Did the Ravens Defense Find its Swagger?

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Ever since Don ‘Wink’ Martindale became the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator in 2018, his defense has been one of the NFL’s most elite. From 2018-2020, the Ravens did not rank lower than seventh in total defense, and even finished first in the league his first year in charge, per ESPN.

In the 2021 season, however, this has not been the case. After giving up 33 points to the Las Vegas Raiders in an overtime loss to start the season, Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs dropped an additional 35 on them the following week with the Ravens barely coming out of that game with a 36-35 win. Yes, the Chiefs have one of the most prolific offenses in the NFL, but during the first two weeks of the season, Baltimore’s defense ranked dead last in passing yards allowed, according to TeamRankings. No matter who Baltimore was playing, it was a bad start for a usually proud Ravens defense. 

The outlook for the Ravens’ defense only got worse in week three, when, despite shutting out the currently 0-6 Detroit Lions in the first half, the defense collapsed into a mess of missed tackles and exhaustion in the second and almost allowed a dramatic comeback win for Detroit. It was only with an NFL record 66-yard walk off field goal by kicker Justin Tucker that Baltimore was able to win that game. 

Of course, the Ravens have not been helped by injuries. Three-time Pro Bowler CB Marcus Peters is out for the year with a torn ACL, as is starting linebacker LJ Fort. Multiple key defensive players have missed games so far this season and Baltimore currently has the second most players on the Injured Reserve list in the league, with fifteen players, as reported by Spotrac. Going into their week six matchup against the red hot Los Angeles Chargers offense, the assumption was that Lamar Jackson would have to match their attacking firepower in order for Baltimore to have a chance. Chargers QB Justin Herbert was fourth in the league in passing yards with 1,576 passing yards. WR Mike Williams had the fifth most receiving yards and was leading the league in receiving touchdowns. Add four-time Pro Bowl WR Keenan Allen and dual threat RB Austin Ekeler, and there was reason for concern for Ravens fans going into this past Sunday.

Those worries were very quickly put to bed. Baltimore jumped out to a 17-0 lead, the defense let up only a single score, and Ravens fans celebrated as the team cruised to a 34-6 win and the best record in the AFC. Baltimore’s powerful rushing offense feasted on the Chargers’ 32nd ranked rushing defense, and every issue that they had shown on defense in preceding weeks seemed to disappear. 

Coverage was tight, rushing lanes were invisible, tackling was immaculate, and essentially every matchup was won as the Ravens utterly stifled Los Angeles. Herbert threw for under 200 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Williams had two catches for 27 yards, and Allen did not fare much better, putting up 50 yards on five catches. On the ground they could not get anything started, finishing the game with a total 26 rush yards on twelve carries. This was the Ravens defense that the NFL world has been accustomed to for the last few years, but how did it happen?

The two biggest players that caused this change were S Deshon Elliott and MLB Josh Bynes. Elliott had previously missed three straight games, one with a concussion and two with a quad injury. In his return, he notched the only interception Herbert threw all game, marking the first pick of Elliott’s career. He added a sack on a safety blitz and three tackles. Bynes made his first start of the year and tied with CB Anthony Averett for the most tackles by a Ravens defender on Sunday with six tackles. He also tacked on a tackle for loss and a pass defended (on third down). Now in his eleventh year in the league, Bynes brought a sense of calm to the middle of the Ravens defense and massively improved the communication throughout the front seven. The biggest beneficiary to this was second year MLB Patrick Queen, who had regressed heavily through the first five weeks of the season after a strong rookie campaign. He looked comfortable in the run game and stronger in coverage, but left the game with an injury in the second half. 

Looking at the unit as a whole, the defense approached the game in the same way that they have historically done under ‘Wink’ Martindale. With an early Ravens lead and a non-existent Chargers run game, Los Angeles’ offense became one dimensional. LA was forced to throw to catch up, and with the Ravens secondary playing so strongly, Martindale was able to unleash his package of blitzes and keep Herbert on edge. The Ravens have led the league in blitz percentage every year since Martindale took over the defense. Their Blitz percentage hit a whopping 54.9% in 2019, per Pro Football Reference. Despite only two sacks on the day, Pro Football Focus credited the Ravens with nine total pressures on the Chargers QB, which resulted in Herbert going 2-7 for eight yards on said plays. Herbert said after the game that Baltimore “did a great job at disguising their looks; bringing pressure from one way and hiding from another,” adding that many of the defense’s looks had not appeared on film from earlier in the season.

Despite a blowout win against a division leader this past Sunday, the Ravens have stopped short of calling this week a statement for the rest of the league. 

When asked about the team’s performance in his postgame conference, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said “I don’t think it says anything long term. It just says that we had a really good day today…” 

Moving forward, the Ravens’ attention will switch over to their home matchup against the division rival Cincinnati Bengals. Last year Baltimore gave up a mere six points across two games versus the Bengals, but this year, Cincinnati is 4-2 after their defense has taken massive strides and their QB Joe Burrow has continued to show his talent with fourteen touchdowns and a 70.7 completion percentage thus far. Martindale and his defense will be hoping to show that the game against the Chargers was not just a fluke within a down year and that it was the start of a strong turnaround for the unit. They will be looking to definitively prove that they have their swagger back.

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