When the Ravens face the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, they’ll want to solve their second biggest problem heading into the second half of the season.
They have already checked off priority No. 1 by finding an identity as a running team. Now, they have to work on improving their pass defense, which has gone from the worst in the NFL to merely No. 28 this week.
Allowing 258.8 passing yards per game is simply way too many. The Ravens (6-3) might not get much of a challenge from Carolina (3-7) and much-maligned quarterback Baker Mayfield, but the second half of the season shouldn’t just be about wins against lightweight competition.
The Ravens should also be preparing for the playoffs, when they’ll potentially face top quarterbacks such as the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen, the Miami Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa, the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert and even the Denver Broncos’ Russell Wilson.
“Yes, it’s a fun process to kind of go back and see how you’ve evolved over the course of the first eight or nine weeks,” Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said. “There are definitely things that you get a feel for. What we’re doing well, we’re trying to accentuate that and build on that. There are some things that we learned that we don’t do so well, so we want to stay away from those.
“And there are some things that we’re not doing well that we need to improve on. So, that’s kind of what the whole process is about, and just making sure we’ve got the right guys in the right spots, as we kind of turn the corner here in the back half.”
The Ravens learned quickly that their rookie class wasn’t ready to make an immediate impact. First-round safety Kyle Hamilton and fourth-round cornerbacks Jalyn Armour-Davis and Damarion “Pepe” Williams have been given opportunities to play in nickel packages, and all three have struggled.
Hamilton has had trouble tackling despite his 6-foot-4, 221-pound frame. Opposing teams started to pick on Armour-Davis so frequently that coach John Harbaugh benched him after the first quarter of a Week 3 win over the New England Patriots. Williams has been up-and-down.
Harbaugh gave them a time out, and some time off.
“It was probably the same things we were working on just in terms of doing things the right way, being in the right spot, and eyes being in the right spot and all that,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve obviously cleaned a lot of that up, but you’re only as good as your next performance. We were young; the guys who made the mistakes, so to speak, were the rookies.
“Bill Parcells, he said one time — and I’m not buying this necessarily in terms of the math of it, but the point was right — he said, ‘For every rookie you start, you lose one game.’ That was an old Parcells deal,” Harbaugh said. “It’s hard; the game is different, especially on the back end, especially on the offensive line. Those guys have a lot to deal with, so we made some mistakes back there. No one got down on those guys, they didn’t get down on themselves and [we] basically just required them to try to do things the right way.”
The Ravens have adjusted. Depending on the matchups, Hamilton and Williams, as well as cornerback Brandon Stephens, alternate at the fifth defensive back and play in dime packages. Hamilton has made significant improvement in his tackling, while Armour-Davis continues to recover from a hip injury.
But the Ravens still have other problems to fix. Starting cornerback Marcus Peters, 29, has lost a step, and his lack of recovery speed has become a liability in combination with his style of looking in the backfield and sitting on routes. After beating the Ravens, receivers on the Dolphins and New York Giants said they planned to attack Peters in one-on-one situations.
Stephens is stiff and better suited to play safety instead of corner. It will be interesting to see if more teams try to get Hamilton in matchups with a No. 3 receiver instead of a tight end.
Marlon Humphrey, the other starting cornerback, doesn’t have great speed either but is solid on the outside. He is better on the inside, where he can be more physical. He’s one of the Ravens’ best tacklers.
“I don’t really have a preference. Whatever the game plan is or whatever the coaches want is where I go,” Humphrey said. “But it’s fun to play inside, especially when you get to hit some guys. When you’re on an island, you can only be so aggressive, so it’s kind of fun to play inside, get in my little linebacker stance and try to do my inner ‘PQ’ [Patrick Queen] and ‘Ro’ [Roquan Smith].”
Unlike previous years, the Ravens have a decent pass rush, which limits cornerbacks from being exposed. Veteran outside linebacker Justin Houston leads the team with 8 1/2 sacks, while Queen and defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Justin Madubuike each have 3 1/2. Houston, Campbell and Queen also have combined for 25 quarterback hits. Those numbers should increase as outside linebackers Tyrus Bowser and rookie David Ojabo continue to recover from Achilles tendon injuries.
But there is also a downside. Veterans like Houston, Campbell and Jason Pierre-Paul can only stay healthy for so long. They seem to play a game or two, then miss two or three with an injury. That won’t work in the postseason.
For now, the Ravens have eight games to work things out, and a soft schedule should allow for some experimentation.
Priority No. 2 still needs more attention.