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Ravens have plenty of room for improvement on defense. Can they pull it off again? | COMMENTARY

"Since I was young," said Humphrey. "I told my dad I wanted to play in the NFL, and he never really let me slip."

Nearly a year ago, the Ravens had similar concerns about their defense as the ones they have now.

They were 2-2 after the first four games and had given up 329 yards passing to Arizona, 193 yards rushing to Cleveland and a whopping 503 yards of total offense to the Kansas City Chiefs, including 363 passing.

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The Ravens haven’t been as erratic as a year ago, but there has to be speculation about if coordinator Don Martindale can fix this group as compared to last season when the Ravens finished ranked No. 4 overall, fifth against the rush and No. 6 versus the pass.

“You have people who … like when we took over after 2017, when we were in the middle of the pack of defense, you read about, ‘You need this. You need that. You need this. You need that,’ ” Martindale said. “We basically took the same group and they were number one in 2018. Then the following year, ‘You need this. You need that. You need this,’ and we ended up [ranked] fourth.”

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“It’s one of those things that the grass isn’t always greener, sometimes you just have to water your own grass that you have in your own yard and just work every game,” he said. “Every game has a different challenge.”

There is a difference compared to recent years. Back then, no one picked the Ravens as one of the two best teams in the NFL along with Kansas City, the defending champs. It’s a new world for the Ravens filled with expectations, and after a dismal performance Monday night in which the Ravens gave up 517 total yards in a 34-20 loss to Kansas City, people want answers.

Some of them are obvious. Several players need discipline and to become less selfish. Other need to simply play better. But the most obvious question is where has the pass rush been so far this season?

Before the Kansas City game, the Ravens had six sacks. Afterward, they still had six and Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was hit only four times. Maybe two years ago that was acceptable but not in 2020 after the Ravens signed Pro Bowl performer Calais Campbell and fellow end Derek Wolfe to contracts.

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Campbell has at least made some plays in the first three games, Wolfe hasn’t made any. For a defense to be truly great it has to get pressure from its front. Campbell, Wolfe and tackle Brandon Williams haven’t registered one sack. The great status isn’t in the immediate future.

“I don’t think it’s a happy or sad question; I think it’s a work in progress,” said Martindale when asked if he was happy with the team’s pass rush. “Obviously, the way that Patrick got rid of the ball faster than I’ve ever seen him do it, that was something that they did different. But also, our execution needs to be better in our pass rush. Whether it’s a defensive lineman, whether it’s a safety, whether it’s a linebacker, whatever — we need to execute better.”

Mahomes deserves a lot of credit. When he is as hot, as he was Monday, the Chiefs are nearly unstoppable. Regardless, it appears that Martindale is going to have to come up with more creative blitzes and pressures to get sacks much like last season.

The problem is that those schemes and packages will work against Cleveland, Cincinnati and probably Washington, but the good teams solve them like Tennessee did in the postseason last year, or Kansas City did Monday night.

There is some reason for hope, but only if some players perform better. Outside linebackers Pernell McPhee and Matthew Judon haven’t produced one sack. In the case of McPhee, the expectations weren’t high with him going to injured reserve with an arm injury last October, but Judon led the team in sacks last season with 9.5.

The Ravens thought they may have found a good blitzer in inside linebacker Patrick Queen, but the rookie and top draft pick out of LSU looks overwhelmed at times, especially in pass coverage.

The Chiefs took advantage of his speed by looking one way and then throwing back at the positions he vacated. Early in his career, opposing teams would often trap or “wham” block Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis because he reacted and ran so quickly to the ball.

Queen will get better in time. Until then, the NFL game has slowed considerably for him.

That’s not the case with cornerback Marcus Peters. He is a good student of the game and loves to rely on his instincts, which have been the key to his success. But when you look back over his career, Peters always plays well the first year after he moves on to another team and then his performances drop off in the second.

Is that the case in Baltimore?

Peters struggled through training camp, and that’s concerning, especially after Monday night. The play of safety DeShon Elliott also has been concerning. He could be a solid player in the future but at times looks as if he is uncertain about where he needs to be on the field.

Martindale is right when he says the Ravens are a work in progress. They’ve added several new faces who are playing regularly, and like other teams in the NFL, the Ravens didn’t have any minicamps, and training camp was shortened because of COVID-19.

No one wants to jump to conclusions so early, but the Chiefs dismantled the Ravens. Of course, the Ravens will get better, but will they become good enough to advance deep into the postseason?

Or have we seen this act the previous two years?

“Don’t peak too early.' We always say that, and it’s still early in the season,” Williams said. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. So, one game is not going to change who we are or change what we do. We’re going to still keep coming after people. We’re still going to keep playing our game. That’s who we are; we’re Ravens. We’re going to just tighten up some things and get back to the basics.”

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