Everything’s Gonna Be Alright!
When looking back upon the unwinding of the 2021 season, during which we witnessed the Ravens fall from the AFC’s No. 1 seed and sporting an (8-3) record, to an (8-9) finish and dead last in the AFC North, most of the blame was pinned on the offense. The line struggled; the team relied upon running backs who were street free agents in August and by the season’s final quarter pole, they were without their star quarterback, Lamar Jackson. But for me, the bigger culprit in 2021 was the Ravens defense.
Like the offense, Wink Martindale’s defense had its fair share of injuries, the worst of which was the pectoral tear suffered by Marlon Humphrey during a heartbreaking 20-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, dropping the Ravens to (8-4). In retrospect, that may have been the final nail in the coffin for the 2021 season.
But even before the loss of Humphrey, the Ravens defense was an absolute sieve defending the pass and they struggled to get off the field in key situations. Despite investing 14% more cap dollars on defense than offense the ROI for Wink’s unit was subpar. Communication breakdowns were the norm leading to 74 plays of 20+ yards and 16 plays of 40+ yards. Fourth quarter meltdowns were a pattern – not just in 2021 but even dating back three or more seasons. All of it likely influenced Harbaugh’s decisions to go for two against the Steelers and Packers.
Statistically the defensive results for the season were downright offensive:
• Passing Yards Allowed per Game: 32nd
• Totals Yards Allowed per Game: 24th
• Yards per Passing Attempt: Tied for 31st
• Takeaways per Game: Tied for 28th
• Opponents Yards per Play: 32nd
In recent years, free agent defenders have left Baltimore only to find greater success elsewhere. Za’Darius Smith, Matthew Judon, Yannick Ngakoue and Chris Wormley immediately come to mind. You had to wonder if Martindale was guilty of jamming players into a system instead of coordinating a defense that allows them to get the most out of their unique abilities?
Whispers of Wink’s predictability floated about. There were times when some wondered if Martindale was more interested in being a head coach instead of a solid lieutenant. The time was right to make a change. That change has become Mike Macdonald and with it there’s reason for optimism.
Across the defensive front the Ravens have added Michael Pierce and Brent Urban through free agency while they brought back Calais Campbell, drafted the promising Travis Jones to go along with the developing Justin Madubuike, Broderick Washington and Isaiah Mack. The future of Derek Wolfe is a bit of an unsolved mystery for the moment, but even if the 32-year-old DT isn’t in the mix, the Ravens will field a stronger array of defensive down linemen than they did in 2021.
At the edge spots, injuries are a somewhat concerning as the team preps for its mandatory mini-camp. Tyus Bowser who took a big step forward in 2021, is recovering from a torn Achilles; Odafe Oweh is bouncing back from a shoulder injury; Daelin Hayes has recovered from ankle and knee setbacks; second-round pick David Ojabo, like Bowser, is dealing with an Achilles problem. All will be available to the Ravens at some point during the season. The club is also expected to bring in a veteran to help along the edge – most likely Justin Houston. At some point in the season, this group will be a more formidable one than the unit that finished 2021. The big question is “When?” But, having said that, there’s reason to be optimistic.
The interior linebackers will have a familiar look with the veteran run defender Josh Bynes returning as well as third-year players Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison. Queen’s game got a lift when Bynes was inserted into the starting lineup last season and Macdonald seems comfortable with the trajectory of the 22-year-old former LSU Tiger’s career.
“Yes, I see a lot of growth in ‘P.Q.’, really, throughout the whole building and during practice. Obviously, he’s three years in now, but [with] the communication portion, he’s a lot more comfortable in the system. I’d say he’s just … The game is slower for him. But he’s going to have a big-time role in this defense, and I think he knows that. It’s a big year for him. [I’m] just happy with his progress right now, honestly.”
Harrison had a puzzling 2021 on the heels of a somewhat productive rookie campaign in 2022. But there’s no denying Harrison’s athleticism and unlike his predecessor, Macdonald will look to employ unique skill sets in a way that helps the Ravens defense exploit weaknesses and win matchup opportunities.
“[The defensive approach] will change by situation, by game plan, honestly. Our goal, as coaches, is to find the best 11 guys in any given situation and be able to get them out there so they can go play. I think that’s why we’re trying to teach it the way we’re doing it.”
And that brings us to the strength of the Ravens defense – the secondary.
Macdonald’s defense has versatility and depth in the backfield. You’d be hard-pressed to find a pair of safeties that possess the ranginess and ball skills of Marcus Williams and Kyle Hamilton. Throw in the veteran leadership and intelligence of Chuck Clark, the chameleon-like talents of second-year player Brandon Stephens, the moxie of Tony Jefferson, the development of Geno Stone and the impressive collection of corners led by Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, and suddenly, it becomes undeniably naïve to think that there won’t be marked improvement on the back-end of the defense.
The defense, if all goes as planned, will also improve with better results from a ball control offense. Lamar will be playing for his next contract. He’ll be aided by the returns of J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards who even if they aren’t up to the respective levels pre-ACL injuries, both are clearly better than the 2021 posse of Freeman-Murray-Bell. Mix in Justice Hill, Mike Davis, rookie Tyler Badie, a markedly improved offensive line and the return of a fully recovered Nick Boyle and it’s fairly plain to see that the Ravens could once again dominate time of possession, thus enabling the defense to stay fresh and at times force opposing offenses into being one-dimensional, like they did back in 2019.
It’s worth repeating that through 12 weeks of the 2021 season the Ravens were the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Through 13 weeks they were in first place in the AFCN. Through 14 weeks they still controlled their own destiny. Through 16 weeks they still had a puncher’s chance and nearly upset the eventual Super Bowl Champion LA Rams, before falling, 20-19. They just didn’t have the horses given their injury-crippled roster and subsequently, they just couldn’t hang on.
However, the picture has vastly improved since. A better offense, a better defense and hopefully a healthier roster suggest better results in 2022. We remember the pain of last season, in more ways than one and it leaves a bitter taste. But 2021 wasn’t wasted. The team learned many valuable lessons and along the way players further down the depth chart became more battle-tested. The injured players who didn’t play are champing at the bit to get back out there, to secure that No. 1 seed and this time hold onto it. Even those who did play, and played well, like Mark Andrews, appear anxious to show observers the potential of a healthy Ravens roster.
Perhaps Greg Roman explained things best during his most recent presser with the media.
“We’ve got to stay focused on what we stay focused on. As a professional, we’re all our harshest critics, and I think we know the truth, and you just believe in that and keep trying to get better every day. Don’t get set in your ways; just keep trying to adapt, evolve and adjust, and don’t worry about a thing.”
Ravens fans would be wise to do the same.