C.J. Mosley's absence hurts the Ravens defense on the field — and before the snap

When Dean Pees retired and Don “Wink” Martindale was named Ravens defensive coordinator in January, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley’s job title did not change. He has been the defense’s quarterback since midway through his rookie year. Joe Flacco’s game-day responsibilities have varied little throughout his five different offensive coordinators in Baltimore; why would Mosley’s be much different?

At the start of the team’s training camp in July, coach John Harbaugh said the three-time Pro Bowl selection “can handle as much responsibility as you give him.” It was obvious, even then, that Mosley, 26, would be asked to do even more this season.


Martindale’s defense, while schematically similar to Pees’, affords players greater presnap privileges and responsibilities. Veteran leaders are empowered to read and react, to change plays on the fly. It would work, safety Eric Weddle said in the offseason, because of “intellectually high” players like Mosley.

In the wake of the Ravens’ 34-23 loss Thursday night to the Cincinnati Bengals, the team’s two biggest uncertainties are intertwined. How much longer will Mosley, who left Thursday’s game after just three snaps, be sidelined with a bone bruise? And how will the defense work without its quarterback, especially one so well suited for Martindale’s more proactive approach?


From Joe Flacco's struggles with pressure to the Ravens' confusion in the absence of C.J. Mosley, here are five things we learned from a 34-23 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Mosley underwent an MRI after his early departure, and Harbaugh said Thursday the injury “doesn’t look to be long term.” But the linebacker’s availability for Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos and beyond is unclear, with bone bruises typically sidelining players several weeks. In his absence Thursday, linebackers Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young, a rookie, more than doubled their share of defensive snaps from the Ravens’ Week 1 blowout of the Buffalo Bills.

“Well, that’s your middle linebacker,” Harbaugh said of Mosley. “You’ve two young guys in there playing. Those guys played hard. They fought, they really did, but they didn’t play perfect. That’s going to hurt you for sure, and it did.”

A two-game sample size lends itself to premature conclusions, but the Ravens defense found its world turned upside down after Mosley left. In the team’s season opener, the Bills didn’t convert a first down until after the first half. They finished with 153 total yards. Quarterback Nathan Peterman was rendered so ineffective in the 47-3 loss, Buffalo decided it’d rather start a rookie in its next game.

Four days later, the Ravens forced a three-and-out with Mosley in the middle of their defense. But he appeared to hurt himself while trying to avoid stepping on Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd, and limped toward the sideline before being carted off the field.

Over Cincinnati’s next four drives, all of which ended in the end zone, the Bengals marched downfield as if the Ravens were playing with only 10 men on defense. “We were kind of just scrambling around when he went out,” Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said afterward. Worse, he acknowledged, some players didn’t even know Mosley was out of the game.

“He’s a leader on this team,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “All of us didn’t really know what was happening, but that’s not really our job. When something is going on, we’ve just got to adjust. We’re a very capable team of doing that, of making an adjustment. They started really fast. I don’t think it’s anything other than that. We’ve got to start better. We’ve got to play better.”

The Ravens’ second-half reversal — they held Cincinnati to just six points, including no touchdowns, and 144 total yards of offense after halftime — forces another decision onto Martindale’s Week 3 checklist. When Mosley could not wear the defensive headset used to relay calls from the sideline, Onwuasor stepped in for the rest of the first half. The defense’s 28 points allowed were its most before halftime since 2012.

But Onwuasor did not finish the game in Mosley’s green-dotted communication helmet, nor did Harbaugh say he’d ever handled headset duties. That was Weddle, who Harbaugh said “did a good job” in emergency relief.

“The next guy's got to go,” Weddle said. “It's not an excuse why we lost. When you play like crap in the first half in all three phases, then that's just going to happen. You dig yourself a hole. So hopefully C.J. won't be out too long, but we battled back and fought our tails off in the second half. It's too far of a hole when you don't play the way you're supposed to play.”

Weddle wore the Chargers’ headset throughout his career in San Diego, but not exclusively. Given the speed at which modern offenses play, the distances defensive backs have to cover and the difficulty in communicating with defensive lines inside raucous 70,000-seat stadiums from a safety’s perch, linebackers are coordinators’ preferred on-field liaisons.

The easiest way to get a rise out of Steve Smith Sr. is probably also the most foolish. Michael Irvin knows that now.

The question of who might replace Mosley is not one the Ravens have had to consider often. Mosley has started 64 of a possible 66 regular-season games for the Ravens since he was taken No. 17 overall in the 2014 draft, and each absence has only highlighted the pending free agent’s value.

An injured hamstring kept Mosley out of back-to-back games against the New York Giants and Jets in October 2016. Eli Manning, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Geno Smith combined for a passer rating of 105.8 as the Ravens allowed at least 24 points for the second and third time all season. They lost both games.


Before this season, Mosley posted a sheet of paper in his locker that listed six goals, from leading the NFL in tackles to being named Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. But he first has to be healthy enough to play. His success depends on his availability. And now, so could Martindale’s defense’s.

“That’s our defensive leader,” nose tackle Michael Pierce said. “It’s big. It can’t be overstated, but at the same time, it has to be next man up. We have to find a way to fill the gap that he left.”

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