what seems like a free run at the QB, who is flushed from the pocket. If anything, JJ is even closer to Ben than Ngata is, has a better angle. I would think that in the heat of the moment, the sight of the QB that close to you, almost in your grasp, would be inflammatory. Like red to a bull, or something.

Yet here's Jarrett Johnson. He is clearly making a read. In the middle of one of the most heated moments you can imagine, obviously something clicks in his brain and he says "Wait, I recognize this play." And he peels of from his pursuit of the QB, he turns away from the QB, and he goes and looks for the WR he knows must be coming across the formation.

And absolutely DESTROYS him.

That the receiver was Hines Ward is just icing on the cake. Ward is the most hated Steeler in Baltimore, a player whom the fans regard as dirty, a cheap shot artist. This hit got some threads devoted to it on Ravens discussion boards. You can get a sense of Ravens fans giddiness over the play from this other YouTube vid.

But that's not the point, to me. The play is set up to be a screen pass. Ben is trying to lure the pass rushers up field, so he can flip the ball to a guy coming around behind them. JJ recognizes it in mid-rush, and he turns around and blows it up. This is some kind of triumph of intelligence over instinct. It's reading your keys, trusting what you've seen in film study, trusting in your understanding of the opponent. The QB is right there! He's almost in your grasp. But JJ is a savvy veteran. To me there's some hard-won experience reflected in JJ's read. He's been involved in a ton of Ravens-Steeers games. He knows that with Big Ben, "almost in your grasp" can be fools gold. Instead he turns and makes the play he knows he can make. Let a younger guy, a special physical specimen like Haloti Ngata, go and chase after Ben: JJ is going to neutralize the play's intended target.

I am super-impressed by this.

Did JJ cause Reed's interception? I don't know, that might be a stretch. Reed makes breathtaking reads of his own. CBS showed one replay last week from the end zone cameras, of Reed's second INT. Ed starts on the right side of the field, and he's watching Big Ben all the way, as Ben reads his progressions from left to right. Reed drifts further and further to the center of the field, like he's participating in Ben's decision-making process. When Ben decides to throw the ball, Reed has arrived in the perfect spot to jump it. It's uncanny. He has some special ability. I'm reluctant to give another player credit for Reed's plays.

But JJ did take away Ben's primary receiver on that play. (In fact he obliterated him.) That leaves Ben on the run from Haloti Ngata, looking for a place to go with the ball, quickly. Let's say that JJ created the situation that Reed was able to exploit.

I've thought for a while that Jarrett Johnson is some sort of unsung hero on the Ravens defense. This play is one of the reasons why.


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