The Ravens defense was a force to be reckoned with at times last season, leading the entire league in turnovers and forcing three shutouts. So what stopped Baltimore’s ball-hawking defense from being truly great in 2017? The blame could fall on a number of issues: poor play calling in the fourth quarter of big games, injuries to Jimmy Smith, Brandon Williams and Brent Urban, or even unbalanced field time due to poor support from the Ravens offense. However, one simple thing separates the 2017 unit from the great Ravens defenses of the past, and that is the interior pass rush.
Think back to the years of great players like Haloti Ngata, Tony Siragusa and Michael McCrary who were dominate from the defensive line, collapsing the pocket and making life hell for opposing quarterbacks. The latter is especially true of Ngata, who the Ravens parted ways with after the 2014 season. Ngata played a huge role in both the team’s pass rush and run defense over his nine seasons in Baltimore, allowing Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil to play to their own strengths. In 2014, the Ravens had two players with double-digit sacks: Suggs with 12 and Dumervil with a whopping 17. Pernell McPhee, who was often used as an interior rusher, also had 7.5 sacks. The 2014 Baltimore Ravens knew how to get to the quarterback, and a huge reason for that was the amount of interior pressure they were able to create.
Baltimore’s new defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale must find ways to scheme effective pressure from the middle of the line. Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce will need to step up in regards to rushing the passer. Defensive end Brent Urban showed promise in the two full games he appeared in at the start of last season before suffering a season-ending Lisfranc injury. Urban, Williams and Pierce were able to bully the offensive lines of the Bengals and Browns in the first two games, and the defense benefited from it. In those match ups, the Ravens only allowed a total of 170 rushing yards and forced ten turnovers (five in each game).
Shortly afterwards Urban and Williams suffered injuries, and the defense suffered a major setback. Unable to stop the run and pressure the quarterback, the Jaguars and Steelers gashed Baltimore’s defense for a combined 70 points and 791 yards. The Ravens were only able to force one turnover in those contests. Williams returned to the field a few weeks later, and while the run defense drastically improved, the pass rush was still lackluster.
Second-year defensive end Willie Henry, who missed all of his rookie season in 2016, stepped up as the team’s best pass rusher on the defensive line, but he was only able to produce 3.5 sacks for the year. Pierce finished the season with only one sack, while Williams finished with zero. Interior pressure was a major problem for the 2017 Baltimore defense.
There are a number of ways this could improve in 2018 under Martindale. Players such as Henry and Pierce continue to improve while younger players like Chris Wormley, Bronson Kaufusi or Carl Davis emerge. Za’Darius Smith could have a career year in the final season of his rookie contract. Former defensive coordinator Dean Pees used Smith as an interior rusher on passing downs frequently last year, and while Smith was one of the team’s best pass rushers, he was rarely able to sack the quarterback. Improvement from him could go a long way. More deceptive blitzes from the middle linebackers and safeties could help as well.
If the Ravens can find ways to pressure opposing quarterbacks from the defensive line and continually collapse the pocket, then the 2018 Baltimore defense could be a dominant unit, much like it showed in flashes last year.