In 2018, the NFL has seen an explosion of offensive production. That statement alone should come as a surprise to no one; after all, the league has passed a surplus of rules favoring that side of the ball over the past decade. But the extent to which offenses are controlling the game this year is baffling. Through 6 weeks, the league is on pace to break records for passing yards, touchdowns, points per game, and many other categories. There have been weeks where 300 passing yards looked mediocre compared to the rest of the league, which would have never been the case a decade ago.
For the NFL as a business, this is great news. More offense means more scoring, which means more excitement for a casual fan. But for fans following the league for years, the apparent disappearance of defense is alarming. The balance of the game is completely off, and winning games with a strong defense is becoming increasingly improbable. All of that only makes the Ravens’ defense even more impressive.
By now you’ve heard some of the stats, but just in case you haven’t, here’s how good the Ravens’ defensive unit has been: They’re first place in yards allowed with 1625. The Washington Redskins have allowed the second least amount with 1631. Not too crazy right? Well, the Redskins have had their bye already and played one less game. On a per game basis, the Ravens are allowing an average of 170.8, 30 full yards better than the second place Jaguars. In pass defense specifically they’re only .2 ypg off from first place, and they’re third in rush defense as well. They’re allowing under 13 points per game and have allowed only 12 points in the second half of games this year, both easily best in the league. Oh yeah, and don’t forget that whole zero touchdowns allowed in the second half stat and the 11 sacks from Sunday.
This squad is beyond dominant, they’re an anomaly.
Combined with a much-improved offense, the Ravens’ shutdown defense separates them from the pack and gives them the potential to make a deep playoff run. They’ll face their biggest challenge yet this week when Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints come to town, but if the defense can limit this offense than we can hang with just about any team in the league. So what changed to take our defense from a top ten squad to potentially the best? And what do we need to continue focusing on to assure we beat New Orleans this week? Honestly, the simple answer is coaching.
I could (And have) go on an anti-Dean Pees rant any day of the week, but just pointing at what Wink Martindale has done thus far does that job for me. This defense is made up of the exact same personnel from a year ago. Sure, we got Tavon Young back healthy and added some depth, but we’ve also dealt with injuries to key players to start the year. The guys that were already here are simply playing better. Wink’s changes to the scheme that was in place have worked wonders thus far, and have gotten players into positions where they play their best. Take Tony Jefferson for example. A year ago fans were calling him over rated, he essentially made no big plays for us and looked like a liability in coverage. A lot of that was due to him playing deep zones far too often, that’s not where he thrives. He’s playing closer to the line now, and the strip and fumble recovery against the Steelers just highlights what he can do from there.
We’re also rotating players more often, which helps keep everyone fresh deep into games. We have too many outside linebackers and defensive linemen to count, so we throw different players out there in different substitution packages to keep guys like Terrell Suggs effective late into games. We also shuffle guys around in the secondary, which is why we’ve seen a bit of an emergence from Anthony Levine this season. Levine had a clutch pass break up against Antonio Brown followed by the game-sealing interception against the Steelers, and was inches away from coming down with another against the Browns that would’ve likely won the game as well. He’s looked like a bit of an X-Factor early on, and it’s because he’s been put into a position where he can succeed.
But the biggest difference between this year and the last handful is the late-game philosophy. Pees was notorious for his soft zone, “Swiss-Pees” defense late in games and on third downs. If you forgot what that looked like, just re-watch the Titans game from last Sunday. No lead ever felt safe, which is odd when you have so much talent on defense. Under Wink, our defense actually plays even better in the second half, and are first in the league on third downs. We get more aggressive with a lead, and go for the throat rather than trying to let the offense beat themselves. Our ability to pull that off goes right back to our rotation of the players throughout the game, and all of this culminates into a defense you can finally trust no matter what
We’ve had the talent to be elite for years, and now we’ve finally made the adjustments necessary to get there. We have yet to see if a truly top-level defense has the ability to overthrow a top-tier offense in 2018, but we’ll have a good chance to find out this Sunday. The Ravens’ defense makes them stand out from just about every other playoff caliber team in the league, and regardless of the outcome of week 6, if they make it to January the remaining teams will have a good reason to fear matching up against them. Does defense still win championships? Let’s find out.