Among the myriad of factors that contributed to the Ravens’ 39-38 loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday night was Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger attacking the underbelly of the Ravens defense by targeting tight ends Jesse James and Vance McDonald.
Strong safety Tony Jefferson said preventing plays over the middle is a high priority for any unit, which will face two young tight ends Sunday in Cleveland.
“We obviously have to protect the middle of the field, and I don’t know if it necessarily has to do with tight ends,” he said. “We’ve just got to play better in our coverages. If guys are catching balls over the middle, we’ve got to stop that from happening, and it doesn’t matter what position it is. So that’s something we want to stop.”
The numbers seem to suggest that opponents’ tight ends have been able to enjoy moderate success against a defense that ranks 12th against the pass in the NFL.
Opposing tight ends’ 65 receptions against the Ravens are tied for the ninth-most in the league, and their six touchdown catches are tied for 10th. The 723 yards compiled by that position against the Ravens rank as the 12th-highest in the NFL.
But immediately after the Steelers game, Ravens free safety Eric Weddle dismissed the notion that the unit has struggled to cover opposing tight ends. Three days later, his opinion did not change.
“They can if they want,” Weddle replied when asked if he anticipated the Cleveland Browns adopting a similar tactic. “The tight ends, you can check the film, I don’t think they caught many balls in man coverage. We just have to be better in our match zones across the board: nickel, both linebackers, corners and safeties at times when we were down. When we play man against tight ends, they don’t catch the ball. They can try that.”
The middle was an area of success for Roethlisberger, James and McDonald. Roethlisberger targeted James and McDonald 11 times over the middle, and the tight ends combined for eight receptions for 82 yards and five first downs.
The success of James and McDonald might be a result of the significant amount of attention the defense was forced to pay to wide receivers Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant and running back Le’Veon Bell. But middle linebacker C.J. Mosley attributed some of the unit’s coverage problems to mistakes in the depth of drops by the linebackers and safeties.
“On some plays, Ben made some plays and good throws. On others, the safety-linebacker ratio, we weren’t perfect on our drops,” Mosley said. “So some plays they made and other plays, we didn’t carry a guy through or we didn’t take a guy up the middle. Great players make plays, and that’s what they did.”
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees agreed, but declined to place all of the blame on the linebackers and safeties who usually patrol that area of the field.
“We just didn’t drop kind of like we’ve been dropping at times, but it wasn’t only linebackers,” he said. “We all had our issues. I don’t think anybody can stand up here and say that it was somebody else’s issue. I think we all did. When we get beat on the outside, that’s not linebackers’ problem. So it was a little bit of everybody. We just didn’t play well.”
On Sunday, the defense will face a Cleveland offense that includes tight ends David Njoku and Seth DeValve. Njoku, the organization’s last of three first-round selections in April’s NFL draft, and DeValve, a fourth-round choice in 2016, rank second and third, respectively, on the team in catches (29 for Njoku and 28 for DeValve).
DeValve and Njoku rank second and third, respectively, in yards (351 for DeValve and 335 for Njoku), and Njoku leads the unit in touchdown receptions with four. Their play has proven valuable because wide receivers have accounted for only five of the Browns’ 13 touchdown catches, which is tied with the Tennessee Titans for the third fewest at that position in the league this season.
Browns coach Hue Jackson said the duo is still learning the ropes.
“I think they are young players that are getting better,” Jackson said during a conference call with Baltimore media. “Obviously, this is Seth’s second year and David’s first year, but they are very young and talented players. Their best football is still ahead of them, and they still have work to do in order to get there.”
Jefferson said the pair has impressed on film and should not be considered solely as tight ends.
“If they’re leading in receptions, they’re receivers of some sort,” he said. “They’ve made plays. If you look at the film, those guys have made some explosive plays. So they’re obviously a huge part of their offense. So we definitely have to keep an eye on those two.”
Njoku and DeValve combined for five catches for 88 yards and one score in their first meeting with the Ravens in Week 2. And Pees said he anticipates that Jackson will design plays aimed to make gains in the middle of the field as Pittsburgh did.
“This is a copycat league, and usually whatever an offense sees the week before or a couple weeks before, if they see a weakness in a defense or something like that, then they’re going to try to attack that,” Pees said. “Just like if we see a weakness in an offense – it could be an offensive lineman or a scheme or a protection or something like that – we’re going to try to attack that. So sure, they’re going to try and do it. That’s the way this league is. So you better get it fixed, and you better get it fixed in a hurry.”
Baltimore Sun staff reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.