Baltimore Ravens: Defensive Grades Through The Bye Week
The Baltimore Ravens are a franchise that has been defined by defense since its inception into the NFL in 1996. The hallmark of the franchise’s only championship was a ravenous (no pun intended), historically dominant defense. Although the Ravens haven’t won a championship since that 2000 season, defense has been the franchise’s identity through its entire existence. However, times appear to be changing for the Ravens as they are no longer a team characterized by defense. A new coordinator, injuries and poor tackling have all wreaked havoc on the Ravens’ customary dominant defense. The reeling defense was already playing at a franchise-worst clip before crippling, season-ending injuries to stud defensive backbones Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb week 6 in a costly victory over the Dallas Cowboys. In their first game without Lewis and Webb, the Ravens were dismantled in a week 7 showdown against the Houston Texans. The defense allowed 43 points, the most a Ravens defense has allowed since Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts dropped 44 on the Ravens in December of 2007. The Ravens finished last in the division and were the fourth-worst team in the AFC that season. The Ravens are on pace to allow the most yards per game in franchise history and are allowing 23 points per game. In the past six seasons the defense has allowed an average of 289 yards per game. However, this year the defense is allowing an even 400 yards per game, which is beyond uncharted territory for this proud defensive franchise. The following breakdowns and grades are assigned to each defensive unit through the first seven games of the season.
Defensive Line: D+
It seems near impossible that a unit anchored by stud defensive end Haloti Ngata could receive such a low grade, but that is exactly the case. Ngata got off to his usual disruptive start to the season. However, Ngata was also dinged up in that costly Cowboys game as he tweaked his MCL. Ngata still ranks third in the league in tackles by a defensive lineman, but his three sacks rank him tied for 32nd for defensive lineman. The knee injury made Ngata invisible in the rout against the Texans, and it has created an uneasy feeling about his status the rest of the way. The Ravens must have a healthy Ngata if they are going to fix their broken defense. Elsewhere on the defensive line, Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee have made little noise at the left defensive end position, as they have combined for half a sack, two tackles for a loss and one forced fumble. The defensive line has received even less contributions from the nose tackle position, as Terrence Cody and Ma’ake Kemoeatu have combined for 23 tackles (zero tackles for a loss) and one pass defended. The lack of production by the duo against the run is a major reason why the defense is allowing 142.9 rushing yards per game, which ranks third-worst in the entire league. Overall the defensive line has done little to establish the line of scrimmage to free up the linebackers or the secondary to make plays against the run, and the results have been disastrous
The bad news is of course that the heart and soul of the linebacking corp, Ray Lewis, is done for the season with a torn right triceps. Lewis was fourth in the league in tackles before his injury sidelined him for the year. He wasn’t the imposing figure he was earlier in his career, but he was still one of the top inside linebackers in the league and an emotional leader for the entire team. The good news is that the reigning defensive player of the year, Terrell Suggs, is back in remarkable time after a torn Achilles tendon in the offseason. Suggs returned against the Texans and recorded a sack in just his seventh snap of the season. T-Sizzle must make a huge impact on the defense if the unit is to right the ship. He is now both the vocal and on-field leader of this defense so he must play at a similar clip as his award-winning season last season. Dannell Ellerbe has been solid thus far, but he now has more responsibility as has been inserted into Lewis’ starting inside linebacker position. Ellerbe and Suggs will have to lead a group that isn’t the most experienced and hasn’t made a huge difference. The likes of Jameel McClain, Courtney Upshaw, Albert McClellan and Paul Kruger have all had their moments, but more consistency is needed if the linebacking corp can recover from the loss of Lewis and turn the defense around.
The loss of Lardarius Webb has already been felt in just one game without the lockdown, Pro Bowl cornerback. Webb's replacement, Jimmy Smith, was exposed numerous times against the Texans, as the second-year cornerback was especially susceptible to the double-move. Texans’ wide receiver Kevin Walter abused Smith for a 25-yard touchdown in the first quarter and Smith looked shaky throughout the game. Cary Williams was starting to emerge in his role as the number two cornerback opposite Webb. Teams were picking on Williams because they simply wanted to stay away from Webb as much as possible, and Williams was starting to hold his own. Williams had an interception in three straight games entering the contest with the Texans. Williams will now be asked to be the top cornerback, matching up with the opposition’s top receiver. Time will tell if Williams can step up and take his game to the next level. The play of safeties Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed have been consistent, as the duo has complemented each other nicely. Pollard has been the hard-hitting, attacking strong safety, while Reed has been the opportunistic, ballhawking free safety. Pollard is the active leader on the team in tackles with Lewis out, and also has a sack and an interception. Pollard is top-10 in the league for tackles by a defensive back as well. Reed meanwhile has been disruptive as he leads the Ravens in passes defended and also has two interceptions and a fumble recovery. All three of Reed’s turnovers have come at huge points in each respective game as Reed continues to contribute to the big-play aspect of the defense. The Ravens do rank 24th in the league in pass defense, so there is definitely blame to be placed upon the secondary. However, the lack of consistent pressure on the opposition’s quarterback has left the Ravens’ secondary hung out to dry on numerous occasions. More big plays from this defense will be needed to cover up some of the holes.
Special Teams: B+
An area where the Ravens have actually been consistent is the special teams department. Jacoby Jones leads the league in kickoff return yards in regards to average, as his 39.4 yards per kickoff return is tops in the league. Among those returns is a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Cowboys in a hard-fought victory. Jones ranks 17th in the league in punt return average as well. Deonte Thompson is tied for 10th in the league with 13 kickoff returns of 20 yards or more, so there has been some contributions from the return game. Justin Tucker has been a godsend, as the undrafted rookie kicker has gone 14-for-15 in field goals. More impressively, Tucker is one of only three kickers to be perfect on field goals of 50 or more yards with at least three attempts. Tucker has been one of the most consistent kickers in the league and is fifth in the AFC in points by a kicker. Sam Koch has been mediocre in the punting department, as his net average ranks just 20th in the league. He is around the middle of the pack or slightly better in most punting categories, as Koch’s performance has had little to do with the successes or failures of the team. Overall, Jerry Rosburg’s special teams unit has been above average and must continue to be consistent to help both the offense and the defense as they are both heading in the wrong direction.
Defensive Coordinator: F
It has not been a smooth transition for the defense under first-year defensive coordinator Dean Pees. The unit is on pace to allow 100 yards per game more than they did last season, while also on pace for franchise-worst defense rankings in other areas. The most alarming area for the defense has been the brutal run defense, as the team is 30th in the league, allowing an un-Ravens-like 142.9 yards per game on the ground. The tackling has been poor and the defense has habitually lost the battle at the line of scrimmage. It remains unclear why the defense has severely regressed under Pees, as he is familiar with this defense after being the linebackers’ coach the past two seasons. Pees needs to find the anecdote to fix the ailing defense quickly, as the Ravens face some stiff opposition in the second half of the season. If the Ravens are to make the playoffs, they will need to stop the likes of Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Robert Griffin III, Andy Dalton and Phillip Rivers. Those quarterbacks pilot potent offenses that will surely test the Ravens beleaguered defense. If Pees and the Ravens defense can’t elevate their play in a hurry, the season could get away from the Ravens quickly, and the defense will be the main culprit if that happens.