When Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs was asked Wednesday what he knew about Buffalo Bills quarterback Nathan Peterman, he stated the obvious: that Peterman was the Week 1 starter, and that was enough to know the Bills trusted him.
Suggs knew more than he let on, of course. You don’t get to 125½ career sacks by skimming every opposing quarterback’s Wikipedia page before kickoff. But in his matter-of-fact response, there was at least a tacit acknowledgement that the Ravens can know only so much about a second-year quarterback with 49 career passes.
There is reason to worry in Buffalo, just as there is in Baltimore — for the first couple of games, anyway. The Ravens’ defensive excellence has been as much a constant in the NFL as the Bills’ mediocrity under center, and their preseason did little to suggest first-year coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s unit would be worse than last year’s 12th-ranked group.
But the team is missing defensive tackle Willie Henry and, more urgently, top cornerback Jimmy Smith. Henry, who started three games last season, had surgery on an umbilical hernia late in the preseason and likely will miss at least the first two games. Smith is suspended the first four games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
There is only so much the Ravens can know about how they will hold up without them, and what last year’s Smith-less secondary did was not flattering. The pass defense suffered greatly, most notably in the final minutes of a Week 17 game against the Cincinnati Bengals the team needed to win.
There is at least some comfort in knowing they have been there before, and they’re more prepared for what’s ahead this time.
“Yes, it does” help, Martindale said Thursday. “And we’ve talked about depth since I’ve been in this position and what we have. Obviously, we’re going to have to dip into that depth a little bit faster than what we wanted, but I think that we’re ready to roll with that.”
There are few question marks on defense. Defensive tackle Brandon Williams anchors the defense up front, linebacker C.J. Mosley holds it together in the middle and safety Eric Weddle is a reliable last line of defense in the back.
For a pass rush, the Ravens have Suggs, Matthew Judon, Tim Williams, Za’Darius Smith and Tyus Bowser. For run stoppers, even without Henry, they have Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce and Chris Wormley.
Split out wide are veteran Brandon Carr and second-year player Marlon Humphrey. Before Smith’s suspension, it was unclear who would pair with him as the Ravens’ top cornerbacks. Now the roles can be only theirs.
“It's always tough when you lose a guy like Jimmy,” safety and special teams standout Anthony Levine Sr. said Thursday. “But this year, I think we’ve got guys that are ready to step in and go ahead. You can't just go ahead and go replace a guy like Jimmy. But we have depth. We’ve got guys ready to step in, and we got Wink and Eric. They're going to put us in the right situations with the right calls.”
Blame bad execution, bad matchups or bad luck, but the Ravens were worse off without Smith last season. The secondary struggled to raise its game in his absence; more often than not, it watched opposing quarterbacks elevate theirs.
Even in the Ravens' 44-20 win over the Detroit Lions in Week 13, in which Smith was lost for the season, they did not particularly limit quarterback Matthew Stafford. He finished 24-for-29 for 292 yards, one touchdown and one interception. His passer rating of 105.7 was an improvement on his season-ending mark of 98.7 (not including the loss to the Ravens).
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger finished with a passer rating of 99.7 in the Steelers’ 39-38 win the next week; his 2017 rating was otherwise 92.7. The Cleveland Browns’ DeShone Kizer was considerably worse (41.0 rating) than he was otherwise (62.1 rating). The Indianapolis Colts’ Jacoby Brissett was marginally worse (79.7 against the Ravens, 81.8 otherwise), and the Bengals’ Andy Dalton marginally better (89.4 against the Ravens, 86.3 otherwise).
Overall, the Ravens allowed 259.5 passing yards per game over the final quarter of their season, up from the 198.6 per game over Smith’s dozen appearances.
“We were pretty dang good last year — turnovers, scoring on ‘D’ — and we had a lot of good games,” Weddle said. “We didn’t finish in some aspects, and it hurt us in the long run, but [it’s] something to be proud of. But moving forward, after 16 games, hopefully the things that we’ve worked on in the offseason and in training camp have become a positive for us.”
It helps that the Bills do not have a player who could give Smith headaches. Analytics site Pro Football Focus ranked Buffalo's receiving corps the worst in the league entering this season. Top receiver Kelvin Benjamin's yardage total has decreased every season in which he's played, and No. 2 receiver Zay Jones was second to last in the NFL last season in yards per route run, according to PFF.
With Ravens slot cornerback Tavon Young fully recovered from a knee injury, safety Tony Jefferson primed for a bounce-back season and Humphrey a year older, the defense has the means to live up to Smith’s post-ban promise. “We’ll be fine,” he said last month.
“We're a good defense,” Young said Thursday. “Just because one man is gone doesn't mean the whole defense just fails. It was just part of other things that happened, but I feel like this year, these four games, we're still going to ball out.”
Missing out, dropping off
After Jimmy Smith was hurt in the Ravens' Week 13 win over the Detroit Lions, opposing quarterbacks tended to prosper. Below is their passer rating for their game against the Ravens and for all other games played that season.
Week; Smith’s status; Opponent; Quarterback; QB rating; Season rating
8; Active; Dolphins; Matt Moore; 47.2; 90.7
9; Active; Titans; Marcus Mariota; 100.0; 77.9
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11; Active; Packers; Brett Hundley; 43.6; 74.1
12; Active; Texans; Tom Savage; 57.5; 74.2
13; Hurt in Q2; Lions; Matthew Stafford; 105.7; 98.7
14; Out; Steelers; Ben Roethlisberger; 99.7; 92.7
15; Out; Browns; DeShone Kizer; 41.0; 62.1
16; Out; Colts; Jacoby Brissett; 79.7; 81.8
17; Out; Bengals; Andy Dalton; 89.4; 86.3