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Eisenberg: Ravens Make Loud Statement With Biggest Free Agent Purchase

Posted Mar 14, 2017

By making a major investment in Brandon Williams, the Ravens are saying they care a great deal about stopping the run. Is that wise in today's NFL?


Some free agent signings make a loud statement about a team’s intentions, and that is certainly the case with the Ravens’ big-money deal with nose tackle Brandon Williams.

By investing major resources to retain the big guy in the middle of their defense, the Ravens said, “We care about stopping the run. We’re going to do our best to make sure we stop the run.”

Yes, Williams is a multi-dimensional player, more than just a run stopper. “He also does a good job of pushing the pocket,” Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome said Monday. And yes, it takes more than one widebody centerpiece to forge a stout run defense. Other linemen, linebackers and defensive backs are involved. When the Ravens yielded on the ground late last season, it was mostly at the edges of their fortification.

But a nose tackle is the backbone of the effort, and Williams, 28, is one of the game’s best. By making him their highest-paid player besides Joe Flacco, the Ravens made it clear how much they still value one of their longstanding commandments, “Thou Shalt Stop the Run.”

But are they right to still focus so intently – and so expensively – on that element of the game? It’s a fair question.

The NFL becomes more passing-centric every year. That’s no secret. League-wide, teams ran on 51.5 percent of their offensive snaps a half-century ago, 46.8 percent a decade ago and 42.1 percent in 2016. The trend is easy to spot, and the New England Patriots’ success will only exacerbate the situation. They’ve won two of the past three Super Bowls with their running game living deep in the shadows cast by quarterback Tom Brady and the passing game.

New England ranked No. 24 in the league in yards per rush in 2016. Brady threw 62 passes in the team’s Super Bowl triumph over the Atlanta Falcons last month.

So, sure, it’s fair to ask why a team needs to fortify its run defense when the sport is steadily transitioning away from the run.

But here’s another Patriots statistic that merits attention: They finished tied for No. 3 in the league in rushing defense in 2016. They usually rank in the top 10.

For years, ever so quietly, the league’s most consistently successful team has focused on stopping the run.

Why? The benefits are many. Nothing establishes your physical presence like a formidable run defense. Also, when you stop the run, you back your opponents into a corner, forcing them to become one-dimensional and more predictable in taking to the air to beat you. That’s advantage, defense.

The Patriots aren’t the only team to use a stout run defense as part of a winning equation in recent years. When the Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2015, they ranked No. 3 against the run. When the Seattle Seahawks went all the way in 2013, they were tied for No. 7.

The Ravens have used a strong run defense to anchor their defense pretty much forever, finishing high in the rankings in many years when they played into January.

Pro football may be changing, but some fundamentals are impervious to change. If you can’t stop the run, your defense has a shaky framework that probably isn’t going to hold up under duress. Good luck winning with that.

Sure, the Ravens also need to invest in their pass defense, which has struggled while the team has missed the playoffs in three of the past four seasons. The front office seems to understand that. Last week, they made free agent Tony Jefferson one of the league’s highest-paid safeties. They’re reportedly looking to add a veteran cornerback in free agency, and likely will draft one with a high pick. A year ago, they brought in safety Eric Weddle at a high price.

But the guy who stops the run cashed in the most. Newsome said Monday that Ravens Owner Steve Bisciotti told him to “do what you have to do” to land Williams. It reportedly took a five-year, $54 million deal, one of the NFL’s biggest this year.

The price tag for elite nose tackles has skyrocketed for a reason. Even now, with passes filling the air, if you can stop the run, you’re on the right track.

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