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How Will Ravens Fix Their Defense?

Alex Woodward
October 02, 2019 - 11:23 pm
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By Alex Woodward

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It's been a rough two weeks for Ravens fans after watching back-to-back awful performances by the defense. Coach Harbaugh was adamant on Monday afternoon that they would find a way to clean up the defensive miscues. 

"We have a fast team. We have guys that can play the ball. There’s just no way in the world … We’re not a defense that doesn’t tackle. We never have been. And we’re not a defense that gives up big pass plays. We just never have been, not consistently. And we’re not going to be that this year, and it’s going to get fixed. It should have been fixed last week. A couple different things came up, and it has to get corrected this week. And I’m sure we’re going to get tested. I guarantee you Pittsburgh is going to be throwing those same types of routes, and we have to play them better.”

There's no such thing as a quick fix in the NFL but it's clear the Ravens aren't afraid to shake things up on defense. Last week, in an attempt to lighten the load on third-year linebacker Patrick Onwuasor; the team gave the helmet with the microphone installed to Tony Jefferson instead. After the game, coach Harbaugh said the mistakes on defense last Sunday were not communication related for the most part. Instead, he attributed the blunders to players trying to "do to much" and "overplaying" their assignments. So how do they fix this? Let's take a look at every level of the defense and what could possibly help avoid performances like the past two weeks. 

Defensive Line

The Ravens run defense was solid in the first two weeks, allowing 41 total rushing yards to the Dolphins and Cardinals. They followed that up by getting gashed by 333 yards at the hands of the Chiefs and Browns. Last week's performance in which they allowed 193 yards to Nick Chubb and friends can probably be attributed to a big piece missing in the middle. Brandon Williams. Williams was a late addition to the injury report on Saturday morning with a knee injury and his status on Sunday came down to a game-time decision. His expected return this week should help block up the middle running lanes but the defense still needs to do a better job of setting edges and fighting through blocks. Williams played in the Chiefs game where they gave up 140 yards so his return doesn't make the run defense problems disappear. The defensive lines ability to stop the run is the least of my worries. The problem is the pass rush. That's the biggest concern for me on this defense and as we know, a good rush up the middle can create other openings for the edge rushers. They need to find a way to contribute more in that category and overall they need to be more physical.

Linebackers

This has been one of the weakest areas for the Ravens and the team hasn't kept that a secret. Coach Harbaugh was asked what improvements he would like to see from the inside linebackers, “You have to play the run. Just downhill run fits, a little more physicality, a little more experience is what we’re looking for.”

Harbaugh points out the struggles in the run which is fair criticism but I would argue Patrick Onwuasor and Kenny Young have struggled most in pass coverage. They're both fast but it seems they are one of the many victims of over playing an assignment or overthinking their positioning. They need to be more disciplined and the addition of two veteran linebackers in LJ Fort and Josh Bynes shouldn't have either of them feeling good about their job security. Does Chris Board end up getting more playing time after playing just 26% of defensive snaps this season? Do the Ravens shift to more Dime package looks with DeShon Elliott or Anthony Levine Sr. playing at the linebacker level? I'm not sure but I'm expecting some kind of shakeup in the middle of the defense this week. 

Speaking of job security, the Ravens cut former 2017 3rd round draft pick Tim Williams on Tuesday. Williams played 50% of the defensive snaps in his 4 games this season (although his snap share dropped with each passing week) but could only muster 2 tackles with none for a loss and no sacks or quarterback hits. For a team that is in desperate need of a pass rush, it's interesting that they were willing to release one of their rushers but it was clear the time was up for Williams. After all, Wink Martindale gave him plenty of opportunities and the teams defensive line coach Joe Cullen told him that his time was almost up if he didn't start living up to his draft billing. So where does that leave the pass rush now?

Matt Judon was disruptive in the first 3 games with a sack in each game and 9 quarterback hits overall. Last week was the first time he was held without a sack or even a quarterback hit. Judon is the teams best pass rusher and opposing teams know that. Expect him to get doubled more and more if the Ravens can't find another way to get pressure. On the other side, Pernell McPhee has played well but with the team stating that they would like to limit his snap counts; you have to worry about his effectiveness and durability moving forward. Jaylon Ferguson and/or Tyus Bowser HAVE to step up and start doing what they were drafted to do. Bowser notched his first sack last week and Ferguson saw his snaps rise from 0 in the first two weeks to 9 and 22 in weeks three and four. I expect both of them to get worked into the rotation more often. 

Secondary

First of all, Marlon Humphrey may be one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the NFL. He frustrated Odell Beckham Jr, holding him catchless through the first three quarters of the game for the first time in Beckham's career. That's not to say that Humphrey hasn't played mistake free football but he is clearly the teams top weapon on defense. Earl Thomas has drawn heavy criticism from Ravens fans this season but the Baltimore Sun's, Jonas Shaffer, eloquently broke down the reasons why Earl hasn't been the problem. As stated before, Tony Jefferson has taken over the "green dot" duties on defense and has done so with a smooth transition...the problem is that Tony seems to always take poor angles in the open field and he (along with others) needs to get back to wrapping up instead of going for the big hit. Again, overthinking or trying to do much instead of making the sure play. The tackling has been so bad that the Ravens ended up going back to the fundamentals. 

The tackling needs to get better, they need to play better in zone coverage especially when it comes to who carries what receiver where and why not try pressing more at the line? A successful press coverage at the line could allow the pass rush a little more time to get to the quarterback and it could also disrupt the routes run by the receivers. The flip side of that strategy is if they can't successfully press at the line and the receiver can break free...we're back to the big play problem again. It's worth a try though, right?

Giving up 500 yards of offense to the Chiefs is a common occurence in the NFL but against the Browns at home?! That can't happen. Hopefully last week's disaster will serve as a rock bottom and a teaching moment. A matchup against 2nd year quarterback Mason Rudolph making his 3rd career start should help the defense get back on track. 

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