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Is the Ravens defense underrated heading into the season?

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NFL: Baltimore Ravens-Training Camp Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The talk of the Ravens offseason has been the addition of offensive playmakers through free agency and the draft. Baltimore added wide receivers Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead in free agency, and drafted two more receivers in Jaleel Scott and Jordan Lasley. The Ravens also added two of the top tight ends in the draft to their roster, Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews. Rookie tackle Orlando Brown Jr. has won the hearts of fans everywhere and should start at right tackle this season. Most importantly, the Ravens drafted the heir to quarterback Joe Flacco in Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson. Jackson has stolen every headline imaginable regarding Baltimore this offseason.

With so many new and exciting pieces added to the Ravens offense, has the bread and butter of Baltimore, the defense, been forgotten? Yes, the same defense that allowed Cincinatti to score a 49-yard game-winning touchdown on 4th-and-12 with the playoffs on the line. However, let’s not forget that the Ravens defense also forced three shutouts last season and led the league in turnovers as well. Despite a disappointing finish to the season, Baltimore had one of the better defenses in the NFL in 2017, and there is no reason that the unit shouldn’t be better in 2018.

Players such as Jimmy Smith, Tavon Young and Brent Urban will be returning from injury. Smith was enjoying an All-Pro level season before tearing his Achilles in Week 13 against Detroit. Young emerged as a fourth-round gem as a rookie in 2016 but sadly tore his ACL during OTA’s the following year. Young, forced to play outside due to injuries in 2016, will return to his natural position this year as the team’s nickel cornerback, where he should excel. Urban was part of a dominate Baltimore defensive line to start the 2017 season before suffering a season-ending Lisfranc injury in Week 3 against Jacksonville. The line never quite regained dominance without Urban, despite the emergence of second-year player Willie Henry.

Henry is a player who the Ravens hope takes the next step this season. Terrell Suggs named Henry as his breakout player on the defensive side of the ball for 2018. Urban and Henry provide the best pass rush along the line, so having Urban back healthy will make for a dangerous duo. Moving Brandon Williams back to nose tackle will allow Michael Pierce to stay fresher during the season as a rotational player along the interior defensive line. Add in the projected development of second-year outside linebackers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams, and Baltimore’s pass rush could improve tremendously from a season ago.

Continuity in the secondary will pay dividends as well. Veterans Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson return as the starting safeties, with Smith, Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr, Young and Maurice Canady all returning to give the Ravens one of the deepest cornerback groups in the NFL. With a year of experience under Humphrey’s belt, he looks to become a true shutdown corner opposite of Smith. Jefferson is poised for a bounce-back season as well with new defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale taking over.

Martindale has been praised all offseason by players for his aggressive mindset and willingness to let players be themselves. This means that veterans such as Weddle, Suggs and C.J. Mosley will have more control of the defense and can make adjustments as they see fit on the fly. Former defensive coordinator Dean Pees was often criticized for failing to play to certain player’s strengths. This seemed to be the case with Jefferson last year, who Baltimore signed to a large contract the previous offseason. Jefferson was used as a box safety in Arizona, hovering close to the line of scrimmage. Pees used Jefferson in deep coverage far too often last year, making him an exploitable weakness on the defense rather than a strength.

It’s easy to see why the defense hasn’t gotten as much attention this offseason as the offense. There were no major changes or signings on the defensive side of the ball. Everything remains intact from the 2017 season, aside from a new coordinator. The problem isn’t the lack of buzz around the defense, however.

NFL.com columnist Adam Schein recently published a list of the top nine defenses in the NFL heading into the 2018 season. The expected teams such as Jacksonville and Minnesota head the list, but something obvious is missing after that. Baltimore is nowhere to be found in the top nine. Yes, that’s correct, New England, Atlanta, both Los Angeles teams, Arizona, Houston and Philadelphia all rank higher on the list than the team who led the league in turnovers last season. The same defense that is returning all of their key players and even regaining some from injury. The team that forced more shutouts than anyone else in 2017 is not projected by Shein as a top nine defense in 2018.

The crew of Good Morning Football has a much different opinion about the purple and black.

“I look at the Ravens defense and I don’t know how teams are going to score points on them,” said Fox Sport’s Peter Shrager on Good Morning Football. “They are so loaded. If they are healthy this year, the Ravens are going to compete not only with the Steelers but with every other team in the AFC. They might be a dark horse to go to the Super Bowl. Their defense is that good this season.”

Rewind to this time last year and fans were hyping the 2017 Baltimore defense to be among the best in franchise history. While dominate at times, it’s safe to say that the unit underachieved in the end. This year there is less chatter. Expectations are tempered and more realistic. The Ravens defense certainly has the potential to be one of the top units of the NFL in 2018. Will they avoid the same late-game collapses that have plagued the team and caused Baltimore to miss the playoffs two years in a row? The pieces are certainly there, the key is execution now.