Like most of the Ravens staff, defensive coordinator Don Martindale probably spent Monday night celebrating a 47-42 win over the Cleveland Browns, one of the most exciting victories in the team’s 25-year history in Baltimore.
By Tuesday morning, he was probably mad at himself and any of his defensive players within earshot. The Ravens gave up 493 yards of total offense against the Browns and continued a downward spiral in recent weeks.
The lackluster play is disturbing, and some changes are needed if the Ravens are to advance deep into the postseason.
“You know, every game is a game-by-game basis,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said. “If we shut a team out, you all aren’t going to say, ‘You’re the best defense.’ If we give up 42 points, we’re not the worst defense. It was just this game.”
The problem is that the Ravens defense isn’t getting better. In a 34-17 win against the Dallas Cowboys last week, the team allowed 111 rushing yards on 28 carries as halfback Ezekiel Elliott had 77 yards on 18 attempts. The Browns rushed for 138 yards on 28 attempts Monday night, and Cleveland doesn’t have a dynamic quarterback like Lamar Jackson carrying the ball.
The Browns just grind it out with running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Successful playoff teams, especially those on the East Coast, need to be able to run and stop the run.
On offense, the Ravens appear to be gearing up. It’s the opposite on defense.
“They exploited some stuff,” Judon said. “We have to go to the film. And we have to correct that stuff. But everybody isn’t going to jump off the ship over here, at least we’re not. So, we’re going to go to work, like we always do. We’re going to correct it. We’re going to come back next week and we’re going to fight.”
Part of the problem has been the subpar play of the defensive line. Neither nose tackle Brandon Williams (ankle) nor defensive end Calais Campbell (calf) seems to have fully recovered from injuries, and Campbell also had a severe bout with COVID-19 from which he might still be experiencing lingering effects. If those two can’t keep opposing offensive linemen off rookie inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison, the Ravens are in trouble.
Both of those youngsters aren’t physical enough to fight off blockers and might be hitting the wall most rookies hit this time of year. Fatigue sets in because college seasons aren’t as long as those in the NFL.
Then there is the pass rush. The Ravens didn’t have any sacks against Cleveland and only hit quarterback Baker Mayfield five times. They only had one sack against Dallas and five pressures. Martindale has been trying several different stunts and an assortment of blitzes to get pressure, but the Ravens only have seven sacks in the past six games.
Maybe that’s why the Ravens were so soft in coverage in the second half Monday night. That didn’t make much sense because the Browns receivers, with the exception of Jarvis Landry, are just as average as the Ravens’ crew. Cleveland went to the short passing attack and scored touchdowns on four of its last five possessions with drives of 75, 70, 70 and 75 yards.
In some cases, the Ravens were in prevent mode, but what exactly did they prevent?
The Ravens did suffer some injuries in the secondary. Starting cornerback Marcus Peters played through a calf strain and fellow cornerback Jimmy Smith missed the second half because of a shoulder injury. At this point, the Ravens can’t count on Smith because he spends more time in the training room than on the field.
The Ravens also might have a safety issue. Both of their starters, DeShon Elliott and Chuck Clark, are great at going forward and making tackles, but don’t cover a lot of ground defending deep passes.
The Ravens have to address these concerns. In recent weeks, Jackson has gone back to displaying the form that made him the league Most Valuable Player in 2019 by making big plays with his legs instead of his arm.
Earlier in the season, the defense was playing well, and it appeared as if the group might peak by the end of the year. There is still time with three weak opponents coming up in the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals, but the real answer won’t come until the postseason.
That’s when the quality of the opponents will get better.
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But will the Ravens?