The New Defense on Film Part 2: Matt Elam

We’ve decided to do a series here on BSL examining the film of many of the players that will make up the 2013/14 Ravens defense.  Second in the series is the Ravens First Round draft pick Matt Elam.  We’ve already looked at Arthur Brown but don’t miss the third entry: John Simon.

Join the discussion about Matt Elam on the Message Board here.

Additionally, we took a closer look at the Ravens’ free agent additions. Check out Chris Canty, Elvis DumervilMichael Huff, and Daryl Smith.

Florida’s Matt Elam was the 32nd overall pick in the recent NFL Draft.  At 5’10 and 208lbs he has a relatively small frame, especially for his style of play.  Many of us have seen his highlight reel of crushing hit after hit from his Safety position which has drawn comparisons to the now-former-Raven Bernard Pollard.  The draftnicks have been telling us that Elam is a younger replacement for Pollard but few have dug into how true that statement really can be.  I’ve opted to dive into the tape myself and see how this spark-plug of a player really can fit into the Ravens system.

Elam at Florida

Football has slowly transformed from its running routes to the passing game that we know today.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in big-time college football with the wide hashmarks and the explosion of Spread tactics.  From offensive innovation comes defensive complexity and multiplicity, which is where Elam comes in.  With the traits of a Safety, he played in every position in the secondary including slot corner, deep half safety, lone deep safety, and outside corner.  This versatility was likely a major selling point for the Ravens.

Defending the Slot

Florida was most comfortable having Elam play man coverage in the slot.  From here he could time blitzes by disguising them as man-coverage, play as a force player in run support, or play bump-and-run coverage.

Elam Press Strug

Elam in the Slot

Elam plays with a good base and uses his hands violently on the receiver’s release.  Unfortunately, Elam simply doesn’t have the reach, and taller receivers will be able to push him out of the way in order to get open.  Elam generally has very good recovery speed as he transitions out of his backpedal very well, but the elite receivers and tight ends in the NFL will have success against him:

Perfect positioning isn't always enough

Perfect positioning isn’t always enough

The hand usage of this tight end is very questionable, but this type of contact will happen to Elam from time to time.  He is aggressive and athletic, but he can’t always make up for being 5′ 10″.

While Elam has the athleticism to play man-coverage from anywhere on the field, he clearly feels more at home in zone coverage (likely stemming from his Safety roots).  Whenever possible he likes to stay on top of routes and drive toward the ball in the air rather than staying between his man and the ball (trail-man technique).  Fortunately the Ravens didn’t ask Pollard to play much man-coverage, and one can easily see Elam fitting in nicely as an in-the-box Strong Safety type whether as a “Robber” or a force player in Cover 3.  Scheme can both hide Elam’s size and accentuate his athleticism.

As a Standard Deep Safety

Elam didn’t line up as a deep Safety as often as many safeties do, so the sample size is small. But he made some explosive plays from this position.

Run put it mildly

Run support…to put it mildly

It seems that Elam takes a certain pride in stopping the run.  Florida is playing simple 2-Man against LSU’s Power run call to the strong side.  Elam transitions from his deep half responsibility to play the edge in run support because the offense is running the ball on 2nd and 18 for some reason.

This is a nice hit and is certainly on his personal highlight reel but I’m more interested in how this will translate to the pros.  The Ravens ran a ton of Quarters coverage last year (Cover 4), in order for their disruptive Safeties to play closer to the LOS in run support and intermediate coverage.  Elam is the prototype Quarters safety.  He is aggressive against the run and willing to drive underneath routes.  Below is another example of his downhill play:

Elam 4 Stop

Shades of John Lynch

I have no doubt that Elam will have his greatest impact in 2013/14 alternating between Quarters safety and rotating down to play in the box pre-snap.

The Downside of Elam’s Aggression

It will be no secret to NFL offenses that Elam likes to be aggressive.  This dynamic style of play is inherently high-risk, high-reward.  Elam was often flagged in college for late hits or unnecessary roughness but Ravens fans are no strangers to that.  I’m more concerned about how his borderline-reckless tackling style will take him out of a play due to poor positioning.

Missiles don't have arms to wrap up

Missiles don’t have arms to wrap up

Periodically Elam pursues ball carriers at a bad angle.  He also tends to lean on the power of the collision to knock a player down instead of wrapping up to tackle.  This is a theme throughout his biggest hits but in fact he’s a pretty good open field tackler who is very effective when he approaches with some semblance of control.


This player deserves every bit of his First Round status.  He is an explosive player that will be noticeable on Day 1 due to his style and speed.  He prefers zone coverage which fits nicely with Dean Pees’ style of 3- and 4-deep coverages as well as Fire Zones. He doesn’t come without flaws (no college player does) but I think he can plug into the Ravens system right away and have an immediate impact.  His up-tempo style will allow a big play every so often but those are the types of players the Ravens have always succeeded with.  Welcome, Mr. Elam!

Highlight Reel:

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About the author

Dan Bryden   

Dan played high school football at Wilde Lake and graduated from McDaniel College with a degree in Psychology. Dan is currently a Maryland Terp working on his PhD degree in Neuroscience. He has experience writing published scientific material as well as blogging for SBNation via Baltimore Beatdown. Beginning in the 2012 season, Dan has been writing about the Ravens focusing on the X’s and O’s of the game of football with heavy use of overhead (All-22) film analysis. The Columbia, MD native currently lives in Silver Spring.

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