This Ravens secondary has not turned out as expected, but imagine if it had. Imagine if the Ravens weren’t last in the NFL in pass defense. Imagine if they had Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters and DeShon Elliott. Imagine them even having a few extra days to prepare for the Los Angeles Rams, to study every route run by all-everything wide receiver Cooper Kupp.
Chances are, Kupp would still find a way to get open Sunday in Baltimore. Two weeks ago, all he and quarterback Matthew Stafford needed in their ever-evolving aerial assault was just one half-speed practice repetition.
At some point before the Rams (11-4) traveled to Seattle in Week 15, Kupp reviewed a pass play they’d run only in a walk-through. It was “a little hairy there for a second,” Stafford recalled Wednesday to local reporters, but he suggested an adjustment to Kupp’s route the next time they ran it.
When Rams coach Sean McVay called the same play in the red zone against the Seahawks, with Seattle leading 10-3 in the third quarter, Stafford and Kupp recognized the defense. It was the same look that had made things hairy in the walk-through. Easy enough: Kupp, lined up in the slot, faked an out-breaking route, cut inside and stopped his route near the front of the end zone, between two Seahawks linebackers rotating over. Stafford tracked Kupp’s route like he’d run it 100 times.
“Hey, just like we thought,” he recalled joking with Kupp after their 6-yard touchdown in the Rams’ eventual 20-10 win. It can be that easy for the NFL’s top wide receiver. And that’s what will make Sunday so difficult for the Ravens asked to cover him.
One week after allowing a franchise-worst 575 yards in a deflating 41-21 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Ravens (8-7) will probably have to stay out of the NFL record books if they want a way into the postseason. Kupp, who leads the league in catches (132), yards (1,734) and touchdown receptions (14), needs 18 catches and 231 yards to break Michael Thomas and Calvin Johnson’s respective single-season records.
Even with cornerbacks Chris Westry and Jimmy Smith set to return Sunday, Kupp — and the threat his mere presence creates — could wreck the Ravens’ defense more than any wide receiver has this season. He’s finished with fewer than 92 yards in a game just once this year. He wins against zone coverage and man-to-man coverage. He blocks well. “He does everything,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said Thursday.
“The biggest challenge is the whole package,” coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. “First of all, he and Matthew Stafford have an amazing understanding of what to expect from one another. I think they read body language really well because of all the time they’ve had together this year.
“It’s just two very talented guys, who I think are kind of, sort of made for each other, if that makes any sense. And that offense is definitely built around their connection. So we’re going to have to do the best we can with that, and I expect us to do well, but that’s going to be a huge challenge. Nobody’s stopped those guys yet.”
It won’t help if starting cornerback Anthony Averett, who missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with a chest/ribs injury, is unavailable Sunday. Even if he does play, the Ravens’ most important defender might be slot cornerback Tavon Young.
According to Pro Football Focus, Kupp has run 389 routes from the slot, the fourth most in the NFL and 66% of his total routes. Over 15 games, he has 84 catches as a slot receiver for 1,201 yards — equal to Michael Jackson’s single-season Ravens record — and nine touchdowns. Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Godwin is the NFL’s second-most productive slot receiver, with a mere 722 yards.
“His ability to beat man coverage — not just beat it, but have real good separation on a lot of these double moves and some of these China routes that he runs and arrow routes, where he’s going one direction and changing direction — I mean, that’s the big thing, is just his change of direction,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said of Kupp in an interview Wednesday. “And so I don’t know who Wink thinks will be best on him with the banged-up room that they have right now.”
It was an easier decision two years ago, when Humphrey, Peters and Jimmy Smith missed a combined two defensive snaps in a 45-6 demolition of the Rams in Los Angeles. Kupp, then a third-year receiver on his way to his first 1,000-yard season, was targeted a game-high 10 times by quarterback Jared Goff but had just six catches for 35 yards.
Now the Ravens don’t have Humphrey or Peters — or Stafford toiling away with the Detroit Lions. Baldinger said the Ravens’ best hope for stopping Kupp might be a flustered Stafford, who threw three interceptions and was hit five times in a 30-23 win Sunday over the Minnesota Vikings.
Blame injuries or ineffectiveness, but few of the Ravens’ strategies for stopping star wideouts have panned out this season. According to Football Outsiders, the Ravens rank No. 25 in the NFL in pass defense against opponents’ No. 1 wide receiver. They finished second in efficiency last year and sixth in 2019.
Even when the Ravens have effectively double-teamed a receiver out of a game, quarterbacks have typically taken advantage elsewhere. With Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill blanketed in Week 2, Patrick Mahomes passed for 343 yards and three touchdowns. With Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams closely watched in Week 15, Aaron Rodgers picked apart a depleted secondary for 268 yards and three touchdowns.
If the Ravens take a similar tack Sunday, their fate might not be all that different. Baldinger joked that Stafford is like a lot of great quarterbacks: “Their favorite receiver is the open receiver.”
And Kupp gets open. A lot. Doesn’t matter whether he’s defended in man coverage (31 catches for 483 yards, according to PFF) or zone (69 catches for 873 yards). Martindale said Kupp plays as if he “lives and breathes and eats football.”
“I think he’s a student of the game,” Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said. “I think he’s someone that does a great job each and every week of knowing what he’s going to get, what he’s going to see, and then he’s just super elusive. You see some of the things he does, and it’s like, ‘How does he come up with that? What’s going on in his head to make him make that type of move — three different moves — to get himself open?’ So they do a great job of allowing him to be himself, have that freedom, and he’s just a beast, man. It’s been fun to be able to watch him.”
On Sunday, it won’t be hard to find Kupp. He’ll be the guy every Ravens defender is watching, too.
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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