Catastrophe does not often find defenses on third-and-very-long, but then, this has been a season of recurring misfortunes for the Ravens’. So it was that with the Cincinnati Bengals trailing late Sunday, needing 24 yards to keep their slim comeback hopes alive, another disaster materialized out of thin air in Baltimore.
As the pocket collapsed around him, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw a high-arcing pass down the right sideline to wide receiver Alex Erickson. Cornerback Justin Bethel, normally a special teams contributor, had inside position. As they jostled for the ball, Bethel went to his knees to play the pass as it fell to the ground, incomplete.
DeShon Elliott arrived a step too late. Sprinting over from his deep-safety position, he was at nearly full speed when Bethel started to fall toward him. The collision bent Elliott’s left knee back awkwardly. He did not return to the game, a 23-17 Ravens win. A day later, coach John Harbaugh announced that Elliott had suffered an apparent season-ending injury.
“That’s where we’re at,” Harbaugh said Monday, only a week after starting safety Tony Jefferson had been lost for the year with a knee injury as well. “We’ll have to find a replacement there and move forward.”
Jefferson’s absence is more significant than Elliott’s, but with each injury, the Ravens defense’s margin for error dwindles. Elliott played a career-high 27 defensive snaps Sunday, as well as 18 on special teams, and his fit as a deep-lying safety freed Chuck Clark, Jefferson’s replacement, to play closer to the line of scrimmage.
According to a review of the game, when Elliott lined up at a more traditional safety position, Clark played in the “box,” an area extending to about 5 yards from the line of scrimmage, 20 times Sunday. Four other times both safeties lined up in the box. Over the rest of the Bengals’ 55 offensive plays, when Elliott was sidelined, either with the injury or for substitution purposes, Clark’s depth varied, bouncing from off-the-line blitzes to shadowing tight ends to sharing deep-coverage responsibilities with safety Earl Thomas.
It was just Clark’s fourth start, and first time wearing the defensive headset, and he did not appear overwhelmed.
“He played well,” Harbaugh said Monday. “He was always in the right spot, made the plays he had to make. Chuck did a real nice job. I thought everybody did a really good job. You can pull plays here and there and say they need to be better, which they certainly do, but all in all, I thought our defense played pretty darn well.”
Elliott’s injury will force another defensive restructuring ahead of Sunday’s clash with the Seattle Seahawks. New safety signing Bennett Jackson is familiar with the Ravens’ schemes, but he has never appeared in a regular-season game. It would be unwise to saddle him with Elliott’s responsibilities, at least so quickly.
It was just one game against a depleted offense, but the Ravens did not suffer when Elliott and Clark were uncoupled on the field. When both Elliott and Clark lined up in the box, they allowed 3.5 yards per play. When Elliott lined up behind an in-the-box Clark, they allowed 5.9 yards per play. (Other than an apparent miscommunication with cornerback Brandon Carr that led to a 22-yard catch-and-run, Elliott had a solid game.)
But when only Clark was on the field, the Ravens allowed 4 yards per play and forced Dalton’s lone interception. Clark wasn’t targeted once in coverage, blanketing tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Eifert in man-to-man coverage and drawing an offensive-pass-interference penalty in the first quarter. He stuffed a red-zone carry after a 2-yard gain, then two plays later signaled to cornerback Marlon Humphrey for a presnap coverage switch on wide receiver Tyler Boyd, allowing Humphrey to help bracket Erickson and force an incompletion on third down.
The question defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale faces is how to make use of Clark’s talents with Elliott out and starting inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor likely returning soon. Harbaugh said Monday that Onwuasor is day-to-day with the ankle injury that sidelined him Sunday. If he practices this week, he should play in Seattle.
Against Cincinnati, Clark handled some of the responsibilities that Onwuasor absorbed when Josh Bynes’ move to middle linebacker forced him into a weak-side role in Week 5.
“Different guys in different spots,” Harbaugh said Monday. “It’s something we’ve been pretty much doing all year with a lot of different groups in different situations and matchups and things like that. It was good for us. It worked well. When you do that, the communication, assignments, things like that have to be really on point. I give our coaches and players a lot of credit for working those things out and talking it out on the field and all that.”
Besides covering tight ends, Clark also blitzed often Sunday. Onwuasor could offer an upgrade there for a struggling pass rush. He has just one sack this season, but playing in a weak-side role next to C.J. Mosley in 2018, he had a sack every 11.5 pass-rush snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, finishing with 5 1/2.
If Elliott’s injury forces Clark to line up more regularly in a deeper position in the defensive backfield, or if new Raven Marcus Peters doesn’t push another cornerback to Elliott’s role, the challenge for Onwuasor will be improving in coverage. According to Pro-Football-Reference, Onwuasor has been targeted 21 times in coverage this season — and has allowed 20 completions for 319 yards. Only Jefferson (141.4) is responsible for a passer rating worse than Onwuasor’s (118.7).
The early returns Sunday were encouraging, as the Ravens defense’s latest iteration held the lowly Bengals to 250 yards of offense, nearly 70 yards below their season average. Seattle will be a far different test. Led by Most Valuable Player candidate Russell Wilson, the Seahawks have the NFL’s most efficient passing attack, according to Football Outsiders, and third-best offense overall.
And Clark, wherever he happens to be on the field, will be the one readying the defense before every last snap.
“When he got the mic, he rallied the troops, huddled us up, gave us the call and got to where he needed to be and made sure that the coverage was on point, and that’s what he has to do when he has the mic," outside linebacker Matthew Judon said Sunday. "That’s exactly what he has to do.”