Mosley catch­ing on at pass cov­er­age

In­side LB has two ac­ro­batic in­ter­cep­tions this year af­ter strug­gling last sea­son

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Jonas Shaf­fer

The crit­ics have spo­ken. The re­views are in. Ravens in­side line­backer C.J. Mosley’s one-handed, tipped-to-him­self, Manny Machado-in-pur­ple in­ter­cep­tion Sun­day was … pretty good.

“I’d give him a seven out of 10,” wide re­ceiver and catch com­men­ta­tor Ka­mar Aiken said this week. “If it was just the one-han­der, it’d prob­a­bly be a lit­tle bit higher.”

“I give it a six, maybe a seven,” fel­low wide­out Mike Wal­lace said. “I like ev­ery­thing [ about the play]. Just a lit­tle bob­ble. He didn’t stick the land­ing.”

In other words, he wasn’t quite Odell Beck­ham Jr. Said Mosley, Wal­lace’s locker room neigh­bor: “That’s fair enough.”

Af­ter last sea­son, Mosley might have set­tled for catch­ing Jack­sonville Jaguars quar­ter­back Blake Bor­tles’ 25-yard wob­bler with his hel­met. The Ravens fin­ished 10th in the NFL in pass de­fense (234 yards al­lowed per game) in 2015, but that rank­ing seemed ir­rec­on­cil­able with the eye test: How could a unit that al­lowed 30 touch­downs and had just six in­ter­cep­tions be an up­per-third per­former leaguewide?

Over three games and three wins this sea­son, ac­cord­ing to an­a­lyt­ics web­site Foot­ball Out­siders’ De­fense-ad­justed Value Over Av­er­age met­ric, the Ravens pass de­fense ranks eighth; it was 25th last year. Sun­day, 1 p.m. TV: Ch. 13 Ra­dio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM Line: Ravens by 31⁄

Safety Eric Wed­dle has shored up the back end, as ex­pected. An early-sea­son sched­ule de­void of a top-20 quar­ter­back, as mea­sured by passer rat­ing, also has helped.

But maybe the most over­looked de­vel­op­ment on de­fense is the im­proved cov­er­age skills of its sig­nal caller, who made what line­backer Zachary Orr called “the catch of the year, of­fen­sively or de­fen­sively.”

“Yes, he has made some plays in the pass­ing game; that is prob­a­bly a re­ally good ob­ser­va­tion,” Ravens coach John Har­baugh said of Mosley on Mon­day. “He has had re­ally good depth. … He shows a lot of range, spa­tial aware­ness, not jump­ing routes when he isn’t sup­posed to, play­ing top-down type of zone cov­er­age.”

Mosley’s two in­ter­cep­tions this sea­son — a team high and tied for third most in the NFL en­ter­ing Sun­day’s game against the Oak­land Raiders — are al­most mir­ror im­ages of each other. They are also un­like any­thing he did last year, if only be­cause he went 16 games in 2015 with­out an in­ter­cep­tion.

In Week 2 against Cleve­land, with the Ravens up five in the game’s fi­nal minute and the Browns 30 yards from the end zone, quar­ter­back Josh McCown took a snap out of a three-wide-re­ceiver shot­gun for­ma­tion. As he scanned the field, Mosley dropped into zone cov­er­age and de­fen­sive end Lawrence Guy shed his blocker in­side, in front of McCown. Un­able to step into his throw, McCown lofted a pass for Ter­relle Pryor Sr. to the goal line. Safety Lar­dar­ius Webb would have had first crack at it had Mosley not got­ten there be­fore him.

There were two other team­mates within 5 yards of Mosley as he se­cured the ball — with two hands — and fell at the 1. The Ravens re­peat it like a mantra, but here was more proof: Take­aways are a team effort.

“I feel like we work well as a team at just un­der­stand­ing and just learn­ing from film,” cor­ner­back Sha­reece Wright said.

For as much as is made of the learn­ing curve young quar­ter­backs face in their tran­si­tion to the NFL, there is the other side of the ball to consider. The best lineback­ers grasp pass routes, too.

In his un­der­stand­ing of the game, Mosley was pre­co­cious enough to re­lay plays from the side­line as a rookie starter in 2014. But his con­cep­tion of ae­rial at­tacks had not ma­tured. Even last year, ac­cord­ing to an­a­lyt­ics web­site Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus, he had the third-worst cov­er­age rat­ing among the NFL’s top 40 over­all lineback­ers.

“I’m def­i­nitely more com­fort­able at my po­si­tion and in my drops,” he said. “I feel like as you get older, you start to see route con­cepts more. You can kind of pic­ture them eas­ier.”

Mosley and the Ravens de­fense will have their big­gest chal­lenge yet this sea­son when they play against quar­ter­back Derek Carr C.J. Mosley (57) closes in on Bills quar­ter­back Ty­rod Tay­lor. Mosley, whose two in­ter­cep­tions this sea­son are a team high, had the third­worst cov­er­age rat­ing last year among the NFL’s top 40 over­all lineback­ers. “I’m def­i­nitely more com­fort­able at my po­si­tion,” he said. and the Raiders (2-1). Carr threw for three touch­downs and 351yards in a 37-33 Raiders vic­tory out west.

Mosley’s ac­ro­batic in­ter­cep­tion Sun­day was ready-made high­light fod­der, but it was his off-screen move­ment that ex­plained how he got to the ball — how he’s be­come one of PFF’s top 20 lineback­ers in cov­er­age, essentially.

At the snap, with two wide re­ceivers out wide and a tight end flank­ing ei­ther side of a sin­gle-back for­ma­tion, Mosley watched a play-ac­tion fake un­fold. He did not step to the ball, and even be­fore Bor­tles’ empty hand ex­tended to run­ning back T.J. Yel­don, Mosley was backpedal­ing. Only two Jaguars re­ceivers had moved past the line of scrim­mage.

“Both of their tight ends stayed in to block, so ob­vi­ously, when that hap­pens, that’s max pro­tec­tion, so they’re look­ing to take a deep shot down the field,” Mosley said.

He con­tin­ued to fall back into zone cov­er­age, read­ing Bor­tles’ eyes, which were un­mov­ing, as if painted on. When Jack­sonville wide re­ceiver Mar­qise Lee’s route stayed ver­ti­cal to his right, Mosley fig­ured Allen Robin­son, wher­ever he was, would be cross­ing over to the same side. “If some­body goes in, some­body else got to come back out, or vice versa,” he ex­plained.

Bor­tles reached the end of his seven-step drop when an­other Ravens pass rusher got to an­other quar­ter­back — this time, out­side line­backer Ter­rell Suggs, who shoved his way into Bor­tles’ airspace. Bor­tles’ shoul­der opened up as he wound up, and he short-armed the throw to Robin­son.

Mosley con­tin­ued to fall far­ther back. When he ex­tended his right hand for the ball, like a cen­ter fielder leap­ing at the out­field wall, he was 19 yards from his start­ing po­si­tion, all cov­ered in re­verse.

“The quar­ter­back’s not ex­pect­ing him to be there,” Orr said. “Then he tried to throw it over his head.”

Mosley still didn’t see Robin­son be­hind him, so he tried to bat the pass to him­self. Ath­leti­cism took over. His hand dead­ened the ball’s flight, and it fell softly to the ground as he did. Mosley brought the in­ter­cep­tion to his chest be­fore an on-the­ground spin move, like some­thing a break­dancer might pull off, took him from his back to his knees, then his feet.

Fi­nally mov­ing for­ward, Mosley ran the pick back 11 yards, to the Ravens 40, and re­turned to a side­line of high-fives and hel­met taps. Bor­tles stared at the ground, hands on his knees, then looked to the sky.

“I don’t know what he saw on that one,” Mosley said, “but just happy to be in the right spot.”

LLOYD FOX/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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