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Ravens Defensive Front Turning it Up Down the Stretch

Tyus Bowser vs Browns
Shawn Hubbard/Baltimore Ravens
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submitted by Samuel Puccio

In a year where the Baltimore Ravens’ roster has been characterized by its volatility, an unexpected positional group has quietly begun to put some consistent displays together. The Ravens defensive line, spearheaded by the emergence of young talent, has been excellent since its ugly display in Cincinnati’s 41-17 rout of Baltimore in late October. The emergence of recent draft picks Justin Madubuike, Odafe Oweh, and Tyus Bowser in particular should give Ravens’ fans a much needed source of confidence after a September of bewildering results.

Since the retirement of Ozzie Newsome in 2018, fans have been largely critical of Eric DeCosta’s ability to evaluate and extend talent along the defensive line. We have watched players like Za’Darius Smith and Matthew Judon leave for lucrative deals and thrive with our competitors, while also failing to adequately replace them. Ravens fans long for the days of watching a game-wrecking Terrell Suggs, and prior to the 2021 season frustration had been mounting over the team’s inability to compete with the edge rushing talent of division rivals. In spite of this, EDC stayed the course and pulled off masterful under-the-radar deals in trading for the draft pick used to select Oweh and extendingBowser on a team friendly deal. The late round selection of Madubuike in particular is a highlight on EDC’s already glowing resume.

These moves seem genius now, but the defensive line was in fact slow to come out of the gate and performed poorly against Vegas and Kansas City. Both teams gashed the “Wink” Martindale-led defense with big run plays, which is particularly concerning as the two are ranked 2nd and 4th respectively in total passing offense, and don’t usually pose a strong ground threat. The line continued to produce these up and down performances until the bye week, and looked to be the greatest weakness on an otherwise Super Bowl-caliber roster.

This same unit has proven to be crucial in the Ravens’ ascension to the top of the AFC, and it is hard to imagine they would have achieved their 8-3 record without this newfound defensive success in the trenches, where ugly games are won. Oweh looks to be a steal in the draft, and has silenced all questions about his nonexistent sack numbers in college. The versatile play of Bowser and his team leading 5.5 sacks have also allowed for Justin Houston to become a rotational piece, a role he is much better suited for at this point in his career. At the heart of the unit playing alongside Madubuike, Calais Campbell provides a strong interior presence, as well as football intelligence and leadership which clearly benefit the young players around him. Williams and Ellis are solid rotational pieces and excellent against the run. The combination of their great play has brought along the resurgence of the Ravens’ defense as a whole, with their ability to stop the run and generate pressure allowing defenders at all levels to be more successful.

Their success is evident through the Ravens’ recent run of defensive form, allowing just 19 points per game in the month of November. The reason behind this success, however, is less clear. Experience certainly helps, but it is impossible to overlook the changes in play calling. Wink is best known for his tendency to dial up the pressure early and often, but recently this has been due to the inability to create pressure without blitzing. However, injuries to key defensive backs (Peters, Elliott) have left the Ravens with very little talent beyond Humphrey in man coverage. The Result? Wink being forced to drop more defenders back and relying on 4-man and 5-man rush sets to generate pressure. Personally, I think Wink has done a great job to adjust his scheme to fit his players, and I would love to see him continue to do so. He deserves a ton of credit, but these adjustments have been successful only because of the improved play of the defensive line.

Players like Oweh, Madubuike, and Bowser coming into their own has relieved pressure to continue investing in the defensive line, and will allow the Ravens to extend key players on offense and continue to put out a competitive team on both sides of the ball. It’s not the most glorious position in the world, but Ravens fans should be grateful for all of the young talent EDC has brought in at the position. They appear to be the Ravens’ best positional group at the moment, if you don’t include Justin Tucker.

Most importantly, the improvement of the defensive unit as a whole helps the Ravens get back to what they do best: win ugly football games.

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