2017 was a rollercoaster of a year for the Baltimore Ravens, defensively. A year in which they pitched three defensive shutouts (Cincinnati, Miami, Green Bay), ended on a blown coverage against the same Cincinnati team that they had opened the season against, and allowed to score zero points. The run defense started off strong, then, when they lost Brandon Williams (foot), it plummeted to the bottom of the league, only to rise again upon his return. The secondary was very solid, for the most part – the loss of star cornerback Jimmy Smith (achilles) didn’t hamper them as much as in years past, as the addition of Brandon Carr, Marlon Humphrey, and Maurice Canady’s return solidified the depth at CB.
Defensively, the Ravens’ injury list steadily mounted. Quality depth players and starters alike were down for the season, some before the season began. This doesn’t include the starters and second string players that were questionable/doubtful for a game here and there, nor does it include offensive players.
- Brandon Boykin (season)
- Bam Bradley (weeks 3-17)
- Maurice Canady (weeks 1-8)
- Jaylen Hill (out multiple games)
- Albert McClellan (season)
- Sheldon Price (season)
- Al-Hajj Shabazz (season)
- Jimmy Smith (questionable weeks 4-11, IR last quarter of season, still questionable to return for off-season activities)
- Brandon Williams (weeks 3-7)
- Tavon Young (season)
- Brent Urban (weeks 3-17)
This led – in part – to a defense that was in flux for much of the season, causing both the Ravens to go from looking lethal, defensively, to allowing 40+ points to opponents, to simply not being able to hold on to a slim lead. Digging into the depth, and not being able to fully trust the guy next to you, due to lack of experience or playing time, will always cause holes in the defense. Combine that with Dean Pees’ predictable playcalling, and at times, the defense looked less-than-imposing, to say the least. A team simply cannot maintain a high level of play when fighting against those two variables combined. The ‘final straw’, so to speak, was the offensive play, especially in the first half of the season, which led to the defense being on the field more often than not, with very short breaks in between each series. The defense finished the season 12th overall, but in a year where the secondary ranked in the top 5 for much of it, and the team finished 9-7, with no playoffs, 12th isn’t good enough. So, let’s talk about realistic expectations for the 2018 season, defensively.
Brandon Williams is healthy. Jimmy Smith will be back at some point, early on. Tavon Young will make his return, and in 2016, he was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise perfectly average season. Brent Urban will be coming back, off of a Lisfranc injury – if he performs as well as he did before going down last season, and can remain healthy, he will be a force. Jaylen Hill looks to be a decent addition to the cornerback group, if he can remain healthy. CJ Mosley remains inside, and they should (hopefully) draft a solid coverage ILB to pair with him – CJ enjoyed his best seasons when Daryl Smith was covering tight ends and patrolling the middle of the field. The defensive line is stout, boasting behemoths such as Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce, Willie Henry, and the like. Outside threats such as Terrell Suggs, Tyus Bowser, and Matt Judon create pressure on a very high percentage of plays. Eric Weddle, though getting up in age, is still contributing to the interception total (6 last season), and provides a veteran presence in the secondary. Not all of these players are household names (yet), but each and every one has a high ceiling, and a decently high floor.
Dean Pees, the defensive coordinator, retired soon after the Week 17 heartbreaker, only to be coaxed out of retirement by the Tennessee Titans. Ravens fans weren’t as upset as you may think – remember, I said his defense was predictable – but many questioned the promotion of linebacker coach Don ‘Wink’ Martindale to defensive coordinator, especially when so many veteran defensive minds were available. The Ravens had initially tried to get Chuck Pagano, former Colts head coach, as well as former Ravens DC, back into the game, but he declined, happy to go into retirement. Wink has been both the ILB and LB coach for the past six years, and helped mold players like Zachary Orr, Mosley, Patrick Onwuasor, and the like. While many question how ready he is to be a defensive coordinator, he DID say the words that some Ravens fans (myself included) longed to hear: “This will be an aggressive defense.”
Why is that important? First and foremost, we have this guy named Tony Jefferson, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals. While on the Cardinals, Jefferson was all over the field, playing fast and tough, and wreaking havoc on the run game, as well as creating pressure and racking up tackles. His first year in Baltimore wasn’t bad, despite what many seem to think – 79 combined, 56 solo, with 2.5 sacks. He also had two passes defended, and a 13 yard interception. However, even his apologists knew that he could be more – including the front office, who signed him to a 4-year, $34 million contract that averages $8.5M/year. A more aggressive defense should see him recapture the vision of what Baltimore had when they signed him – a faster, hard-hitting partner for the older Weddle. A formidable safety tandem shutting down the back end of the field. Secondly, guys like Matthew Judon (who created pressure on over 23% of snaps last season, good enough for fourth in the league) and Terrell Suggs (who, at age 35, racked up his seventh double digit sack season, bringing his career total to a franchise leading 125.5) have shown that they are comfortable pinning their ears back and getting after the quarterback. Boswer, a rookie with limited playing time last season, showed the same, starting zero games, but notching 3 sacks, 3 passes defended, and 1 INT. A more aggressive scheme would take some of the big-name QBs that the Ravens will face in 2018 (Roethlisberger, Brees, Carr, Ryan, Newton, Rivers, etc), and will keep them honest. This will give the secondary time to stick to their coverage, and keep some of the big-name receivers that they will be asked to cover (Antonio Brown, Jordy Nelson, Julio Jones, etc) in check. Exotic blitz packages, disguised coverages, all of these should keep the opposing offense guessing, and hopefully lead to mistakes that the defense (and offense) can capitalize on.
So we have reason to be confident in the defense this upcoming campaign. Yes, the Ravens will face some formidable opponents this season – the Falcons, Titans, Saints, and Steelers were all in the postseason last year. The Chargers had a strong second half of the season, the Panthers show flashes of being very good, and the Browns look to be trying to improve (though it isn’t hard to improve on 1-31 out of the last 32). All-in-all, it should be some entertaining Ravens football this year. However – should the Ravens make the right moves on defense (namely finding a new running partner for Mosley), then the personnel won’t be an issue. Should Wink stick to his guns, and be more aggressive (see: don’t run a cookie-cutter prevent defense with 7 minutes left, and an 8 point lead), a new-look defense should be able to carry more weight (and not break down at crucial moments.. like Week 17).
Bottom line, I’ve seen a lot of fans be overly excited about the movement on offense – which I’ve gone over in this article. I’ve seen fans question why there has been little-to-no movement on the defensive side of the ball, with at least one obvious hole. The answer is simple. Not much needs to be done that can’t be covered in the draft. There is every reason to be confident in the Ravens defense moving into the 2018 NFL campaign. With Suggs spearheading the defense, that side of the ball is almost devoid of question marks.