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Encouraging Signs Despite Presence of Achilles’ Heel

Tyus Bowser tackles Justin Fields
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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This is Tale of the Tape: Defense. For Tale of the Tape: Offense, click here.

Through Week 11 of the 2021 NFL season, the Baltimore Ravens lead the NFL in two defensive categories: third down conversion percentage (30.5%) and red zone conversion percentage (42.9%). That pattern was present in Sunday’s game in Chicago, when the Bears converted just two of 11 third down attempts and failed to score in their lone trip to the red zone. But they still scored two long touchdowns in the second half, including one on 4th-and-11, bringing up some familiar questions about the Ravens’ tendency to give up big plays.

But to be perfectly candid, I’m less concerned, for a few reasons. The last-minute absences of Anthony Averett and Jimmy Smith at cornerback, as well as Pernell McPhee and Brandon Williams in the trenches, put an already-shorthanded defense at even more of a disadvantage. So hanging tough to hold your opponent to just two scores despite having to carry a Lamar Jackson-less offense is another solid performance from the Ravens defense.

In fact, I think this defense is looking more and more like a playoff defense every game, especially since the nightmare against the Bengals. The pass rush is heating up, the middle linebackers are playing extremely well, and the secondary is still getting the job done despite the loss of several starters. So let’s dive in to see how the Ravens took care of the Bears, and why there’s optimism for the rest of the year.

Dalton, Raven Killer

The Ravens just can’t stop giving up big plays, especially through the air. They gave up two touchdowns of more than 45 yards on Sunday, plus another 29-yard completion from Justin Fields to Darnell Mooney.

This was one of a few tough reps for Chris Westry, as he just allows Mooney to accelerate past him. Clearly he knows there’s safety help over the top, but he backpedals too long and doesn’t step on the gas right away when he turns. The Ravens have also given up chunk plays to opposing receivers in motion this year, though they’ve covered it well in other situations.

After Fields got knocked after the game (on a first-down saving tackle by Tyus Bowser – more on him later), Andy Dalton came in, and the memories to games of New Year’s Eves past began to awaken.

Dalton hit Mooney for a 60-yard screen TD almost immediately, as the Ravens’ aggressiveness and poor tackling was again on full display. Chicago had good blocking out front, and Mooney has some blazing speed, so the Ravens didn’t need to make many mistakes to allow the touchdown. RPOs are effective for a reason, and the Bears just executed this one well. You’d love to see Clark slow down Mooney, or Stephens to take a better angle, but this was always going to be a decent gain for Chicago, even from the pre-snap alignment. The Ravens only have two defenders on the outside against two tight ends and a wide receiver for the Bears. When Clark and Josh Bynes both stepped forward to stop the run, Mooney was practically already off to the races.

And then there was the 4th-and-11.

I was frustrated with the play call initially, but upon further reflection on Russell Street Replay this week, I’ve made my peace with it. Cover 0 was the game plan, and it had worked all game. The all-or-nothing approach explained by John Harbaugh on Monday actually made perfect sense given the time management situation, and it left the Ravens enough time to answer with a score of their own.

Westry bit on the double move, and the blitz execution was just a tad late. Combined, that’s enough to allow a long touchdown at the worst moment.

But look, these plays are going to happen. Blown coverages and big gains by opposing offenses are always frustrating, but it’s important to remember that everyone on the other team is also talented enough to make it in the NFL. This defense has played extremely well against tough odds all season, but especially in the last few games. Don’t count them out down the stretch.

Bowser Breathing Fire

Tyus Bowser is one of the reasons why. He does a TON on this defense, especially as a run-stopper and pass-coverage specialist. But Wink Martindale unleashed Bowser as a pass-rusher on Sunday, and the fifth-year Raven responded, finishing with two sacks, plus another pressure, as well as a forced fumble. He showcased a beautiful outside-in move to collapse the pocket on Fields and knock the ball out for an early turnover in Ravens territory.

He does a great job disengaging his hands from the opposing lineman to strip Fields, and check out Calais Campbell diving in for the recovery! That will have to suffice as his highlight of the week, as he was solid on Sunday but didn’t toss aside opponents as he often has this season.

Other angles of the play show solid coverage across the board, which was a frequent sight on Sunday despite a depleted secondary.

Bowser also ensured that Raven killer Andy Dalton wouldn’t be able to finish the job by again using his hands to fight off a blocker and get the game-ending sack.

He had one of the best pure pass-rushing games of his career, recording a 93.4 grade from Pro Football Focus and overall just dominating whoever he lined up against. I already thought his four-year, $22 million deal was a steal, and now I’m convinced it’s highway robbery. He’s going to be great on this defense for years to come.

MLB Run Domination

This section will be quick, since these clips are pretty self-explanatory. Josh Bynes and Patrick Queen continue to be excellent against the run, especially the second-year Queen.

He’s always had this speed, but he’s figured out how to harness it by making confident reads and taking good angles to the ballcarrier. He even jumps towards the strong side of the play before correcting his course and chasing down Fields.

His mental game is clearly improving, as he’s recognizing and making plays with a ton of confidence. He’s trusting his instincts and allowing his physical gifts to take care of the rest, and it’s really working.

Where is Queen getting all of this? Josh Bynes. Bynes attacks the run instead of just defending against it, seeking out running backs to meet them at the line of scrimmage. The Ravens’ interior defensive line has really stepped up in recent games as well, with Justin Madubuike and Ellis, as well as Kahlil McKenzie, who could be in the mix for a roster spot next year given his two-way capacity.

Special Teams Wins Games

Oh yes, it does, especially with a field that feels like sand in the Windy City. Bears kicker Cairo Santos couldn’t connect on his one attempt, but the GOAT Justin Tucker made all three of his, and they’re all beauties.

Watch him groove all of these kicks with the wind, like a soccer player taking a free kick. He’s making the toughest kicking conditions look like he’s back at Ford Field.

The special teams units came through all game, with solid returns from Devin Duvernay and great play from both punt teams.

You love to see this from James Proche, especially since special teams is a great way to earn more playing time under Harbaugh. Putting an already-struggling Bears offense in tough starting field position was key to the depleted defense holding the line.

Speaking of Proche and players who could earn more time after contributing on special teams, say hello to Jaylon Ferguson. He and Proche combined to impact this Bears punt, setting up Tucker’s third field goal that gave the Ravens the lead in the fourth quarter.

He showed some juice on defense as well, recording two quarterback pressures on Sunday in his limited opportunities. With McPhee hitting the IR, we could be seeing more of ‘Sack Daddy’ in future weeks.

All in all, I’m excited about the defense, as long as the injury luck doesn’t worsen. Defensive depth was a key talking point during training camp, and it’s proven to be absolutely vital to the Ravens this season. Let’s hope that everyone keeps playing at a high level to close out the season against a tough slate of opponents.

Speaking of Queen (and his mid-season turnaround), he’s Lacie DeCosta’s jersey pick of the week!

The single-digit Queen jersey, much like Hollywood’s 5, makes me very thankful that the NFL relaxed their jersey number rules this season. Both guys have taken their game to the next level with their new numbers this season.

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