Last week, we took a look at three potential x-factors for the offense and how they can help take offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s unit to the next level. Now, it’s time to take a look at the defense, and who has the potential to be a difference maker in 2018.
Don “Wink” Martindale has to feel pretty optimistic heading into his first season as the defensive coordinator. With Brandon Williams, Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Jimmy Smith and Eric Weddle on the depth chart, he has a talented veteran presence on the roster.
But it’s not just the seasoned vets.
After years of defense-heavy drafting by Ozzie Newsome, Martindale has a plethora of young talent at his disposal. Marlon Humphrey, Tavon Young and Matt Judon each have shown that they have real playmaking ability and should only get better with experience. Other players are on the cusp of being difference makers. This is truly one of the better defensive rosters in the NFL and is primed to finish the season as a top 10 unit.
But is top 10 good enough? This is a defense that has aspirations for greatness. After all, this is the same starting 11 that was compared to the NFL record setting Ravens defense of 2000.
As we all know, they didn’t reach that summit. The Ravens 2017 defense finished the season with a 12th overall ranking, as they couldn’t quite overcome lengthy injuries to Brandon Williams and Jimmy Smith, or the “bend but don’t break” play calling of former DC Dean Pees in the fourth quarter.
So, what will be different in 2018? Well for starters, Martindale is certainly more like Rex Ryan than Dean Pees. He’s a players’ coach with an aggressive mindset. He’ll be “taking the handcuffs off the guys,” as Suggs told The Baltimore Sun.
And folks, that can’t be understated. The players truly seem blown away with what the schemes they’ve seen throughout OTA’s and minicamp. Martindale is the right guy for the job, and his promotion should pay the biggest dividends for this defense.
That being said, this article is about the players and who can break out in 2018. Could these playmakers help take this defense from a top 10 ranking to a top 3 ranking?
Let’s take a look at three possible x-factors for the Ravens defense:
Chuck Clark Is a player whose star is rising. His build isn’t exactly imposing but he sure is athletic. As a rookie in 2017, he edged out Olympic Gold Medalist Natasha Hastings in a 20-yard dash. This kid can move.
But Clark isn’t just athletic. He’s a sound tackler that possesses a high football IQ. Throughout his college career, he made a name for himself as an intimidating tackler who demonstrated excellent discipline in the open field.
He was phenomenal during his final season at Virginia Tech in 2016. He was rarely out of position as a senior. He routinely showed great instincts by breaking off of his assignments to make plays. He finished the year with 94 tackles, and an impressive 292 for his career.
“In college, I moved around to different spots on the field,” he said. “So I was just on the field and playing ball and making plays.”
That hasn’t changed as a pro. This spring during OTA’s and minicamp, Clark lined up in the secondary as a nickel corner and as a safety, as well as played a hybrid linebacker role in dime situations. It’s that type of versatility that earns players a steady role.
Martindale has certainly taken notice.
“Chuck has been one of the standouts of the spring. It’s his second year in the package, he’s rolling with it, and he’s communicating,” the defensive coordinator said. “We can play Chuck anywhere. So you’re just going to continue to see his role expand.”
As a rookie in 2016, Willie Henry didn’t see a single defensive snap. After starting his sophomore season as a healthy scratch for the first two games, it wasn’t looking too good for him the following year, either. But then the injury bug started to bite along the defensive line.
Starting DT Brandon Williams was sidelined for four games thanks to a foot injury he suffered during week two against the Browns. Brent Urban was lost for the year after suffering a Lisfranc injury in week three.
Henry was thrust into a significant role, and never looked back. He saw 596 total snaps throughout the season, edging out Michael Pierce for most by a defensive lineman (594).
He finished the season with 33 tackles, 3.5 sacks and led the team with five batted passes.
At 6-2, 308 pounds, Henry has great length and size, making him ideal as either a 5 technique or defensive tackle. His size and play style remind me lot of Eagles DT Fletcher Cox, one of the best defensive tackles in the game today.
Henry should compete for a starting role once training camp kicks off next week. Either way, Henry will have a significant role along the line once again, especially on third down.
He’s the best interior pass rusher on the team and actually graded out as the second best pass rusher on the entire team in 2017 with a grade of 75.9 by Pro Football Focus, trailing only Terrell Suggs (83.4 per PFF). His ability to get pressure up the middle will be vital to the unit’s success against step up pocket passers. And let’s not forget his ability to tip passes at the line, which could lead to interceptions.
Tyus Bowser (best name on the team, by the way) is simply too much of an athletic freak of nature to exclude from this list. Coming out of the University of Houston, the Ravens saw a fast kid with excellent change of direction and a relentless pass rush. In his senior season, he sacked the opposing quarterback 8.5 times despite only playing in eight games.
But Bowser depended mostly on his athleticism in college, which won’t cut it at the NFL level. As a rookie, he was phased out of the defense after week two, and only saw 20 or more snaps one time from week three on. However, he did flash at times and finished the season with 13 tackles, three sacks and an interception.
Entering a critical year in his development, Bowser will be expected to make a bigger contribution in his second season, particularly as an edge rusher. The good news is that his comfort level throughout spring sessions seemed night and day compared to his rookie season.
“Now I’m actually able to go out there and play. Knowing the system and how everything works around here, I can go out there with a clear mind and play fast,” he said.
Linebackers coach Mike Macdonald added: “His confidence is just … skyrocketing. He’s probably been our most productive ‘backer in terms of just sacks and interceptions and that sort of thing. I’m really happy in how he’s coming along.”
Hopefully, it all comes to fruition this year. A 50 tackle, six-sack season isn’t out of the question for Bowser. And, as he’s shown this spring, he’s capable of making plays on the football as well.
Of these three potential defensive x-factors, he’s the guy that could be the biggest catalyst towards a top five season. He could very well also inch that much closer to being labeled another Kamalei Correa. But it’s too way too early for that kind of talk. I still say his best football is ahead of him.