In part one of the all-22 Breakdown: The Ravens Free Safeties, I looked at the current frontrunner for the starting Free Safety, Darian Stewart, play for the St. Louis Rams during the 2013-2014 season. You can review that article here.
What we learned from the 2013-2014 season was that Darian Stewart struggled in deep pass coverage, but could play underneath coverage very well. He also hits like a linebacker, going for the big hit versus the sure tackle. For every hit where he knocks the ball out of the receiver’s hands, there is also a big gain given up as he misses on a tackle.
Coach Spagnuolo likes to utilize the cornerbacks and and safeties in blitz packages. From that philosophy, Darian Stewart fits very well in that he can assist in run coverage and putting pressure on the quarterback. In this all-22 breakdown, I take a look at Darian Stewart during the 2011-2012 season where he played in Ken Flajoe’s defense under Head Coach (now Ravens Secondary Coach) Steve Spagnuolo. I will look at Stewart’s coverage skills in deep coverage, underneath coverage and finally man coverage.
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According to Pro Football Focus, during the 2013-2014 season, Quarterbacks had a rating of 117.5 for passes thrown within the Free Safety’s coverage area. The Ravens were in the bottom 25% when compared to other starting safeties in this category. During the 2011 season, Darian Stewart also struggled in deep coverage. Quarterbacks had a rating of 93.7 when passes were thrown in his coverage area. This is a weakness in his play as a Free Safety. On this week 16 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Darian Stewart lines up as the Free Safety in a cover 1 defense. In man coverage, the Cornerback’s responsibility is to gain leverage inside and force the receiver outside where he can use the sideline as help. The Free Safety’s responsibility is to react to the development of the play and play zone coverage protecting deep routes. The Steelers attack the Cover 1 scheme by sending two receivers on deep routes, and keeping enough protection for the Quarterback allowing enough time for receivers to get open. The Free Safety, Darian Stewart, must decide which receiver to help out on, possibly leaving the other cornerback in man coverage which may be a mismatch
Darian Stewart executes this play with poor technique and alignment. At the start of the play, he turns his hips and keeps his back towards the primary receiver, Mike Wallace. He then turns around and stops his movement to focus on the Quarterback, Charlie Batch. Mike Wallace running at full stride has beat the cornerback who is covering him. Stewart reacts too late and cannot provide help on the deep route. The result of the play is a 46 yard reception giving Pittsburgh first and goal on the 1 yard line.
Deep coverage ability should be a concern for the Ravens. Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb are excellent corners, but need to rely on a Free Safety for help. If Jimmy Smith can elevate himself to a lockdown corner, Darian Stewart can focus on the other receiver. During the 2013-2014 season, Quarterback averaged a rating of 76.3 when throwing passes where Jimmy Smith was the primary defender in coverage. If Jimmy Smith can continue to improve, then Darian Stewart’s liabilities in coverage can be masked.
Darian Stewart excels in coverage near the line of scrimmage. In the week 4 matchup against Washington, Darian Stewart lines up in man coverage on the Tight End. In man coverage, the defenders goal is to disrupt the route at the line of scrimmage, stay underneath the receiver if he breaks toward the middle of the field and stay on the receiver’s hip as he gets into his route so that he can knock a ball down.
At the onset of the play, Stewart does an excellent job impeding the Tight End’s release from the line of scrimmage. At 5’11 and 216 pounds, Stewart has the physique to be very physical with bigger receivers such as Tight Ends. Stewart’s physical play disrupts the timing of the route. Stewart is also able to stay on the receiver’s hip as he gets into his route and puts himself in a position to knock the ball down. Stewart’s man coverage ability and physical play will allow him to matchup well against the premier Tight Ends the Ravens will face this year such as Jimmy Graham (Saints), Greg Olsen (Panthers), and Coby Fleener (Colts).
The zones closer to the line of scrimmage, or underneath coverage, is where Darian Stewart shines. Against Washington, the Rams defense lines up in a Cover 1 Robber formation. Darian Stewart plays the robber position. With an additional defender playing underneath, the offense is forced to throw the ball outside where the corners are playing man coverage. In a robber position, Darian Stewart is responsible for undercutting or jumping any underneath routes.
After the ball is snapped, Darian Stewart sits in the middle of the field in the intermediate zone reading the QB. Rex Grossman makes the mistake of not recognizing the formation and attempts to throw to the slot receiver in the middle of the field. Stewart keeps his eye on the Quarterback and positions himself to make an otherwise easy interception.
Unfortunately, Stewart drops an easy interception. This could have been a pick 6.
Based on the all-22 breakdown of Darian Stewart’s 2011-2012 and 2013-2014 seasons, Stewart is a very good run defender and provides excellent coverage underneath and at the line of scrimmage. His largest weakness is his deep coverage ability. He doesn’t have the natural ability to recover from a mistake in coverage and is limited in his coverage range. Darian Stewart is better suited as a Strong Safety rather than a Free Safety. The strong safety is normally a bigger safety who is fast enough to make up ground in the passing game in addition to taking on tight ends and fullbacks to make a tackle on the running back in the running game. A strong safety is a big hitter and can take the proper angle to get to the runner.
If Darian Stewart remains as Free Safety, then the Ravens defense should primarily play a cover 2 formation. In a cover 2 formation, the safety has specific assignment on the field. In a cover 2 zone, Stewart will cover the hashmark to the side line and the Strong Safety, Matt Elam, will cover the opposing hash and sideline. In a Tampa 2 zone, Stewart will cover the hash to the sideline, as Matt Elam will opposite to him and the middle linebacker, CJ Mosley (read here about his coverage abilities), is the one who covers the center of the field.
In the final part of this series, I will look at rookie Terrence Brooks. Does he have a chance to start at Free Safety this season?
All images obtained through the NFL GamePass app on the iPad. All rights respectively belong to the NFL.