The Ravens were either fearful of running out of healthy defensive backs a year ago or took a hard look at their immediate future.
Or maybe both.
At the end of last week, the Ravens had 19 defensive backs on the roster, including 10 cornerbacks — two of which they could also use at safety. When the Ravens made moves earlier in the offseason to sign or draft this surplus, there were quite a few eyebrows raised.
But after seeing two voluntary practices and another scheduled for this week, it’s safe to conclude that these cornerbacks must carry the defense in 2022 until the Ravens can develop a consistent pass rush, a missing element for the past four years.
“The guys are out there flying around, communicating, really doing everything we’re asking them to do, and it’s a lot of fun to go out there and actually see it start to come together,” said Mike Macdonald, the team’s first-year defensive coordinator. “That’s really what this phase is all about — the execution, the speed, communication portion — so, right now, we’re just trying to see where all the pieces fit and see the system come together.”
It’s quite of collection of talent. The Ravens added free-agent safety Marcus Williams, who gives them their best coverage in the deep third of the field since Hall of Famer Ed Reed left Baltimore in 2012. They drafted Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton with their top pick in April. The Ravens are likely to use some three-safety packages with Williams, Hamilton and Chuck Clark, who started 16 games last season.
If both return healthy, the Ravens have one of the strongest cornerback tandems in the NFL in Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey, and they have some depth in veteran Kyle Fuller and second-year player Brandon Stephens. Also, keep an eye on rookie Jalyn Armour-Davis, the fourth-round cornerback out of Alabama. The kid has exceptional quickness and can play inside or outside.
In fact, versatility is going to be a key in coverage.
“I think it’s so early to tell. We have so many great pieces, and the way we’re trying to teach the system is so conceptual,” Macdonald said. “So, we’re really not asking them to play positions, per se, all the time. So, guys are expected to learn what that play-call entails. So, right now, to say where someone is going to be given a certain situation is probably way too early. And it will change by situation, by game plan, honestly.
“Our goal, as coaches, is to find the best 11 guys in any given situation and be able to get them out there so they can go play. I think that’s why we’re trying to teach it the way we’re doing it.”
The Ravens have to compensate for the lack of pass rush. Last year, they allowed more passing yards than any team in the league with 4,742 in 17 games while collecting only 34 sacks. Two of their top pass rushers, for lack of a better term — outside linebackers Pernell McPhee (one sack in 2021) and Justin Houston (4 1/2) — have not re-signed.
Fourth-year outside linebacker Jaylon Ferguson appears to have lost significant weight but has only 4 1/2 sacks in three seasons. Second-year outside linebackers Daelin Hayes and Odafe Oweh (five sacks) have potential, but both might be a year away from being major contributors. Two other outside linebackers who could have a major impact, Tyus Bowser (seven sacks) and rookie David Ojabo, are both recovering from a torn Achilles tendon.
Bowser underwent his surgery Jan. 14, so there is more optimism about his return. Ojabo, the second-round pick out of Michigan, tore his March 1, so if the Ravens get any production out of him it would be a positive. Inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Josh Bynes, as we saw last season, struggle in pass coverage.
So, the best option is to flood the field with defensive backs. The Ravens can give a one-deep look with Williams or use the more conventional two-deep safety approach. They can put seven defensive backs on the field in passing situations because both Clark and Hamilton are strong and physical enough to run with most tight ends.
Both are big enough to play near the line of scrimmage, as is Humphrey, who might be a better inside cornerback than on the outside. Fuller and Peters can stay on the outside and Armour-Davis can play anywhere on the field, as can Stephens.
“Potentially, it could be a huge advantage,” Macdonald said of the versatility. “The more we keep offenses guessing and the more that we’re putting our best guys out there that can go play fast, just the better off, and this is the time of year to try those things out. As we get closer to kickoff, then we’ll start narrowing it down, so we can go play.”
Macdonald might be the right style for coach John Harbaugh. Former defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who left in 2017, was thought to be too conservative at times. His successor, Don “Wink” Martindale, was blitz-happy. When the Ravens ran out of healthy cornerbacks a year ago, it didn’t change Martindale’s philosophy because he was pressure-oriented.
Macdonald is more of a tweener. Right now, he’s got sub-packages for base defense.
In the end, though, it might catch up with the Ravens. Regardless of who plays in the secondary or how good the coverage is, star quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady will dissect a defense if they aren’t pressured.
But there are enough average quarterbacks who will be stymied by the Ravens. And maybe by the final quarter of the season, they will have developed a consistent pass rush.
Maybe. That’s the hope.