The Ravens had just escaped Heinz Field on Oct. 6 with a 26-23 overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, a timely punch-out by cornerback Marlon Humphrey and 46-yard field goal by Justin Tucker ending the team’s two-game losing streak.
While quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense struggled with three turnovers, it was a bounce-back effort for the defense, which had allowed over 500 yards in consecutive losses.
The Ravens held the Steelers to 269 yards and forced two turnovers. After the game, outside linebacker Pernell McPhee referenced the 2018 New England Patriots as an example of how a defense can rebound from early-season struggles.
McPhee mentioned New England’s slow start, in which the Patriots dropped to 1-2 after allowing over 400 yards in back-to-back losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions. New England finished the regular season with modest defensive rankings but improved as the season went on, culminating with its showcase in Super Bowl XLIII, holding the Los Angeles Rams’ high-powered offense to three points and 260 yards.
Through seven games, the Ravens defense has followed a similar path, rebounding from embarrassing performances against the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns.
The unit still ranks in the bottom half of the league in yards per play allowed, takeaways and scoring defense, but those numbers have improved vastly during the team’s three-game winning streak. The defense has given up 4.9 yards per play during that span, which would rank fourth-best in the NFL. Five of the team’s nine takeaways have come in the midst of its winning streak.
Since allowing 33 and 40 points to the Chiefs and Browns, respectively, the defense is giving up an average of 18.6 points, which would also rank in the top half of the league.
Despite massive turnover on the defensive side since Week 1, the unit hasn’t undergone a schematic overhaul. The team’s aggressive philosophy has stayed intact — the Ravens still lead the NFL in blitz percentage, bringing pressure on 48% of dropbacks — although it ranks 28th with 12 sacks.
Defensive players and coaches said the turnaround has instead been a matter of the team finding the right players to fit schemes and each player settling into their roles.
“Upstairs and upper management did a good job in fixing some areas that needed to be fixed,” outside linebacker Matthew Judon said Wednesday. “I think all these guys that came in, they’re very professional about it and the guys that we have in the locker room, we welcome them with open arms.”
Early stages of the season were marred by egregious breakdowns in the secondary and players failing to stay in their gaps in run defense. After the team’s 40-25 home loss to the Browns, coach John Harbaugh said players were overcompensating, leading to these mistakes.
“We’re chasing some patterns that really fall in the category of trying to do too much,” Harbaugh said Sept. 30. “That’s not what we need to do. You just need to do your job, be in your right spot and play football.”
In the following days, veteran inside linebackers Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort were signed to bring more experience and fill gaps more solidly. Over the next month, the Ravens made multiple transactions to alter their defense.
Players were cut (outside linebacker Tim Williams) and instant contributors were signed (Bynes, Fort and defensive lineman Jihad Ward).
Two weeks ago, the Ravens traded away second-year linebacker Kenny Young to the Rams to bring in cornerback Marcus Peters, a move that has brought more stability to an injury-riddled secondary.
Injuries on the back end and throughout the defense have also prompted the shuffling. According to the Over The Cap, the Ravens rank fifth in the league with $19.9 million of their salary cap on injured reserve. Defensive starters such as slot cornerback Tavon Young, safety Tony Jefferson and McPhee make up the bulk of that total.
“We’ve had some new guys come in and step up and they’re playing great football,” safety Earl Thomas III said. “Other than that, I think we’re really taking what we’re learning in the classroom and really executing on the football field. We’re tackling better, we’re not busting too many coverages. The Kansas City game, bro, we left a lot of plays out there. Right before two-minute has been our Achilles heel. We fixed that problem. We just got to keep going every week.
“We’re finding our guys’ strengths and we’re putting guys in great positions to help us win. That’s been a good help for us as well. Other than that, we haven’t changed philosophy or anything like that. Guys are just buying in.”
After the team’s 30-16 win over the Seattle Seahawks — a victory in which the defense scored two touchdowns — Harbaugh referred to the unit’s “good mix” of young and veteran players redirecting the trajectory of the unit.
Thomas appears more comfortable in the Ravens’ scheme as the season progresses. Humphrey, in his third year, has asserted himself as one of the league’s top corners. Bynes and Fort have filled in well for an injured Patrick Onwuasor, and a cast of inexperienced players, such as safety Chuck Clark and outside linebackers Tyus Bowser and Jaylon Ferguson, have performed well with increased snaps.
Over the course of a rigorous NFL season, attrition is expected. Change is necessary. Success isn’t often measured by the team that enters the season with the most talent, but the one that makes the most prudent adjustments, given the state of its personnel.
“You had the bye week, you had a chance to reflect back,” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said. “I really like the direction that we’re going. We’re playing with a lot better fundamentals, knock-back at the line of scrimmage. Our eyes are in the right place in coverage.
“Our leverages and angles of the football have improved immensely, and most importantly, our tackling has [improved]. Obviously, we had a rough stretch there, and there’s a focus on making sure we do everything right. I’m excited [about] where that’s going.”
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