The Football Gods have laid down their gauntlet for the Baltimore Ravens.
Ronnie Stanley? Out for the year.
Marlon Humphrey? Can’t play Sunday.
Not to mention injuries to Tavon Young and Anthony Averett forcing the Ravens to go bargain shopping on the waiver wire to find slot corners to trot out when they travel to Indianapolis to take on Phillip Rivers and the Colts.
Looking around this Ravens roster, let’s ask ourselves, where is the strength? The secondary is razor thin due to injuries. The offense has been up and down as a whole. The Ravens strength, at this point, lies in their defensive front. Simply stating the names of their 10 man rotation is powerful:
Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams, Matt Judon, Yannick Ngakoue, Derek Wolfe, Tyus Bowser, Pernell McPhee, Justin Madubuike, Jihad Ward and Jaylon Ferguson.
That’s . . . a pretty loaded group. The Ravens have allowed 100.7 yards per game on the ground through seven games, ranking seventh in the NFL. Baltimore run defense DVOA is -39.1%, which ranks as the top rush defense in football. The Ravens defensive front has particularly thrived in short yardage situations, where Football Outsiders ranks them as the No. 1 unit in football in “power” situations, allowing only 42% of runs on such concepts to be successful. Only three teams have a held opponents under a 50% success rate.
(Futher definition — Power Success: Percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. Also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer. This is the only statistic on this page that includes quarterbacks. Teams are ranked from lowest power success percentage allowed (#1) to highest power success percentage allowed (#32).)
This is especially encouraging considering the resources that the Ravens front office has allocated to ensure that the Ravens wouldn’t have a debacle similar to the one they faced against the Tennessee Titans, when Derrick Henry bludgeoned the Ravens to the tune of 30 carries for 195 yards. The Titans went 4-of-5 in situations that would qualify for power success, converting first downs when they needed to, including a 66-yard run that ultimately put the game out of reach for Baltimore.
With the game on the line in a 3rd-&-2 situation late last Sunday, three Ravens defenders stepped up to the plate big time.
Slowed this one down and added some sauce. Play of the game defensively.@Patrickqueen_ communicates, sets the front, SHOOTS the gap and WHAM! Stuns Conner in the backfield.@BrandonW_66 drops a knee and torques a combo block, holding ground.@Leek_39 absolutely stuns RG... pic.twitter.com/6pntenUt9d— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) November 5, 2020
The Ravens have held four of their seven opponents to 70 rushing yards or less, with their only poor performance coming against the Eagles, who reeled off a 70-yard Miles Sanders run and a long Carson Wentz scramble late in the game. Otherwise, the Ravens have done an outstanding job limiting big plays on the ground. With Brandon Williams returning to his natural position, Calais Campbell shedding blocks from the three and five technique, while Derek Wolfe leads the NFL in run stop rate, the Ravens veteran defensive lineman have been feasting consistently.
Along with a pair of Justins (Madubuike and Ellis) rotating along the front, the Ravens defensive line has shown a strong ability to take on double teams, hold ground and gap, then shed blocks to make plays at the line of scrimmage.
Factoring in the Ravens depth at outside linebacker, they have one of the strongest defensive fronts in football. With Ferguson, Ward, Bowser and McPhee rotating to spell Judon and Ngakoue, the edge group rallies to the football well, closes down the line with controlled aggression and has generated pressure at a high rate. Football Outsiders has the Ravens with the seventh highest adjusted sack rate in the NFL, at 7.9%.
Baltimore’s 3.4 sacks per game ranks fourth in the NFL currently, while only six teams are averaging three or more sacks per game. They also rank second in the NFL in QB hits (69), trailing only the Steelers. Interestingly enough, the Ravens and Steelers have both already had their bye, yet still lead the league.
Two of the biggest revelations of late for the Ravens are their oldest and youngest outside linebackers. Pernell McPhee and Jaylon Ferguson have been consistent playmakers, who close down the line in the run game, handle blockers and haven’t been beaten to the sideline while holding the edge. Ferguson has really come on as of late, using his length and strength to control blockers at the point of attack. The game has clearly slowed down for ‘Sack Daddy’ who has made multiple impact plays in each of the past three games.
Ferguson crashes McDonald into his own blocker, causing him to trip, which allows Queen to scrape overtop free, then Ferguson cleans it up.— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) November 6, 2020
Sack Daddy is straight bullying people on the edge man @SackDaddy45 what have you been eating? I need some pic.twitter.com/b8dFuho1Oz
Marcus Peters was pissed off after the penalties. You can just tell. Screams down the line on the same drive.— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) November 5, 2020
Brandon Williams and Jaylon Ferguson are brick shithouses. Ferguson is becoming one of the Ravens best run defenders, quickly.
Watch how easily he controls his blocker. pic.twitter.com/yu0xxJow28
Three plays later, Steelers try the sweep. Sacks closed down the line, blew up the puller, then hunts down Conner for a three yard loss.— Spencer N. Schultz (@ravens4dummies) November 7, 2020
Making plays every game. pic.twitter.com/QJj1zjlXo3
Ferguson is PFF’s highest-rated Baltimore edge, putting up unanimously solid grades in all four major areas (run defense, pass rush, tackling, coverage), grading out as the Ravens fifth best defender in their scale.
McPhee and Judon are tied with 23 pressures each — both on exactly 167 pass rushing snaps, strangely enough. While Judon missed most of Sunday’s matchup against Pittsburgh after being ejected, Ferguson and McPhee stepped up in his absence. This is extremely encouraging, considering Bowser and Ward also provide quality depth the Judon and Ngakoue. There aren’t even necessarily “starters” along this front, and the Ravens figure to deploy a mix of the bunch in different alignments and packages on a weekly basis. Ferguson notched a sack on a four man rush, walking his blocker back into the lap of Roethlisberger, as the Ravens dropped seven into coverage and forced Big Ben to hold the ball.
With Tyus Bowser set to receive less pass rushing snaps, he will likely see further usage in off ball hook/curl coverage, where he’s excelled this year. Bowser was arguably the top combination of pass rush prowess and coverage ability in his draft class, and he’s lived up to that ability this year. He has quick reactions and nifty t-step footwork to break on short passes, with strong size and length to disrupt on-target throws. With the Colts targeting their running backs and tight ends at an extremely high rate, the Ravens would be wise to deploy Bowser, an explosive shallow defender with open field tackling ability, to stifle the likes of Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines, who both have over 175 yards after the catch so far this season.
The Ravens have done a stand up job against the quick passing game, which has much to do with rally pursuit from the defensive front, who regularly end plays on quick passes. Ngakoue was sent to the flat on third down against Pittsburgh, where he quickly helped to corral James Conner alongside Jimmy Smith and Patrick Queen to end a Steelers possession. Ngakoue is yet another explosive edge presence, who finishes plays.
With the Ravens secondary ailing and their offense seeking to establish dominance on the ground, the Ravens defensive front is going to be asked to go above and beyond their lofty expectations in order to ensure that the Ravens make a run in November and through December and grab a playoff spot.
The well-rounded and versatile group has incredible depth, which needs to carry the Ravens through the next three games against the Colts, Titans and Steelers, before easier games against the Cowboys, Giants, Jaguars, Browns and Bengals await.