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Unexpected heroes fueling a defensive turnaround for the Ravens

By whatever means possible

Baltimore Ravens v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Rewind to three weeks ago. The Ravens had just dropped a home game against the Browns by 15 points. They allowed 40 points, 530 yards of offense and gave up an 87-yard touchdown run to RB Nick Chubb - on top of seeing Jarvis Landry catch eight passes for 167 yards.

It marked the third consecutive game that Baltimore’s defense struggled to prevent big plays and allowed a 300-yard passer: Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield. Last year’s No. 1 defensive unit looked like a shell of itself and the odds of “Wink” Martindale’s new-look group suddenly improving seemed extremely low.

Flash forward to day, however, and the narrative is entirely different. Baltimore’s fortunes have changed since Week 4. They made gradual improvements the following two games, albeit against the Steelers and Bengals, before making a big statement this past Sunday.

Russell Wilson was the frontrunner for league MVP entering Week 7, and for good reason. Wilson had thrown 14 interceptions without turning the ball over and was the catalyst behind the Seahawks 5-1 start to begin the season. Many expected his tear to continue at home against the Ravens.

However, for the first time in quite some time, Wilson looked human - and the Ravens defense deserves all the credit. Wilson was under pressure for much of the game and was unable to manufacture much success in the red zone. Overall, he completed just 20/41 passes and threw a costly pick-six.

How did this happen? Eric DeCosta, that’s how. Three weeks ago, Baltimore’s first-year general manager recognized his team’s deficinies on the defensive side of the ball and acted decisively. Since the conclusion of the Browns game, DeCosta has made the following moves:

  • Releasing OLB Tim Williams
  • Signing LB Josh Bynes, LB L.J. Fort, and DL Jihad Ward
  • Trading LB Kenny Young and a 2020 fifth-rounder for CB Marcus Peters

Its early, but the returns thus far have been incredibly positive. Bynes has started all three games since he’s been traded and Fort has started the past two weeks in-place of the injured Patrick Onwuasor.

Both tested veterans, Bynes and Fort have provided stability and steadiness to a defense - and linebacker position - that desperately needed it. Against the Seahawks, Bynes and Fort were instrumental in the team’s victory. The duo combined for 14 tackles, 3.5 TFL and one sack. Fort was especially impressive, constantly flying to the ball and breaking up plays.

Jihad Ward, who the majority of Ravens fans were probably not aware of prior to the team acquiring him, has been a sneaky-good pickup. Ward’s numbers in the box score suggest a minimal impact but that’s far from the case. The fifth-year veteran has provided an interior pass-rushing presence and played 39 snaps in Week 7.

Then, there’s Marcus Peters. Acquired via trade just days before his debut on Sunday, Peters drew the start alongside Marlon Humphrey and Brandon Carr in the secondary and immediately demonstrated his value. Peters, a former All-Pro cornerback, recorded a game-changing pick-six interception return for 67 yards. Outside of that, his 65 defensive snaps consisted of relatively strong blanket coverage and sound technique.

Peters is by far the most-talented player of the group of recent acquisitions, but each of them have made a positive impact in their own right. Peters has also been with the organization for a shorter period of time than Ward, Fort, and Bynes, so the upcoming bye week represents an opportunity for him to further acclimate himself.

In addition to DeCosta and the players themselves, the coaching staff deserves a lot of credit, too. Harbaugh, Martindale and each of the defensive positional coaches have done a tremendous job in getting the newbies up to speed and comfortable in a new system. They also should be credited for the development of emerging young players, three of which stand out in particular: Chuck Clark, Jaylon Ferguson, and Tyus Bowser.

Clark was thrust into a starting role following a season-ending injury to Tony Jefferson. Then, just a week later, he was thrust into an every-down role when fellow youngster DeShon Elliott also suffered a season-ending knee injury. To top it off, he was tasked with wearing the “green dot” and relaying the defensive play calls to his teammates.

Quite a task for a 24-year-old with little-to-no starting experience under his belt, no?

Clark has been everything the Ravens could have hoped for. He’s been strong against the run and is making plays in pass coverage. More importantly, Clark, like Bynes and Fort, has added an infusion of calmness in the backend of the defense. During Weeks 2-4, defensive players were out of position on multiple occasions and communication was poor, which led to several big chunk plays from opposing offenses. This has largely subsidized recently.

Whereas Clark is doing work in the secondary, two young edge-rushers have also begun to make their mark: Tyus Bowser and Jaylon Ferguson. The Ravens released Tim Williams a few weeks ago, opening the door for Bowser and/or Ferguson to see more snaps. Again, their stats may not jump off the page, but their impact has been clear.

Bowser, maybe the best athlete on the team, has looked far more comfortable in setting the edge and getting to the quarterback. He had a season-high four tackles against the Seahawks and helped limit Chris Carson to just 69 rushing yards on 21 carries.

After being inactive to begin the season, Ferguson, the team’s second-overall pick in the 2019 draft, has steadily improved every week. Against Seattle, he played a season-high 46 snaps (64%) and put forth his best performance. Ferguson collected three tackles, a quarterback hit and one stuff for three yards. He showcased his impressive collection of strength and power on numerous occasions.

With the status of starter Pernell McPhee, who suffered an arm injury midway through Sunday’s contest and didn’t return, up in the air, Bowser and Ferguson will be relied on to produce even more going forward.

In addition to everyone listed above, it’d be wrong not to mention the steady, high-level play of Marlon Humphrey, Earl Thomas III, Michael Pierce, and Brandon Carr, among others. It’s clear that this year’s defense is not as talented as the unit Baltimore trotted out last year, but they’re finding ways to be effective nonetheless.

Eric DeCosta patched up this defense on the fly, coaching staff got the new players acclimated quickly and the players themselves are stepping up to the challenge.

Flash in the pan or a sign of what’s to come? With looming matchups against the Patriots, Texans, 49ers and Rams . . . we’ll find out soon enough.