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It’s Always Sunny in Baltimore

Nick Chubb Brandon Williams
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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Last Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, the Baltimore Ravens became the first team since 2013 to win a game with their quarterback throwing four interceptions, breaking a 41-game losing streak for such teams. They’re also 4-0 this season when Lamar Jackson throws more than two interceptions, while the rest of the NFL is a combined 9-59.

How is this possible? A revitalized defense that is starting to look like the fearsome defenses of seasons past.

I’ve said more than once this season that the box score wasn’t an accurate representation of how the Ravens defense played, but last week against the Browns, the stats tell the whole story. The Browns scored only 10 points, with just 36 rushing yards from their running back duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt behind their top-tier offensive line. Baker Mayfield did throw for 247 yards, but he needed 37 passing attempts (6.7 yards per attempt) to get there, completing fewer than half of them.

All in all, it was a third consecutive sterling performance from this Ravens defense that has endured injuries and back-breaking big plays all season to round into form just in time for a postseason push. Let’s dive in to see some of the key improvements on the defensive side of the ball in Baltimore.

The Gang Learns to Tackle

Tackling has been one of the biggest issues facing Baltimore’s defense this season, with repeated failures against the Chiefs and the Lions standing out in the early going. But they’ve worked hard to correct those mistakes, and it’s paying dividends on the field.

The title of this section isn’t just a reference to the return of one of the funniest shows on television; it’s practically a mission statement for the defense. When players struggle to tackle individually, gang tackling is always the answer, and the Ravens have done a great job rallying to the ballcarrier in recent weeks.

Marlon Humphrey has the second-most tackles on the team, but he’s struggled to bring down ballcarriers on his own this season while attempting to strip the ball. But as the season has gone on, he’s done a better job of at least stopping forward progress before he goes for the punch-out, giving reinforcements time to arrive and finish the play.

This pattern of team defense is not just reflected in the defense’s play, but their personnel as well. Enduring injuries has been a hallmark of this defense all year, but having guys like Justin Ellis and Kristian Welch play solid snaps has been crucial, especially with Calais Campbell out against  the Browns. Brandon Williams also returned from a shoulder injury and quickly returned to his run-plugging, lane-clogging ways.

Watch how the entire defense flows to the ball, with multiple Ravens collapsing on the ballcarrier in both plays. Welch makes solid reads on both plays, but watch them again and you’ll see the Ravens put the team in team defense.

On the first play, solid anticipation from Patrick Queen limits Cleveland’s ability to double-team in the trenches. Williams also bullies the RG to funnel Hunt towards his only hole, which is quickly filled by Welch and Brandon Stephens. On the second, Madubuike prevents the RG from getting outside of him, while Tyus Bowser sets the edge to force Hunt to run right at Welch, who makes a solid tackle.

The New Monstars

Speaking of Queen and Bowser, their development this season is quickly bringing them to cornerstone status for this Ravens defense, along with rookie Odafe Oweh. All three are fast, dynamic players capable of playing multiple positions and filling multiple roles on defense, which is essentially a Wink Martindale fever dream.

Let’s start with another nice run stop from Baltimore.

Come for the solid tackle from Queen, stay for Chuck Clark sacrificing his body to set the edge. This is the kind of team defense that shuts down opposing offenses, as it’s based on everyone doing their job and setting up their teammates to succeed. Queen also pulls a slick move to get past the pulling RT so he can take a clear path to the ballcarrier. He’s already scary-fast (so are Oweh and Bowser), but he’s learning to use all of his physical traits to beat and evade blockers, find the best path to the ballcarrier and finish plays with violence.

Here are a few more nice plays from Queen:

Queen makes solid tackles on both plays, but it’s his mental acuity I want to highlight. It’s the second week in a row he’s read offensive motion to diagnose a run before the ball is even snapped. Then, he bites on the play action but his eyes stick with his assignment, allowing him to track down the tight end for his second tackle for loss.

But this play, which was also highlighted by Brian Billick, is probably my favorite. Queen knows he’s not supposed to make the stop all on his own; he’s supposed to do his job and trust his teammates to finish the play. So he launches full bore at the pulling 320-pound left guard – Queen is almost 100 pounds lighter – to fill the hole and blow up the play in the process.

And then there’s Tyus Bowser.

He was already one of the best pass-coverage OLBs in the NFL, but his pass rushing has taken a big leap forward this season. Let’s break it down.

First play: Speed rush, nice use of hands, which I’ve noted before from Bowser, and a high motor to finish the sack after forcing the initial pressure.

Second play: Lockdown coverage on Jarvis Landry, a legitimately good NFL wide receiver. Bowser has a keen awareness of how to use the sideline to virtually eliminate the possibility of a legal completion.

Third and fourth plays: Solid coverage and tackling on both, forcing an incomplete pass in the first play and bringing down his man before the first down marker on the second.

But we can’t forget about rookie Odafe Oweh, who forced yet another turnover on Sunday night.

The rook didn’t let the weird alignment and trick playcall distract him from his assignment: rushing the passer, which in this case was Landry. He loops all the way around to strip the ball, and Queen’s recovery is just icing on the cake.

The brains-meets-brawn ethos of this Ravens defense, exemplified by the recent play of Queen, Bowser and Oweh, is ready to carry Baltimore into the playoffs.

A Few (Minor) Mistakes

But the brilliance by the front seven masked a few errors in pass coverage.

Oweh’s speed is again ridiculous here, but the screen playcall against the Ravens’ aggressive defense was very close to giving the Browns a big gain.

Crossing routes continue to be a problem for the Ravens, as well.

Chuck Clark was there to clean up the last play, part of a solid outing from him, but he dropped an interception in the fourth quarter that physically pained me.

Despite Oweh’s heroics, the Ravens only have 10 takeaways this season, tied for the third-least in the NFL. They can’t afford to drop interceptions when the ball is literally in their hands.

But overall, games like Sunday’s are why I’m excited about the present and future of this defense. If they’ve been able to maintain this level of play through all of the injuries, just imagine what even a semi-healthy defense can do next season. The title of this piece speaks to the ability of the front office and the coaching staff to keep this defense evergreen. As always, the future is indeed quite sunny for Baltimore’s defense.

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