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Ravens' investment in Earl Thomas suggests a defensive trade-off: pass rush for turnovers

The Ravens and new safety Earl Thomas have a future together, secured last week with a four-year, $55 million contract. But over an 18-quarter span last season, they also shared a statistical quirk.

From the second quarter of the Ravens’ Week 7 loss to the New Orleans Saints to the third quarter of a Week 12 win over the Oakland Raiders, the defense did not force a turnover. In that same period, neither did Thomas.

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Of course, Thomas wouldn’t have been able to help the Ravens, even if the Seattle Seahawks had lent him free of charge. By then, he was out for the season with a lower left leg fracture. The six-time Pro Bowl selection has made a habit of picking off passes and forcing fumbles throughout his nine-year NFL career, but it would have been tough for even him, trudging around on crutches.

The hope in Baltimore is that, even with an offseason that has weakened the Ravens’ top-ranked defense, Thomas can remedy one of the unit’s few ills. The 29-year-old played just 15 full quarters last season but still managed three interceptions; no Raven finished with more than two in 2018. Overall, only four teams finished with fewer takeaways than the Ravens’ 17 in 2018.

“Thankful for the organization for giving me a shot, especially coming off an injury,” Thomas said at his introductory news conference Friday. “I’m here to do what I always do, and that’s ball.”

Coach John Harbaugh lamented the Ravens’ bad turnover luck throughout last season. The defense had a consistent pass rush, a strong defensive backfield and certainly enough poor opponents on the schedule to finish with just over a takeaway per game. But until the Ravens’ last two wins of the season, when they forced a combined six turnovers against the Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns, it was a trickle, not a flood.

Thomas, when healthy, should help. He seemed to have a gravitational pull in Seattle. Over his final three years with the Seahawks, quarterbacks who faced him tended to perform like Blake Bortles. Quarterbacks who did not — Thomas missed a combined 19 games from 2016 to 2018 — were more like Andrew Luck.

According to ESPN, with Thomas on the field, Seattle’s defense gave up 30 passing touchdowns, had 30 interceptions, and allowed a 60.1 percent completion rate and 77.2 passer rating from 2016 to 2018. (Bortles' rating last year: 79.8.) Without Thomas, the numbers were relatively bleak: 31 passing touchdowns, seven interceptions, a 64.1 percent completion rate and 98.2 passer rating. (Luck's rating: 98.7.)

With Thomas now in purple and black, comparisons to Ed Reed are an inevitability, perhaps unfairly so. In Thomas’ 125 NFL games, he has 28 career interceptions. In Ed Reed's first nine seasons, a span of 128 games, he had 54.

But the Ravens do not need Thomas to play like Reed at his prime next season. They just need more than what they got from Eric Weddle, a trusted leader at safety whom they still cut this month after a zero-interceptions, zero-forced-fumbles 2018.

“Teams are being very careful with the football, there’s no question about that,” Harbaugh said in October, when the Ravens were mired in their turnover drought. “They tend to do that when you’re a team that has a reputation for taking the ball away. … Some of it’s on us — we haven’t made plays on the ball all the time like we need to. Sometimes the ball hasn’t gone our way. But we haven’t caused very many fumbles, and we haven’t gotten our hands on as many balls as we did last year, for sure. We have to find a way to do that.”

The departure of outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith (8½ sacks in 2018) and Terrell Suggs (seven sacks), who signed with the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals in free agency, respectively, suggests a trade-off in the Ravens’ offseason overhaul: a more dangerous secondary for a less consistent pass rush.

According to Football Outsiders, the Ravens last season finished tied for fifth in adjusted sack rate, which accounts for sacks and similar play results relative to down, distance and opponent. They also finished third in pressure rate, according to Pro Football Focus, pressuring quarterbacks on 37.7 percent on all drop-backs.

No wonder the Ravens didn’t need turnovers to get the ball back. The defense more than held its own on third downs, helped by Smith, Suggs, Weddle and C.J. Mosley, whom the New York Jets made the NFL’s highest-paid inside linebacker.

The Ravens have already replaced Weddle. If they can’t find successors for the rest, the ramifications will be felt team-wide. After a half-season of success with their Lamar Jackson-led ball-control offense, the Ravens should appreciate the cumulative effects on a defense when it struggles to get off the field, one way or another.

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“We want to get that ball back and get it back to Lamar, so he can do his thing,” Thomas said in an interview with the team website. “Takeaways, that's game-changing moments. And it's not just me. It's about playing team ball, us being connected in the back end, us communicating before every play, understanding sets, seeing it before it happens.”

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