Through three weeks, the Ravens have done the unexpected: Their passing attack is in better shape than their pass defense. Much better shape.
After Sunday’s 33-28 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, quarterback Lamar Jackson ranks fifth in the NFL in passer rating and ninth in passing yards per game. On the other side of the ball, a secondary expected to be among the NFL’s best has largely disappointed. A week after allowing 349 yards to Arizona Cardinals rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, the Ravens’ pass defense was torched for 374 yards by Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes.
Key pieces are missing: Slot cornerback Tavon Young suffered a season-ending neck injury in training camp, and outside cornerback Jimmy Smith remains out with a knee sprain. But few expected the Ravens, led by potential Pro Bowl cornerback Marlon Humphrey and safety Earl Thomas III, to enter AFC North play ranked 27th in the NFL in pass defense (290.3 yards allowed per game).
Two plays from Sunday’s game best exemplify the team’s problems. On the Chiefs’ longest pass play, there was too much disorder in the Ravens’ defensive backfield. And on one of the Chiefs’ longest-developing pass plays, the Ravens could hold up for only so long in coverage before a leak sprang.
Not enough communication
The play: First-and-10 at the Chiefs’ 17-yard line
The situation: Chiefs lead 14-6, 3:14 remaining in the second quarter
The result: 83-yard touchdown to Mecole Hardman
Over the season’s first three games, the Ravens defense has faced a since-benched journeyman quarterback (Ryan Fitzpatrick), the No. 1 overall draft pick (Murray) in a hostile home environment and the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player (Mahomes) on the road. Among qualified passers, they are the 35th-, 28th- and top-rated quarterbacks in the NFL, respectively.
In other words, it has not been a murderers’ row for the Ravens this September. And yet their pass defense has been among the NFL’s weakest, especially in preventing big plays. The Ravens are tied for sixth worst in the number of 20-plus-yard pass plays allowed (14) and tied for fourth worst in the number of 40-plus-yard pass plays allowed (four). At their current pace, the Ravens would finish with totals that would’ve ranked last in the NFL in both categories last season.
One big problem, players have said, is communication. Harbaugh on Monday attributed the struggles in part to breakdowns in defensive principles in certain coverages. Both were to blame for Hardman’s too-easy catch-and-run score Sunday.
Without knowing the Ravens’ play call, it is tough to identify those responsible with complete confidence. Safety Tony Jefferson, an outspoken leader, is the most likely candidate; Harbaugh on Sunday said "a certain player" played the coverage incorrectly, and Jefferson later said that he would take the blame.
Before the snap, Jefferson and Thomas were almost parallel in their depth, 11 to 13 yards off the line of scrimmage, with Thomas on the half of the field facing three Kansas City wide receivers. As Mahomes dropped back, Thomas did not drop deep; he looked for shorter crossing routes and hook routes over the middle of the field.
It was Jefferson who headed to the middle deep third of the field. His problem was that as he backpedaled, he moved no closer laterally to the lightning-fast Mecole Hardman, who was running a simple go route from one slot alignment in the Chiefs’ trips formation. Jefferson was on the opposite hash mark, on the side of the field with just one Kansas City receiver.
The defense’s problems quickly compounded. Cornerback Maurice Canady, lined up opposite Hardman, got out of his way and faded to the sideline, as if he expected safety help. Nearby, outside cornerback Anthony Averett, who appeared responsible for that deep third of the field, was deep enough to cover only the outside receiver. When Mahomes’ pass reached Hardman, no defender was within 8 yards of him. No defender was catching him, either.
Had Thomas and Jefferson flipped their presnap responsibilities, the secondary would’ve been in better shape. But the Ravens never put themselves in a position to prove it.
“We’ve had breakdowns two weeks in a row in different coverages,” Harbaugh said Monday. “And that’s not good. That’s what costs you big gains when you’re playing good teams who are explosive as [the Chiefs] are and can make those plays. We just can’t have it. Our guys know it.”
Not enough pressure
The play: First-and-10 at the Chiefs’ 20
The situation: Chiefs lead 23-13, 6:21 remaining in the third quarter
The result: 36-yard completion to Sammy Watkins
When the Ravens traveled to Arrowhead Stadium last season, they hit Mahomes on more than a quarter of his drop-backs (15 of 56, or 26.8%) and sacked him three times. Kansas City prevailed in overtime, but Mahomes (35-for-53 for 377 yards, two touchdowns and an interception) finished with his only sub-100 passer rating over the regular season’s final 12 weeks.
On Sunday, the Ravens’ hit rate was closer to 21% (eight of 38 drop-backs) ― most of their success came early on — and the defense finished with just one sack. Their lack of pass-rushing depth was painfully apparent on some plays. When Kansas City took possession for its second drive of the second half, the Ravens sent out Pernell McPhee and Tim Williams as their edge rushers.
But only McPhee came off the edge. Williams, lined up near the left tackle, retreated into zone coverage at the snap of the ball, while inside linebacker Kenny Young blitzed a gap between McPhee and defensive tackle Michael Pierce. The rush scheme was unbalanced and ineffective; by the time Mahomes got to the top of his drop, defensive end Chris Wormley, the Ravens’ leftmost defender on the line, was practically parallel with him.
Mahomes does not need much time to make magic. Through three games, his average time to throw, the period between when the ball’s snapped and when a pass is attempted, is 2.53 seconds, eighth quickest in the NFL, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. On this play, Mahomes got over four seconds. As he found space to his left, Watkins, running diagonally across the middle of the field from the left slot, kept on running.
Ravens inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor could do only so much. He was responsible for an underneath zone, but he also knew Watkins was somewhere behind him. When Mahomes finally wound up, his throw was actually a little undercooked; Watkins had to hit the brakes and stop his route. But there was just enough loft on the pass to sail over Onwuasor’s outstretched hands.
The Ravens had rushed four against six blockers and not gotten close to Mahomes. It didn’t matter that they had seven in coverage against Kansas City’s four receivers. There was more than enough time to stretch that zone.
Would outside linebacker Matthew Judon have helped? Most likely. He has three sacks and nine quarterback hits in three games. But Harbaugh said that the Ravens want their top pass rushers rested and healthy, which meant that on this play, he watched from the sideline.
On Sunday, the Ravens will face Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who can buy time with his feet. Judon and McPhee’s production will be critical, but Harbaugh said Monday that reserve outside linebackers Tyus Bowser, Tim Williams and Jaylon Ferguson must pick up the slack when they’re out.
“We need to get more pressure, more sacks from those guys,” he said. “They’ll probably tell you they need more reps. I would say earn more reps by doing something about it.”
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