When talking about the defense from 2017, most fans only remember one thing: 4th and 12. The Ravens were one 4th down stop away from a playoff berth, but Andy Dalton found Tyler Boyd, who took the pass for a TD, and in essence knocked the Ravens from the playoffs. It was a heartbreaking result for multiple reasons, but most of all because the Ravens had spent significant resources in the 2017 offseason into restocking their defense. All that work led to a 12th overall defensive finish, but multiple failures to close out games when it mattered. So, with the Ravens having focused their resources this offseason on the offense, what can we expect from the defense in 2018?
For starters, the Ravens have done well to retain nearly ALL of their talent from 2017. Of players who recorded 20 or more tackles for the team in 2017, the Ravens only lost one of them in 2018 (Lardarius Webb, who was only on that list because injuries at CB pressed him into service last year, as he was not expected to be a major contributor originally). The only noteworthy free agent on the defensive side was Brent Urban, who the Ravens found a way to retain without tying up large amounts of money. This is a credit to the recent draft picks and moves that Ozzie Newsome has made to setup a window for the defense. The Ravens should also get several key players back from injuries, as Brandon Williams, Brent Urban, Albert McClellan, Jimmy Smith, Maurice Canady, and Tavon Young all missed significant time last year. In addition, the Ravens were able to add a few defensive talents through the NFL Draft, selecting CB Anthony Averett, ILB Kenny Young, S Deshon Elliott, and DE Zach Sieler.
The big change on the defensive side comes from the play caller. Dean Pees chose to retire, which the Ravens front office supported, though Pees decided to unretire for the opportunity to coach alongside his son for new Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, a player Pees coached while on the Patriots staff. While the Ravens were rumored to be considering names like Chuck Pagano for their defensive coordinator opening, they stuck by their longstanding tradition of promoting from within and elevated Linebackers coach Don “Wink” Martindale to the gig. Martindale was a 1-year Defensive Coordinator for the Denver Broncos, which was largely forgettable as the Broncos had the league’s worst ranked defense that season. While that statistic is none too reassuring to fans, what should be reassuring is what Martindale has said, and what his players have echoed, about his style of defense. While the Ravens have had a consistently high ranked defense, they have also been heavily criticized for failing to pressure the QB and shutting teams down to secure a win. Dean Pees was a well-regarded coach for his fundamental approach to the game, but his approach to blitzing and coverage was very basic, which led to situations like the 4th and 12 pickup. Martindale is already preaching a more aggressive approach, which would mean taking more risks with blitzes and coverages. While that does have the potential risk to allow a big play here or there, it also creates more opportunity for turnovers and forcing poor execution from opponents. It’s a move that excites players like Eric Weddle, who mentioned in a press conference during offseason workouts that Wink was “bringing different elements to the defense” and his defense should give them the ability to “react on the fly and be less of a ‘blackboard’ defense”. That comment speaks to an expectation that Wink might be giving his players more responsibility and freedom to call the defense on the field, which would be a bold move, but one that trusts in the talent the Ravens have acquired.
So, what does all that mean for 2018? The Ravens certainly shouldn’t experience a drop off in their defensive performance. While aging players like Terrell Suggs or Eric Weddle may not quite capture their results from 2017, or players returning from injury like Jimmy Smith or Tavon Young might not be quite 100%, those players should provide similar levels of play to what we’ve seen in the past. Keeping the unit together is also huge, as the players won’t need to adapt to new pieces around them. Especially if Wink is trusting his players to make changes on the field as the offense does, comfort and dependability between the players is a key need. In addition, the Ravens should expect some of their younger players to really step into higher levels of play. Guys like Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams are expected to push as pass rushers (and 2nd-leading sacker Matt Judon to continue his development as well), as the Ravens are certainly aware of Terrell Suggs’ eventual retirement in the next few years. We should also certainly look for more development of the great seasons we saw from Tavon Young in 2016 and Marlon Humphrey in 2017 in developing the strong secondary the team has produced in recent years. Expecting a defense in the top half of the league is a given, and we should accept no less.
The X-Factor which is harder to gauge is Martindale’s play calling. There is a lot of hope among fans that Martindale’s comments about being more aggressive will lead to a more exciting, dynamic defense that looks to genuinely scare opposing offenses in how they are going to move the ball against them. Pees’ play calling brought respect opposing coaches in how they had to find ways to adapt to move the ball, but Pees’ defenses were not highlight inducing. When the Ravens have historically been most effective on defense, it has been as a result of high pressure, strong coverage defenses. When Chuck Pagano was defensive coordinator in 2011, the Ravens tied for 3rd best in the NFL on sacks, while last season they were 12th. With the recent talent influx in the secondary, the Ravens are building a strong unit that should be able to hold their coverage well. If they can increase the pressure they get from a front seven that includes 3 recent draft picks and a future HOF in Terrell Suggs, along with possible breakout DL like Willie Henry and Brent Urban, the Ravens defense might really develop into a premier unit. That being said, Martindale’s record is against him here, as the 2010 Denver Broncos ranked dead last in sacks and turnovers in 2010. In that 2010 season, his defenses gave up scores of 59 and 39 to the Oakland Raiders (That team was led by Jason Campbell and Darren McFadden, so not exactly offensive juggernauts) as well as 43 to the Arizona Cardinals. Now, it’s very easy to say that the personnel then was likely a bigger issue (Their leading sacker was DJ Williams, no one on the team recorded more than 3 turnovers all season, and they only had one defensive score), we can’t simply say that Martindale’s DC stint here will be an automatic upgrade. He certainly shouldn’t cause them to regress, but any benefit of an aggressive defense could be balanced by some instances where the sack fails to get there, or a DB slips in coverage, and allows a big play as a result. What I would count on as a positive here is that, due to being with the Ravens over the last 5 years, Martindale has earned the trust and respect of the players on defense. They buy into his approach and will appreciate his trust in them to make changes on the field.
Overall, the Ravens are set to at worst meet their defensive performance from last year, and I would say they are more likely to exceed what they did. I don’t know that I would go so far to say they have totally fixed their defensive stop issues (The only way to know is to be tested in season), but Martindale’s embrace of more aggressive playcalling and trust in his returning defensive talent should be rewarded with a defense much more respected and touted than his 2010 Denver Broncos performance. While the offense grows and changes to build into a more dependable unit, the defense will once again set the tone for this team and stand them tall when the going gets tough.