BUT THE NUMBERS LIE!
The narrative that has erupted like wildfire since the final game of the season has been about the Ravens’ improbable defensive turnaround. Since the first half of the season (when the defense was ranked No.25 in total defense), the unit has shot up to No.8 in the league.
To put this ranking in context, last year’s defense unit was also ranked No.8 in total defense.
But if you compared the two defenses side by side, would you honestly think they performed on the same level based on the total defensive ranking?
Even with shaky secondary play, last year’s defense was a more imposing unit throughout the season. The eye test was enough to prove that. Even beyond the eye test, there were more meaningful statistical categories in which the 2014 defense lapped circles around the 2015 defense.
The 2014 Baltimore defense generated 49 sacks, tied with Philly for the second most sacks in the league. The 2015 defense generated 37 sacks, tied for No.17 in the league.
The 2014 Baltimore defense had 11 interceptions last year (ranked No.25), and 16 forced fumbles (ranked No.9). The 2015 defense finished dead last with only 6 INTs, and they forced 8 fumbles (ranked No.28).
Then there is the scoring defense category, which by any measure is much more important than total defense (measured in yards). The Ravens this season ranked No.24, giving up 25.1 points per game. The 2014 defense ranked No.6 in the league, giving up only 18.9 points per game.
I could keep going, but you get the point by now. In the categories that matter most – points, turnovers, third-down defense, red zone percentage – the 2015 Baltimore Ravens didn’t measure up to its 2014 counterpart.
Those are the categories that tell the story of a defense that is creating turnovers, causing negative plays, limiting big plays, getting off the field consistently, scoring points, and stopping their opponents from scoring.
The Ravens failed to do any of those things with any level of consistency this past season.
Sure, you can point to the first half of the season as skewing the numbers. But the first half of the season did happen. That was when this same defense was on a record-setting pace to be one of the worst defenses in the team’s history – especially from a pass defense standpoint.
Even with the defensive turnaround in the second half of the season, the team still failed to make splash plays and generate turnovers. The lack of turnovers was the most glaring hole in their performance all season.
Creating turnovers and generating game-changing plays is also what the other defenses ranked in the top seven were able to do week in and week out.
The seven defenses ranked ahead of the Ravens in total yards are Denver, Seattle, Houston, the New York Jets, Arizona, Carolina, and Kansas City. The Baltimore defense isn’t worthy of being mentioned in the same breath with these defenses that sit at the top of the totem pole.
Look, the defensive players (led by much-maligned defensive coordinator Dean Pees) definitely deserve credit for this turnaround. They were visibly better at limiting big plays, they missed fewer tackles, made fewer mental errors, gave up less yards in the passing game, and even generated more heat on the quarterback.
The improved play of Jimmy Smith, Shareece Wright, Timmy Jernigan, Za’Darius Smith, and C.J. Mosley was a catalyst for this improvement. Moving Lardarius Webb to safety and slot corner duties, playing more zone coverage, mixing in more deceptive bluff blitzes, and keeping the safeties back to prevent against the big play also made a major difference.
But at the end of the day, the fact that this defense ranked No.8 in total yards doesn’t cancel out the subpar performance the unit had all season in the categories that really measure the mark of a championship-caliber defense.
If the front office is taking a hard look at this defense, they can’t be hypnotized by the improved yardage stats that the media has been lauding all week.
The best defenses create opportunities for their offense, get after the quarterback, and force offenses to kick field goals.
The Ravens won’t be able to field a playoff team next season with the type of effort they put together in all of the critical play-making defensive categories.
It’s encouraging that the defensive staff was able to fix a lot of their first-half problems and limit offenses during the second half of the season.
However, labeling this defense as a top 10 group is letting them off the hook.
And the Ravens can’t afford to do that or we might be sitting here next season looking at a similar record and draft position.
If the Ravens are truly looking to turn things around next season, they can’t just look at the positives of the second half turnaround. They need to evaluate the season as a whole – including the first half train wreck.
The reality is this defense lacks playmakers, isn’t aggressive when it counts, and has a terrible track record of blowing fourth-quarter leads.
This type of defense may be able to keep you in games. But they aren’t going to take over and win many on their own.
To win a championship in today’s NFL, you at least need to rush the passer, create turnovers, and give up the fewest amount of points. Even playoff teams that have been led by their offenses have been complemented by defenses that are solid in these critical areas.
Yards per game and total defense is nothing more than a consolation prize.