A litany of unfortunate injuries to key Baltimore Ravens personnel has cast significant doubt on the team’s ability to improve upon their 17th ranked offense from last season. Several promising young players, including Kenneth Dixon, Crockett Gillmore, Alex Lewis and Nico Siragusa have suffered season ending injuries. Hopefully minor injuries to Joe Flacco, Breshad Perriman and most recently Ronnie Stanley have forced them to miss valuable practice time, further harming the offense’s chances of building chemistry before the regular season begins. Nonetheless, the Ravens have the makings of a dominant defense, and defense still wins championships in the NFL.
In the preseason opener, Baltimore’s defensive front looked downright ferocious. Starting outside linebackers Terrell Suggs and Matthew Judon provided pressure off the edge while nose tackle Michael Pierce collapsed the pocket. Defensive end Brent Urban was thoroughly unblockable, wrecking havoc in the backfield on nearly every snap. Second team edge rushers Tyus Bowser and Za’Darius Smith also impressed with their ability to pressure the quarterback. And the second team defensive line, consisting of Carl Davis, Willie Henry and Bronson Kaufusi, was able to consistently blow up plays with penetration.
Only so much intel can be gathered from a preseason contest, but the Ravens defensive front is unquestionably the strength of the team. A fierce pash rush can cover up deficiencies elsewhere, allowing the secondary to focus on creating turnovers and keeping pressure off the offense to win shootouts. Baltimore’s loaded defensive front-7 is legitimate cause for optimism.
Still, a top notch pass rush alone will not be enough to beat the best teams in the AFC next season. The Ravens spent a large amount of cap space on bolstering their run defense this offseason. However, run defense is only so valuable when versatile offenses can abandon the run and still move the chains consistently.
Tom Brady and the Patriots can pick defenses apart without tight coverage on his plethora of pass catchers. The Steelers have elite playmakers throughout their offense and possibly the best offensive line in the league. The Raiders also have an outstanding offensive line to go along with a potent pair of receivers. Houston and Kansas City field versatile offenses that can adjust their gameplan to counter a swarming pass rush. The Titans also possess a mobile quarterback and excellent pair of bookend offensive tackles.
Ultimately, the health and performance of the Ravens cornerbacks will determine if this team is postseason worthy. As the 2014 Ravens proved, an elite pass rush can only carry a team so far without capable coverage downfield. Fortunately, the club does possess the necessary quality at corner to support the defensive front, even after Tavon Young and Maurice Canady went down with long-term injuries.
When healthy, Jimmy Smith is among the best cover corners in all of football. He is hoping to suit up for all 16 regular seasons games, after failing to do so in four of the six previous seasons. Fellow starting corner Brandon Carr has never missed a game in his nine-year career. His streak could be put to the test as he is asked to be a more physical tackler at 31-years-old.
First round rookie Marlon Humphrey has all the tools to develop into a lockdown corner, he returned to practice recently after missing nearly a week due to injury. Veteran Lardarius Webb has been thrust back into the slot corner competition due to the aforementioned injuries, his availability is never guaranteed due to the fact he is on the wrong side of 30 and has an extensive injury history. Rounding out the group is undrafted rookie Jaylen Hill. The Ravens should be fine if Hill is forced into action for a brief period of time, but extended playing time could expose his inexperience.
All in all, the cornerback group is relatively healthy. The Ravens will need them to remain healthy all season to reach their full potential. After free agent losses and unexpected injuries, the offensive line will be a weakness in 2017. Therefore, the defense will be relied upon to win games.
Superb coverage is the real key to a dominant defense. Ravens Nation should keep their fingers crossed that Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey can suit up for all 16 games. Without their coverage skills on the outside, 2017 will be another lost season in Baltimore.