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Baltimore Ravens

Ravens look to move past their defensive woes against talented Vikings offense

If the Ravens could count on any aspect of their team going into this season, it was supposed to be their pass defense.

They had prioritized their secondary for years, spending tens of millions of dollars to sign or reach extensions with defensive backs Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Chuck Clark. Every spring, they had attempted to add depth in the draft. If anything, they began training camp with too many gifted candidates for the available spots on their 53-man roster.

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So it was startling to contemplate how quickly they had fallen as they walked off the field after a 41-17 thrashing at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 24. Seven weeks into the season, they ranked dead last against the pass, down from sixth in 2020. Joe Burrow had surpassed 400 passing yards, the third quarterback to do so against Don “Wink” Martindale’s defense. Rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase had humiliated Humphrey, the Ravens’ signature defender.

After a bye week spent dissecting their flaws, the Ravens will try for a reset Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. They have made all the expected comments about not obsessing over one bad week. But Martindale and his players are facing a hard and unfamiliar question: Can they plug enough defensive leaks to uphold the team’s Super Bowl ambitions?

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A season-ending injury to Peters, one of the league’s greatest ball hawks, did not help. With less experienced players filling key roles in the secondary, Martindale has changed his big-picture approach, blitzing on 32.5% of drop-backs compared with a league-high 44.1% in 2020.

In many cases, however, the Ravens’ troubles have flowed from breakdowns in basic technique rather than schematic flaws.

“We just have to play better,” Martindale said, echoing a diagnosis several veteran Ravens defenders have offered since the loss to the Bengals. “You spend all weekend thinking about it, talking about it, and that’s the answer. We just have to play better on first and second down, because [in] our situational football, we’ve been excellent. That involves tackling, execution and communication.”

In a surprise to everyone, Humphrey, the Ravens’ most important defender, was the chief culprit in several major breakdowns against the Bengals. His struggles did not end with Chase, who beat him for a touchdown on an 82-yard catch-and-run. He also lost tight end C.J. Uzomah on a 55-yard touchdown in the second quarter.

“A lot of it, kind of, is on me,” Humphrey said afterward. “I’ve just got to play better, especially when the game plan is for me to have a big day. The coaches put the trust in me to kind of lead the defense, lead the game plan, [and] I’ve just got to execute better.”

Martindale predicted Humphrey will rise quickly from the ashes.

“I have all the confidence in the world in Marlon,” he said. “He’s the first one to tell you he didn’t play well. That happens, and he’ll bounce back.”

The Vikings are not going to make anyone forget the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams or the 2007 Patriots, but they are capable of exploiting the flaws that showed up again and again in the Ravens’ first seven games. Quarterback Kirk Cousins releases the ball quickly and has completed 69% of his passes. Though his average depth of target (6.6 air yards, per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats) is one of the lowest in the league, his top two receivers, Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, can turn short catches into big gains.

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It’s a difficult matchup for a defense that has allowed more yards after the catch (166.7 per game compared to 121.4 last season) than any other in the league. The Ravens, with the exception of their 34-6 beatdown of the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 6, have struggled to move past their tackling woes. They’re roughly average in the depth of completions they allow, but too many of those short and intermediate passes have turned into backbreaking gains.

“We’ve just got to continue working on our technique and execution,” safety DeShon Elliott said. “It’s not always about X’s and O’s; it’s about players and us doing our job, and I think we’re going to get it done. We’ve just got to staple guys to the ground. That’s been our biggest thing right now — stapling guys to the ground.”

Players and coaches have already faced dozens of questions about how to improve tackling when relatively little contact is permitted in modern NFL practices.

“I think it helped us, [Wednesday], practicing in pads, and just the emphasis on angles and feet and eyes,” Martindale said. “Some of our missed tackles are coming where we’re just trying to blow somebody up, where it’s OK to just get them down — that’s the biggest thing. So, we’re going to continue to work on that and attack that every day. And if we get this defense tackling, watch out, because then you’ve got everything working, everything clicking.”

Beyond their efficient passing attack, the Vikings have running back Dalvin Cook, whom Martindale referred to, admiringly, as a “beast.”

“I think he’s got great balance, and vision, and speed and power,” he said. “You want me to keep going?”

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The Ravens are all too familiar with the zone-blocking schemes and stretch runs employed by Vikings offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak, whose father, Gary, ran the Baltimore offense in 2014.

“He’s a chip off the old block,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s definitely running his dad’s system, and he knows it, obviously, as you can see, very well. It kind of fits what they want to be as a team.”

The Ravens will not be able to sit on one element of the Vikings offense.

“With Kirk Cousins, how well he does play-action fakes, you have to really stay disciplined,” outside linebacker Tyus Bowser said. “You can’t just sell for him having the ball, because you have [Cook] back there, who’s ready to go downhill if you make the wrong decision. So that’s what we’ve been working on the entire week, just staying disciplined on the back side.”

The Vikings rank just 28th in rushing DVOA, according to Football Outsiders, a surprising statistic that suggests they are not getting as much as they should out of Cook’s talent and Kubiak’s designs.

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But the Ravens have faltered against less talented offenses this season, and they know it will not be easy to get back on track against Minnesota. A repeat of their woes against the Bengals (and the Indianapolis Colts and Las Vegas Raiders before that) would raise uncomfortable questions as they look ahead to a dastardly late-season schedule.

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“We always have this philosophy: You can never let one game beat you twice,” Martindale said. “If you feel sorry for yourself, this league will slap you around for as long as you feel sorry for yourself, until you stand back up [and] get ready to go play. And we’ll be ready to go play come Sunday.”

Week 9

VIKINGS@RAVENS

Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5 Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 6


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