Stalwart defensive tackle play has been a trademark of the Baltimore Ravens since their inception in 1996. Tony Siragusa, Sam Adams, Kelly Gregg, Haloti Ngata, and Brandon Williams have all dominated the interior for the Ravens. Ozzie Newsome has had an eye for these types of players throughout his tenure as the General Manager and he found another gem in undrafted rookie Michael Pierce.
Pierce was generally an unknown coming out of Samford University, a Division 1-AA program in Homewood, Alabama. He signed with the Ravens after the draft and immediately found his way into their defensive line rotation. In the context of Pierce’s Pro Day numbers, his rookie year success makes a bit more success.
If you’ve followed the Force Players work that Justis has done, you’ll know that athleticism in a vacuum can be overrated for linemen. Density needs to be factored in to these equations. At 6’0″, 329 pounds Pierce is essentially a bowling ball on the field. Factor in his 1.67 10 yard dash and 9’7″ broad jump and you wind up with an elite athlete at defensive tackle.
To get a better idea of how explosive Pierce is, here are other notable players with 10 yard dashes ranging from 1.67-1.72 seconds:
That explosive ability at 6’0″, 329 pounds is insane and it shows up on the field. Players with that explosiveness relative to their size tend to be good interior rushers, but Pierce isn’t that guy yet. It’s mainly due to two factors: his inconsistency with his hands as a pass rusher and Baltimore’s scheme asking their nose tackles to always play the run first.
Pierce came on to the scene in the Ravens’ week two bout against the Cleveland Browns. He had a handful of plays where he danced around Cam Erving as a pass rusher.
Here’s what I meant when I said Baltimore’s scheme asks the nose tackles to play the run first. Watch Pierce’s feet on the snap of the ball. He doesn’t take big steps up the field to gain penetration, he takes short steps to fit into the center and control his gap.
Where his athleticism shines is when he converts his run fit to a pass rush. Yes, it was an atrocious pass set by Cam Erving, but watch how fast he closes on Josh McCown and then the explosion through contact on the quarterback.
The bend in his hips as he turns around Erving is especially impressive. Pierce uses a rip move to clear his chest of Erving’s hands and then sinks his hips to get around him for the hit on the quarterback. The little bit of space that opened up between the center and the right guard was all Pierce needed to accelerate past Erving.
Pierce did get home against the Browns for one of his two sacks on the season. He beat All-Pro guard Joel Bitonio for a sack on Josh McCown in the fourth quarter to help the Ravens hang on to the lead.
There are a few cool subtleties in the battle between Pierce and Bitonio on this play.
First, Bitonio wins the initial leverage battle against Pierce. His helmet is below Pierce’s and he’s in a good position to mirror Pierce off the snap. Bitonio messed up by letting Pierce get his hands into his chest. Even though Pierce has lost the leverage battle, he’s still able to snap Bitonio towards the ground because his hands are inside Bitonio’s hands.
Even though he was falling towards the ground after the snatch by Pierce, Bitonio did a decent job of recovering and getting in a position to give himself a chance at blocking Pierce again. Michael Pierce’s 1.67 10 yard dash shows as he rockets past Bitonio during the second block attempt.
If Pierce can become more adept at finding the half man relationship and being decisive with his pass rush moves he can become a dominant force on the interior.
Where Pierce really shines is as a run defender. He was a key cog in another dominant Ravens’ run defense:
For reference here’s how Football Outsiders defines Power Success in terms of defensive play:
Power Success: Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer. This is the only statistic on this page that includes quarterbacks. Teams are ranked from lowest power success percentage allowed (#1) to highest power success percentage allowed (#32).
Pierce’s density allows him to be force against the run by nature, but he’s already a good technician versus the run.
He’s shaded on the center here. He uses perfect technique to get his hands on the center and establish the half man relationship. The Jets are running a combo block from the nose (Pierce) to the middle linebacker. Pierce sets himself in great position to attack the center while defending himself against the double team block from the right guard. Once the ballcarrier declares he tosses the center aside for a tackle for loss.
Patience and improvisational gap discipline are key parts to run defense. This play versus the Dallas Cowboys shows off Pierce’s ability to win even when he loses his gap.
The Ravens scheme uses the defensive tackles as “blockers” for the linebackers so patience in regards to their run fits is ingrained into the nature of the scheme. Pierce has the “A” gap in between the center and the left guard. He needs to occupy that gap to have a sound run fit.
Travis Frederick successfully executes a reach block on Pierce on the snap of the ball. It would appear Pierce lost his gap, but he does the heady play to close the “A” gap with Frederick’s body, forcing Ezekiel Elliot to cutback into Brandon Williams and himself for a loss. The situational awareness to know he’s been beat, but still play his gap from the backside is a veteran move.
Michael Pierce should continue to see a huge role in the Ravens’ run defense. He was legitimately one of the best run stuffers in the league last season as an undrafted rookie free agent from the 1-AA ranks:
UDFA Michael Pierce is already one of the top interiorlinemen versus the run pic.twitter.com/IrXvGcNgSy
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 4, 2017
Baltimore struck gold with Michael Pierce. The continued duo of Pierce and Williams should make life easy on the Ravens linebackers for years to come and allow them to dominate opponent’s ground games, as is tradition in Baltimore.