In a league of copycats and wannabes, no defense dared to play like the Ravens’ last year.
They blitzed more than any other team. They played out of their “base” alignment less often than any other team. They asked their Pro Bowl safety to pressure the quarterback and their Pro Bowl edge rusher to drop into coverage more than they ever had. They took a stick of dynamite to defensive convention and blew the thing to smithereens.
Now, after a year of internal growth and external acquisitions, the NFL’s most inimitable defense could also be the NFL’s most intimidating.
Coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s starting lineup for the Ravens’ Sept. 13 season opener could feature four players who made the Pro Bowl last year, including at least one at every level of their defense. The run defense has been bolstered. The pass rush should be improved. The secondary could remain elite.
“They can be the best defense in the league,” ESPN NFL analyst Marcus Spears said in a mid-August conference call.
For nearly half of last season, they were close to it. According to analytics website Football Outsiders, the Ravens had the NFL’s second-most efficient defense after Week 10, behind only the Pittsburgh Steelers. Lamar Jackson was so spectacular as the ringleader of the league’s best offense, the team’s margin for error often went unremarked upon: Only one opponent scored more than 20 points over the season’s final 2½ months.
The Ravens’ strength now, as it was then, is their back end. No NFL defense has allowed fewer than 2,400 passing yards in a year since 1980 — a rate of 150 yards per game. Over the Ravens’ final nine games last season, including their playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans, they gave up just 141.3 passing yards per game.
At cornerback, this iteration is, on paper, even stronger. Marlon Humphrey returns to his preferred outside position, where he’ll pair with the NFL’s best ball hawk, Marcus Peters, a fellow All-Pro who had three interceptions in 10 Ravens games last year. Tavon Young, fully recovered from a season-ending neck surgery, is back at his playmaking role in the slot. Jimmy Smith is an imposing and versatile fourth corner.
But with the surprising Aug. 23 release of Earl Thomas III after an on-field scuffle with Chuck Clark, there’s new uncertainty at safety. Clark, who Martindale said played five positions last year, will have to embrace a new partnership at the position. DeShon Elliott, Thomas’ likely replacement, has been injury-prone over his first two NFL seasons but is well respected internally.
If the Ravens create the kind of chaos they expect this season — they had 13 interceptions last year (tied for 12th in the NFL) and 37 sacks (21st) — the secondary will probably be involved, somewhere, somehow. The team easily led the NFL in blitz rate for defensive backs (28.4%), and four Ravens finished with at least 10 quarterback pressures, according to Football Outsiders. Only seven defensive backs total outside Baltimore were that disruptive.
“Just having all those playmakers, there’s just so many different minds and thoughts — how we can see this, how do they see this?” Humphrey said. “So I’m just leaning on those guys to help myself get the ball a little more often.”
Of course, the Ravens’ pass defense wasn’t the problem last year. Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry almost single-handedly ended the Ravens’ record-breaking campaign, rushing 30 times for 195 yards in an AFC divisional-round upset. In the Ravens’ three losses last season, to the Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Browns and Titans, they allowed 5.6, 6.7 and 5.9 yards per carry, respectively.
Brandon Williams will return to nose tackle, where he’s been most effective over his Ravens career. But with Michael Pierce having moved on to the Minnesota Vikings, there’s little depth behind him. So the Ravens will rely heavily on Pro Bowl defensive end and newcomer Calais Campbell, one of the NFL’s best run stoppers and a versatile pass-rush threat.
“I think we can have the best defensive line in the league, for sure, and we could break records,” defensive end Derek Wolfe, who’s also set to start on a revamped line, said in April. “We could break the rushing record — yards per rush, stuff like that.”
If the Ravens can stop the run on early downs, they’ll open up the playbook for waves of blitzes, which Martindale loves almost as much as his children. The team sent five or more defenders after the quarterback over 50% of the time last season, by far the NFL’s highest rate. That didn’t always translate into sacks, but it did produce pressure at an impressive clip.
With Pro Bowl outside linebacker Matthew Judon playing for a big-money deal, Tyus Bowser flashing in the preseason, and first-round pick Patrick Queen an athletic specimen at inside linebacker, the Ravens’ pass rush could do more with less. Or Martindale could have enough trust in his defensive backfield to ratchet up the pressure even higher.
“Of the 11 guys on the field, pretty much eight of them can go at any time, and you might still be only rushing four,” Campbell said of Martindale. “He’s definitely creative, but to do that is very complicated. To have all of these different blitzes is very, very complicated — but he made it very simple, which I think definitely shows his genius.”
Spears, the ESPN analyst, played defensive end for the Ravens in 2013, when Martindale served as the team’s linebackers coach. “Who else would you want to play for?” Spears said.
He knows how the Ravens want to attack. And with this defense bigger and faster in all the right places, according to Martindale, it might finally earn some of the spotlight it ceded to Jackson last year.
“I look forward to this Ravens defense being in the top five in almost every statistical category and being one of the defenses that we talk about possibly being able to help Lamar get over the hump in the playoffs, and for them to go deeper,” Spears said.
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“So I think they’ll be really, really good. I don’t even think they’ll be fine. I think they’ll be really, really good. They’ll be able to dominate. And you look at some of the names on this defense, you ask yourself, ‘Why couldn’t they be [one of the best], if not the best, defense in the league?’ "