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Ravens defense prepared to carry a heavy load in 2021, even without ‘football savant’ Marcus Peters

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about having his team prepared to play on Monday Night Football.

Marcus Peters was in a good mood, speaking more expansively than he had at any point since joining the Ravens midway through the 2019 season.

“For sure,” the veteran cornerback said when asked if this year’s defense could be the best he’s played on. “But we know it’s going to take day-by-day, week-by-week and game-by-game, and we’ve got to put in that work if we really want to be that good.”

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A few hours later on Thursday afternoon, Peters crumpled to the practice field after a routine pivot, his season over because of a torn ligament in his knee. His injury was the latest in a crippling run for the Ravens and the first to strike at the heart of their defense, which had looked ready to take over the world since the first day of training camp.

As the Ravens prepare for their season opener Monday night in Las Vegas, their defense could be set to carry a heavy load. The team’s starting offense played just one series together in the preseason, and the running back room is in disarray after season-ending injuries to J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill. It’s an open question how quickly quarterback Lamar Jackson and company can get up to speed.

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Meanwhile, the Ravens are still loaded with accomplished veterans or gifted young players at every defensive position. Eight months ago in the playoffs, they delivered championship-level defense against two of the most dynamic offenses in the league. They’ve long boasted about their depth, especially in the secondary.

“The defense, can they win a game for Baltimore early in the season? Can they really be … a phase that carries the load for the team?” said ESPN “Monday Night Football” analyst and former NFL safety Louis Riddick. “Yeah, I believe that they can.”

It’s just that the whole picture loses luster with a player of Peterson’s caliber missing.

“It was kind of heavy air, thick air,” safety Chuck Clark said of the pall that settled over practice Thursday after Peters and Edwards went down.

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“Will we miss him? Yes,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said. “Like I’ve said before, he’s a football savant.”

Ravens pass rusher Justin Houston talks about the Ravens defense and about working with the young players.

To illustrate the cornerback’s football acumen, Martindale noted that Peters called the team’s entire defensive game plan from the sideline in the second half of the Ravens’ preseason finale against the Washington Football Team.

Peters possesses a rare gift for snatching passes away from receivers, and no matter how deep the Ravens are in the secondary, his absence cannot simply be patched over. The team’s coaches have long said Anthony Averett is a starting-caliber corner. That doesn’t mean he’ll pick off five passes, Peters’ average over six NFL seasons.

The spotlight will be on the former fourth-round draft pick from Alabama like never before.

“We’re all confident in him,” Clark said. “The sky’s the limit for him. We know what type of corner he is, what type of skill set he has. We’ve seen him in the past go out and cover top receivers in this league, and it’s been done quietly. Now, it’s time for him to go and do it all the time, consistently.”

Martindale said the responsibility for creating takeaways will fall on the entire defense, not just Averett.

“That goes hand in hand with the rush, the pressure, all those different things,” he said. “When [Averett] has the opportunity to get his hand on the football, he’s going to catch it. We do know that. But he hasn’t played a full season yet. That’s one of Marcus Peters’ biggest deals; he takes the football away from opponents.”

Fierce competition between the team’s reserve defensive backs turned into one of the major stories of training camp. Ravens coach John Harbaugh ticked off the names in describing how his team will respond to Peters’ absence.

“I’m confident in Anthony Averett,” he said. “Anthony’s had a great camp. He’s ready to go. Chris Westry is ready to go; he’s done well. Brandon Stephens is ready to go; he’s done well. Ar’Darius Washington had a really good camp. Those guys will take one step up from where they were and take on a little more responsibility.”

The Ravens still have one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks in Marlon Humphrey and a versatile chess piece in Jimmy Smith, who’s working his way back from an ankle injury suffered in training camp. Their starting safeties, Clark and DeShon Elliott, are locked in.

They expect second-year inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison to make significant leaps along with defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, whose rare quickness at 293 pounds could make him a star. This year’s first-round pick, Odafe Oweh, brings an even more jaw-dropping combination of edge-rusher size and sprinter’s speed.

Veteran outside linebacker Justin Houston offered his reviews of the young folks.

On Oweh: “I told him when I met him, I said, ‘When my son plays Madden, he creates a player. You’re the created player on Madden.’”

On Madubuike: “He’s another special guy. I hadn’t heard about him until I got here. To see somebody like that with that size and can move … I don’t know where they’re finding these guys at, but they know where to get them.”

These first- and second-year defenders will have plenty of steady shoulders to lean on with Houston, Pernell McPhee, Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams and Derek Wolfe filling out the front seven. The veteran linemen stood tall in the playoffs last year as the Ravens smothered Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry and held the high-octane Buffalo Bills to 220 yards.

Those performances came after an uneven regular season in which Campbell missed four games and Williams three because of injuries and stints on the reserve/COVID-19 list. The Ravens allowed opposing runners to average an uncharacteristic 4.6 yards per carry, and no defender had more than more six sacks. The Ravens then watched their two most accomplished edge rushers, Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue, leave in free agency.

Riddick sees the front seven as the key to the defense’s fortunes. Will the Ravens be great or merely good?

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“I think the one thing that you’re going to need to see from Baltimore is up front making sure that they are taking care of the run and then being able to rush the passer with effectiveness,” the ESPN analyst said. “It’s not necessarily producing a bunch of sacks, but making sure that they’re able to disrupt passers, and we will see whether or not they have the people coming off the edge, whether Justin Houston still has what he has had his entire career, whether Odafe Oweh continues to unlock all that beautiful talent that he has as an athlete, which is just freakish, and we saw that at Penn State.”

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The star-studded secondary gave the defense a cushion against the uncertainty on the edges, but that room for error will be thinner without Peters, who looked in peak form throughout training camp. Even in an up-and-down 2020 season, he intercepted four passes, forced four fumbles and defended nine passes. Only Humphrey matched his big-play production. The year before, when the Ravens went 14-2, Peters was an All-Pro.

His belief in what the defense would accomplish this season was clear during that interview session, shortly before his knee gave out.

“We’ve got everything that we need to go out there and go compete at a high level,” Peters said.

Season opener

RAVENS@RAIDERS

Monday, 8:15 p.m.

TV: ESPN, Chs. 2, 7

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

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