As the Ravens prepare to get their 2018 campaign underway, fans are wondering what the team will do this year. When you combine the pressure to rebound from missing the playoffs three years in a row with a tough schedule, you have a scenario with little room for error.
For many the defense is a sign of strength as the season approaches. After retaining almost everyone from last year’s squad and adding some intriguing draft picks, this feeling is justified but as much as I want to, I can’t subscribe to this mentality. The Ravens defense was far too inconsistent in 2017 and it’s going to take some convincing before I put my trust in them again this year.
In the 2017 offseason, the Ravens retooled their defense in free agency and the draft. By bringing in the likes of Brandon Carr and Tony Jefferson, the front office seemed determined to fix the depth issues that plagued the secondary in previous seasons. When the draft rolled around it became evident that they were going to neglect the offense, but it didn’t matter because the defense was about to return to the days of old when the likes of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed patrolled the field and struck fear into the hearts of every opposing team.
This excitement was only natural and honestly there was nothing wrong with it. On paper the defense had an exceptional amount of depth, especially on the defensive line and in the secondary. However, the second that excitement turned into expectations, we were only setting ourselves up for disappointment.
The brand new Ravens defense dominated in the 2017 preseason, which only raised those expectations to extreme heights. When I say dominate, I mean it. During that four-game preseason campaign, the Ravens defense held their opponents to just 7.5 points and 206 yards-per-game while also forcing six turnovers.
Even the local media started to get on the hype train. A countless amount of outlets couldn’t resist the urge to compare the 2017 defense’s potential to the historic defensive units in team history. At the time I thought it was stupid but when the regular season kicked off in Cincinnati, the defense looked nothing short of historic. They forced five turnovers, including four interceptions by Andy Dalton, a quarterback who often picked apart the Ravens in previous seasons. When the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Ravens had successfully held their division foe to zero points.
A debut like this only strengthened the argument that the 2017 defense was the real deal. Throughout the rest of the season, the Ravens defense came up with two more shutouts and led the league in turnovers. These are just two of the biggest accomplishments for last year’s defense but the Ravens still finished the season with a 9-7 record and missed out on the playoffs for the third straight year.
How could this be? How could a team with such a dominant defense finish 9-7? Ask the average Ravens fan and they will tell you the offense was to blame. Well, I’m here to tell you that the defense is just as responsible, if not more, for the way the 2017 season played out.
Lets start by acknowledging the offense’s flaws. I previously mentioned the lack of attention given to the offense during the 2017 offseason and early on that looked like a serious detriment to the team. Throw in Joe Flacco’s back injury and some unbelievably predictable play-calling by Marty Mornhinweg, and things weren’t looking too hot. However, if you erase all touchdowns scored by the defense and special teams, the Ravens offense still managed to put up at least 20 points in 12 of their 16 games. Those other four games all ended up being loses, with the offense averaging just 10.5 points in them.
It’s performances like these that make Flacco and company an easy target for blame. However, in those four loses the Ravens defense allowed 28.5 points per game, making only one (week six against Chicago) actually winnable in crunch time. A pair of special teams touchdowns helped the Ravens keep the game alive, but in overtime it was the defense that choked by allowing Mitch Trubisky and Jordan Howard to walk 71 yards down the field with ease for a game-winning field goal.
This leads me to one of my biggest gripes with the 2017 defense, and that is the level of competition they faced. After a mass wave of season-ending injuries plagued the NFL, the Ravens defense ended up facing five offenses led by a rookie or backup quarterback. Their 4-1 record in those games is not a surprise considering they avoided quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Derek Carr. I can’t tell you what the record would be if they faced healthier teams but I would be willing to bet that two of their three shutouts (Green Bay & Miami) wouldn’t have happened if that was the case.
Unfortunately that previously mentioned loss against Chicago was not an isolated incident. Even the best defenses in the league are prone to being exposed every once in a while but that was not the case for the Ravens last year.
After the bye week the offense started to turn the corner. Flacco had more chemistry with his receivers and Alex Collins emerged as a legitimate threat in the backfield. Outside of a Sunday night matchup with the Steelers, the Ravens second half schedule was softer than a pillow. A playoff berth was still very much in sight and as long as the defense maintained their high level of play down the stretch, the Ravens would surely be back in the mix come January.
As we know now, that didn’t happen. The Ravens went 5-2 in their last seven games after the bye week. That doesn’t sound bad as an isolated stat, but the fact that the two losses could be boiled down to one play makes things way worse. In Pittsburgh the defense only needed to make one stop at any point in the fourth quarter and the Ravens would have had the edge in the offensive shootout. Fast forward to week 17 and the defense failed, once again, to make the one stop necessary with the game on the line.
As we prepare to enter the 2018 season, I look at the defense and I see a depth chart that pretty much mirrors what we saw last year. So I ask you, can the 2018 Ravens defense be trusted? Don’t get me wrong, I want nothing but success for this team and if they stay healthy I think they have an opportunity to really grow as a unit.
Health is just one of many variables standing in their way. Even if the defense keeps its big play-makers on the field, the pressure to succeed is being placed on the shoulders of new defensive coordinator Don Martindale. I compiled a lot of issues in the paragraphs above, but how many of them could have been avoided without Dean Pees calling plays? A lot of people seem to think most of them, but that doesn’t change the fact that Martindale is still rather unproven as a defensive coordinator.
Need more variables? How about Jimmy Smith? The Ravens top tier cornerback will be absent for the first four weeks of the season as he serves a suspension. When it comes to Smith’s impact, the numbers pretty much speak for themselves. With Smith on the field the last two seasons, opposing quarterbacks averaged a passer raring of 76.1. When Smith was out, that average rating increased to 91.5. To make things worse, two of the Ravens’ first four games will be road tests against the Bengals and Steelers.
Guess who wasn’t on the field when the Ravens faced Pittsburgh and Cincinnati down the stretch last season? There is no way to dispute it. Smith’s presence could have easily been the difference between a win and loss in those two games.
As always the numbers make a more compelling argument. When Smith faced off against Cincinnati’s A.J Green and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown in the first half of 2017, he allowed just two receptions and 27 yards. After being sidelined with a season-ending injury, Green and Brown brought in 13 receptions and racked up 230 yards while running wild against the rest of the Ravens secondary.
My final variable is the health and depth of the defense. At the end of the day health is a something that you don’t always have control over and that’s scary. We saw the difference in results when Smith went down, but what if another cornerstone of this defense, like Brandon Williams or Terrell Suggs, misses time? The absence of either of these players would handicap the pass rush and run defense significantly.
We don’t have to speculate because the Ravens defense has already taken a hit with a couple preseason injuries. DeShon Elliott and Stanley Jean-Baptiste were not primed to be starters but their season-ending injuries have an impact on the team’s depth which could become a bigger problem as the season progresses.
The worst defensive injury of the preseason wasn’t even a season-ending one. Rookie linebacker Kenny Young came on strong this preseason and challenged Patrick Onwuasor for the second starting middle linebacker position. Even if he didn’t get the starting role, he would have likely seen significant playing time but now there are questions surrounding his knee. The team’s depth at middle linebacker is pretty thin with or without Young, which has me concerned moving forward.
Just like last year, there is a ton of potential to be found when looking at the Ravens defense. Who knows, the offense is certainly looking more capable going into this season so the need for a lockdown defense may not be as necessary as last year. I just worry that between the variables listed above and a tough schedule, the defense will be put under extreme pressure this year.
Image credit: Patrick Semansky / AP