The Ravens defense has either hit a speed bump or a wall.
Before Monday night’s 31-25 overtime win against the Indianapolis Colts, the defense appeared to be getting better. In Week 3, the Ravens held the Lions to 285 yards of total offense and registered four sacks. A week later, they allowed 254 yards of total offense against the Denver Broncos and collected three sacks.
Then came the Colts.
The Ravens (4-1) won in overtime, but Indianapolis had Baltimore off balance all night, rolling up 513 yards of total offense, including 390 passing yards. It was reminiscent of the Ravens’ Week 2 win against Kansas City, in which the Chiefs compiled 405 yards of total offense. The Ravens allowed 8.3 yards per play against the Chiefs and 8.1 against the Colts.
It will be interesting to see which Ravens defense shows up Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers (4-1), who are ranked No. 7 in total offense (411.4 yards per game) and No. 3 in passing offense (303 yards per game). The featured player is quarterback Justin Herbert, who has completed 67.1% of his passes for 1,576 yards with 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions in his second season.
“I mean, he’s got tremendous arm talent, accuracy,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said. “He’s the prototypical NFL quarterback, if you will, in looking at him. And he’s got a lot of talent that goes with that arm, as far as himself, of reading coverages, and he has great targets to throw to. So, it’s going to be a big-time challenge.”
The Ravens have 12 games left to improve, but Sunday’s contest might be a glimpse at the big picture. Are the Ravens going to improve significantly enough to go into the postseason with a defense that can complement their improved offense?
The Ravens like their new-found offensive firepower and quarterback Lamar Jackson’s ability to throw downfield, but prefer to have more balance defensively. They are ranked No. 24 in total defense, allowing 389.6 yards per game. That’s not good enough to win in the postseason.
Is this speed bump too high to overcome?
“They had a great game plan,” coach John Harbaugh said of the Colts. “[Head coach] Frank Reich is a great coach. They kept us off balance with screens, with inside runs, with outside runs [and] controlled passes. We did a good job of attacking what we were in when we were in it. They had single coverage, and we attacked it. And quite frankly, they executed better than us. We didn’t play as well as we can. [Defensive lineman] Calais [Campbell] will tell you that; all the guys will.
“We have to improve in a lot of ways. We didn’t do all the things that we needed to do, and we just have to get better. It’s a long season, and we have a lot of work to do, for sure.”
That’s an understatement.
The biggest area of concern has to be tackling. It’s not just a Ravens problem, but one throughout the NFL. Colleges don’t invest the time to perfect it, and both high school and recreation teams have gone away from teaching kids how to tackle properly because of fear of injury and possible lawsuits.
The Ravens, though, have taken the lost art to another level. Arm tackling doesn’t work, and inside linebacker Patrick Queen leads the team in missed tackles because of his inability to wrap up players. Weak-side linebacker Malik Harrison isn’t too far behind, even though few opponents break out of his grasp when meeting him head on.
“I think it’s the full gamut of recognizing different schemes and getting downhill, more than anything else, and reacting faster to different types of schemes,” Martindale said of his young linebackers, both in their second seasons. “[Linebackers coach] Rob [Ryan] has done yeoman’s work as far as trying to get them there, but when the ball is snapped, and if they’re slow to it, you’re going to see the results that you see. So, they just have to react faster, attack, and then once they get there, they need to tackle.
“I think that in PQ’s case, it’s a young, fast player that’s trying to do everybody else’s job, and he needs to do his. He’s trying to make every play; just make the plays that he’s supposed to make, and we’ll be good as a defense. But once again, there’s a standard of the defense, and we’re not playing up to it right now, so we’ve got to do some different things and change up pictures for upcoming opponents. All eyes are ahead to the Chargers right now, and it’s going to be a tough challenge. So, that’s one of the things about having a flexible defense like we do — it’ll help us out.”
Martindale also suggested the Ravens need to work on pursuit angles, which is of vital importance this week because the Chargers like to throw to their running backs, something the Ravens have struggled to defend. Besides leading the Chargers in rushing with 349 yards on 67 carries, running back Austin Ekeler is third on the team in receptions with 23 for 194 yards and three touchdowns.
But it’s just not the inside linebackers who have disappointed. The Ravens have played the run well, allowing only 93.2 rushing yards per game, but need a stronger performance from nose tackle Brandon Williams. The secondary, considered the strongest unit on the team the past two seasons, has fallen off, allowing 296.4 passing yards per game, tied for No. 28 in the NFL. The Ravens miss Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters, who’s out for the season with a knee injury.
Fourth-year cornerback Anthony Averett has played well filling in for Peters, but was victimized repeatedly by the Colts. The Chargers look at game film. He can expect some action Sunday.
“You don’t need to build up his confidence,” Martindale said. “These are one-game seasons, every Sunday or Monday night or Thursday night — whenever it comes. There was a series of events that happened with him, and I explained that to him, as far as the reaction to it and how you’ve got to play. With all these guys, I still have the same confidence in them as I had standing up here whatever week you want to pick out. As a defense, you’ve got to handle a series of events, and as a player, as an individual, you have to handle a series of events — and that’s in life and in games and practice and everything else.”
Besides Herbert and Ekeler, the Chargers have a talented receiving corps in Keenan Allen (34 catches, 369 yards, one touchdown) and Mike Williams (31 catches, 471 yards, six touchdowns), who are both big, tall and fast. Williams, however, is not expected to play Sunday after missing practice this week with a knee injury.
On the other side of the ball, Los Angeles has the worst run defense in the NFL, allowing 157.6 yards per game. A good defense for the Ravens would be to pound the football, but it will be intriguing to see how much they want to expose Jackson on option plays, especially after he experienced back pain earlier in the season.
Above all else, the Ravens need to get back to playing sound defense. They need to show that they can get over this hurdle. Was the Colts game a setback or a setup for the future?
“It’s just up to us to just calm ourselves down and just play the football we’ve been playing,” Williams said. “Obviously, you’ve seen in other games where we’ve done it, so it’s possible; we’ve just got to get back to it.”