The Ravens are a franchise that has begun to embrace the cutting edge of what many smart football minds believe to be the future of the sport and the league. They’ve done so in several different ways such as aggressive, analytically-driven play calling and injecting youth and speed into the offensive side of the ball - to name a few. However, maybe the largest indicator that Baltimore’s front office is trying to stay ahead is how they’ve constructed their defense – that is, from the outside in.
Gone are the days of Ozzie Newsome selecting 300-pound run-plugging defensive lineman or thumping middle linebackers early on in the draft. Instead, that’s given way to a new style of thinking, one in which speed, range, and physicality in the secondary seem to be the core tenet of Wink Martindale’s defense, and acquiring players who fit that bill are a prime goal of an Eric DeCosta-led front office. Acquisitions such as Eric Weddle, Tony Jefferson, Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr, and now Earl Thomas (just to name the headliners) are evidence of that.
In a way, it represents a complete identity swap. A defense once led by C.J. Mosley, Brandon Williams, and Terrell Suggs are now more known for talent and depth on the back end as opposed to the front which is certainly a sea change for a franchise that historically has always built things from the inside out, or by the line to the back, if you will. It’s a smart change in the sense that the league is getting smaller, and more teams are moving to spread offenses built to throw the ball more than they pass. As always though, a plan is nothing without effective execution.
This is the issue the Ravens defense has faced so far this season. They’ve been built to stop the pass and do so better than pretty much any team in the league considering their mix of talent, depth, and the coordinator lining things up for them. So far, though, that hasn’t been the case, as a bad combination of injuries to starting and rotational players and some poor play from their top-level guys have led to the Ravens surrendering backbreaking big plays on multiple occasions in the last two weeks.
Some of them are simply one-on-one jumpballs which the other teams’ receivers were able to corral down; this is something you really can’t do much about except hope that your talent is able to win out on next time, and was especially prevalent in the Arizona game. Against Kansas City however, some of the communication issues that led to other big plays in the Cardinals game reared their ugly head to devastating effect.
The Chiefs lined up in trips left.— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) September 24, 2019
1) Ravens should’ve flipped the coverage so Jefferson isn’t covering a vertical seam outside the opposite hash
2) you’re expecting Tony Jefferson to run down Mecole Hardman in coverage? @NextGenStats had Mecole Hardman hitting 21.74 MPH here... https://t.co/gqYq9cVABE
The Ravens dropped from 9th to 19th in total defensive DVOA after the Chiefs game, which to be fair has potential to happen against what’s already looking like a historic Patrick Mahomes-led offense. What’s concerning though is how slanted things are; this was a defense that was built to stop the pass, and so far, their strengths seem to be weighted the opposite way.
Their Football Outsiders pass defense rating sits at a 13.9% positive rating, good for 20th in the league overall, which simply isn’t good enough considering the massive amounts of both financial and draft investment that have been made into ensuring they can stop the pass. In that sense, talent isn’t really the concern here. Yes, they’re missing players such as Tavon Young for the year and will need the boost that Jimmy Smith’s return will surely provide them, but for now, they must make do with what they have. This means doing exactly what Earl Thomas stated was a necessity in his Wednesday media availability:
Earl Thomas was asked about the busted coverage on KC's 83-yarder. He noted communication, which has been mentioned before, but he also pointed out that Marlon Humphrey was on the sideline. "When the young guys come in, we have to get them up to speed."— Sarah Ellison (@sgellison) September 25, 2019
Thomas was not only brought in to be a rangy, playmaking free safety – he’s also a leader that Baltimore could use on defense right now, and that starts with getting the younger, more inexperienced players such as Anthony Averett and Maurice Canady lined up correctly and playing serviceable ball while it’s needed from them in Smith’s absence. He’s not the only veteran presence who needs to step up, though. Tony Jefferson assumed responsibility on the coverage bust that led to the Mecole Hardman touchdown on Sunday, and with a 53.6 coverage rating from Pro Football Focus, he’s another guy who has to start playing better in coverage to stop teams from advancing it through the air with such ease.
This isn’t just to call these guys out though, as the entirety of Baltimore’s secondary collectively forms what was supposed to be the strong point of this squad. So far, they haven’t played like they are, and now face another pretty big challenge with the division rival Browns coming into town. Cleveland has had their issues on offense this season, but they still possess an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions. Jarvis Landry is a legit chain mover, Rashard Higgins (if healthy) is very underrated, Nick Chubb was a workhorse in 2018, and Odell Beckham Jr. may just be the best big-play threat in the whole league.
Trouble protecting Baker Mayfield and some head-scratching play-calling from Freddie Kitchens is part of what has the Browns in their less than ideal 1-2 hole but if the Ravens D continues to play like they did in Weeks 2 & 3, it’s entirely plausible that Cleveland leaves Baltimore with a 2-2 record and the division lead in their back pocket on Sunday. As a result, the Ravens coaching staff and leaders on the roster need to treat this game not as a cakewalk in which they effectively put their stamp on the AFC North through the first quarter of 2019, but as challenge in which they can make a statement. That statement is that this defense is (if not a top two or three unit like last season) still very legit, and good enough to go the distance for a playoff run this season.
Prior to the Chiefs game, Thomas was very clear that the defense wasn’t worried about Kansas City’s offense going yard on them because he was brought in to prevent big plays. He was left eating his words on that one big time, but with better communication and an effective game plan, he has a chance to again prove it this Sunday against another very talented offense. To right the ship after a rough few weeks for the D (and get to 3-1 with a division win onto the board), he and the rest of the Ravens defense are going to need to bring it against the Browns in a very big way.