On October 31, the Baltimore Ravens acquired star linebacker Roquan Smith from the Chicago Bears in exchange for draft picks. Their defense has been spooky ever since their Halloween day blockbuster trade. Since acquiring Smith, Baltimore’s defense has had opponents feeling frightful. Defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s unit has held six of seven opponents to 14 points or fewer. The Ravens have allowed one touchdown over the last month and haven’t allowed a visiting opponent to score at M&T Bank Stadium since October 23, before the trade.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Baltimore’s run defense in particular has been immaculate from November on. Opposing teams are averaging only 3.3 yards per carry, trailing only the Titans and a league best 0.6% of rushes have resulted in a touchdown. They’ve held opponents to -0.12 EPA/attempt, trailing only the 49ers. On designed runs, Baltimore has allowed only nine gains of 10+ yards on the ground, with none reaching 20 yards. In terms of DVOA, Baltimore ranks first over that time.
The Ravens have been no slouch in the pass game either. Baltimore’s six touchdown passes allowed are the second fewest since the start of November, while they’ve intercepted four passes. They’re 11th in DVOA defending the pass and have held opponents to a negative EPA per attempt (-0.06). Baltimore finally regained safety Marcus Williams, who missed nearly three months with a dislocated wrist. This has allowed them to put forth the passing down defense they envisioned for the first time since acquiring Smith.
Macdonald is able to deploy rookie safety Kyle Hamilton as a nickel corner to erase tight ends and blow up screens while linebacker Patrick Queen and Smith intermittently blitz or take turns taking away the middle of the field and matching underneath route concepts. Williams and safety-mate Chuck Clark patrol the back end and control traffic while Marlon Humphrey is often isolated on the right side of the field and battles top receivers. The Ravens ability to stymy the run puts offenses behind the eight ball and they have a fast, versatile back seven who can simulate pressure in any combination. They’ve defended play well enough on first down, holding opponents to 8.0 yards per attempt which is the 14th best mark since the beginning of November and limiting opposing passers to a 79.3 passer rating, which is the second best mark across the league.
The Ravens have even been stellar on third down, leading the NFL in third down conversion rate allowed (32.6%) while ranking fifth in both EPA/pass attempt and success rate allowed on third down pass attempts. The Ravens pass rush has been ferocious on third down since acquiring Smith, ranking in the top five in sacks per game (third) and sack percentage (second). They’ve been even stingier in the red zone, allowing only four touchdowns on their opponents’ last 14 trips.
Overall, the Ravens defense has been utterly dominant since acquiring Roquan Smith. They excel against the run, play action and on third down. They’ve been an elite red zone unit, gotten pressure and created turnovers. With the Ravens offense struggling in the red zone, struggling to score 20 points, there’s little margin for error defensively and the Ravens have been up to the task.
Mike Macdonald, the second youngest defensive coordinator in the NFL, has been one of the more underrated stories of the season. In only his second season as a defensive coordinator, first in the NFL, his unit ranks in the top five in points allowed, red zone stop percentage, takeaways, third down percentage, sacks per game and has carried Baltimore’s anemic offense to a playoff spot. It’s also no secret that Baltimore has only beaten one team that currently has a winning record, and faced one of the easiest second half strength of schedule’s in the NFL. Macdonald has gotten an opportunity to fine tune his defense against lesser opponents as they’ve added talent and regained injured players.
DVOA adjusts for opponent’s strength, which still has the Ravens as the third best unit in the second half. However, the only time they faced a top-10 offense (Jacksonville) they allowed the Jaguars to score 18 points in the fourth quarter and drive 86 yards facing 3rd-and-21 to score a game-tying touchdown, then game winning two point conversion. If Baltimore learned their lesson in that fourth quarter, one that very well might’ve cost them the AFC North and the potential for the AFC’s top seed, they are a truly elite unit in modern football.
Their only blemishes on the season are late fourth quarter collapses where they’ve played soft-off coverage and allowed opponents free run downfield in passive zone. Baltimore parted with former defensive coordinator ‘Wink’ Martindale, who was hyper-aggressive late in games which led to collapses, but it feels like they’ve overcorrected in the opposite direction. If they’re going to make a run in the playoffs, they have to close out games and continue propping up their ailing offense. If Macdonald finds a way to manipulate his late fourth-quarter strategy to close out games, Baltimore is a tough out and will be able to keep games under 20, limit possessions and put themselves in a position to run out games in the fourth quarter in January.