The Ravens offense has managed to lead the league in rushing through the first two games of the season despite injuries at running back and along the offensive line. Baltimore’s banged-up defense, particularly the secondary, hasn’t been as resilient.
Entering a Week 3 game against the Detroit Lions, the Ravens secondary has allowed 752 passing yards, the most in the league. A lot of that has to do with facing the strong passing offenses of the Las Vegas Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs. Quarterbacks Derek Carr and Patrick Mahomes have ranked in the top 15 in the league in passing yards over the past three seasons. Carr leads the league with 817 passing yards this season, while Mahomes, the 2018 NFL Most Valuable Player, isn’t too far behind in third place.
With the majority of the NFL running three wide receiver sets, the Ravens could have more problems down the road with the absence of cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Chris Westry and most recently safety DeShon Elliott, who suffered a concussion against Kansas City. Jimmy Smith is still working his way back from an ankle sprain, while fellow cornerback Tavon Young, who missed all but two games in 2020 with a torn ACL, was limited in practice Thursday with a knee injury.
Baltimore has allowed 10.1 yards per attempt defending three wide receiver sets this season, according to Sharp Football Stats. Last season, the Ravens held opponents to 6.2 passing yards per attempt against that alignment, with healthy Pro Bowl corners Marlon Humphrey and Peters leading the way.
“The challenge if you have a system like ours is not a great challenge,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said about the depth in the secondary. “It’s just the execution is what you’re hoping to get come Sunday.”
Martindale has been pleased with cornerback Anthony Averett, who stepped into the starting role after Peters’ season prematurely ended because of a torn ACL.
“He’s just taken it and run with it,” Martindale said of the 2018 fourth-round pick. “He takes great pride in it, too. I think there’s just going to be great things with him throughout the season.”
In the win over the Chiefs, Averett recorded five total tackles. With the Chiefs leading 35-30 and facing a third-and-9 during the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, Mahomes threw a pass to speedy receiver Tyreek Hill, which was broken up by Averett.
“That was a big-time play against a great quarterback and receiver running a really good, well-timed route,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “But he played like a very good starting corner out there. I thought he had a really good game.”
The Ravens have had the unfortunate luck of facing two of the league’s top tight ends in the Raiders’ Darren Waller and the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, who combined for 17 catches for 214 yards and two touchdowns. Lions tight end T.J. Hockenson is no different, as the 2020 Pro Bowl selection has recorded 163 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns during the team’s 0-2 start.
“If our safeties want to know what it’s like to play in the Pro Bowl, just look at the last few weeks,” Martindale said. “The biggest thing with those tight ends is the relationship they have with the quarterback. I mean think about right here with Mark Andrews and Lamar [Jackson], they got a great relationship. Mark knows where to get where Lamar would find him. And that’s what we’ve seen time and time again. It’s the same thing in Detroit.”
Harbaugh described Hockenson as the straw that stirs the drink in Detroit. “He can make every kind of play,” Harbaugh said. “He runs every kind of route. They try to scheme him open every different kind of way they can, and he’s a guy we have to be very aware of.”
Outside of Hockenson, the Ravens don’t have too much to worry about when facing the Lions. Wide receiver Tyrell Williams was placed on injured reserve Thursday with a concussion, which means Detroit is counting on second-year wideout Quintez Cephus and rookie fourth-round pick Amon-Ra St. Brown.
The degree of difficulty increases during the next few weeks, however. The Ravens’ secondary will be tested by Denver Broncos wide receivers Courtland Sutton and K.J. Hamler and tight ends Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam in Week 4. The Los Angeles Chargers’ Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and rookie Ja’Marr Chase and the Minnesota Vikings’ Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen loom over the next six weeks.
Harbaugh knows the rest of the league won’t feel sorry for a banged-up defense.
“There are going to be injuries. We were hit hard — no question about it,” he said. “But you have to step up and you have to overcome. So, you don’t dwell on that; you just overcome it.”
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Line: Ravens by 8