Coming off bye, Ravens defense as we know it could be making last stand

November 15, 2018 | Luke Jones

The focus on the Ravens has been apparent coming off the bye week.

The future of John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco has dominated the big-picture discussion. An uncertain quarterback situation for Week 11 took another turn Thursday with 2018 first-round pick Lamar Jackson missing practice with an illness, joining Flacco and his injured hip on the injury report and leaving Robert Griffin III as the only quarterback on the field in Owings Mills.

Playing a banged-up Flacco, a rookie who’s never made an NFL start, or a veteran who was out of the league in 2017 and hasn’t started a regular-season contest in nearly two years doesn’t inspire great confidence in a must-win game. The Cincinnati defense being a disaster over the last month certainly eases concerns, but that only goes so far in a division rivalry in which the Ravens have lost eight of the last 10 meetings. Say what you want about Marvin Lewis and the Bengals, but they’ve had Baltimore’s number in this post-Super Bowl XLVII era.

So, what about the Ravens defense that sported such shiny overall numbers in the first half of the season?

It’s that side of the ball to which more salary-cap dollars are tied this season — even taking into account Flacco’s $24.75 million number for the offense. The defense carries seven of the nine highest cap numbers on this year’s roster and absorbed 13 of the organization’s 17 Day 1 and 2 draft picks from 2013-17.

But it’s also surrendered 76 points over the last nine quarters of play, albeit against three scoring offenses ranked in the top 10. The Ravens have one takeaway over their last four games and haven’t intercepted a pass since Oct. 7. Since a franchise-record 11-sack performance at Tennessee in Week 6, Baltimore has a combined two sacks in three games — all of them losses.

This wasn’t a unit constructed to be just OK or only really good against bad offenses, a reality more important with an uncertain quarterback situation for Sunday’s game. The defense was able to get healthier over the bye week, and it must regroup if the Ravens want to save their season.

“Teams have been trying to keep us off-balance, whether it’s with personnel, whether it’s with tempo, and, of course, to try to attack our schemes,” said cornerback Brandon Carr about the struggles in recent weeks. “But the great thing about this league [is] we got a bye. We got a week off and an opportunity for us to self-evaluate ourselves, figure out where our weaknesses are, areas we can fix, and that’s what we’ve been doing throughout last week and carrying over to this week.”

The successful quick passing used by Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton in Week 2 served as a basic blueprint for teams to offset the pass rush and limit opportunities to create turnovers as the Ravens didn’t record a single sack or takeaway in that 34-23 Thursday night defeat. It’s not a novel approach in today’s game, but New Orleans, Carolina, and Pittsburgh were able to control the game on third down with quick throws over the middle of the field, a problem the Ravens hope to have solved over the bye.

Expected to be without seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green on Sunday, the Bengals figure to do more quick passing as Dalton is tied for the NFL’s fifth-quickest average time to throw from snap to release.

“He’s really throwing the ball well in rhythm right now, so we need to be physical with the receivers at the line of scrimmage,” defensive coordinator Wink Martindale said. “I know we’re in the top five for sure — maybe second — with batted balls. We’ve had some success in the past with knocking some of the balls that he’s thrown up in the air and we’ve come down with them. We just haven’t come down with them yet this year.”

Green’s absence is a major development for a Cincinnati offense that’s dropped to 25th in total yards and 11th in scoring per game after averaging more than 30 points per contest through Week 5. He caught three first-half touchdowns to help the Bengals jump to a 21-0 lead in the first 17 minutes of the first meeting this season.

However, the Ravens have learned the hard way about slot receiver Tyler Boyd, evident by his shocking fourth-and-12 touchdown catch to knock them out of the playoffs last December and his six catches for 91 yards and a touchdown in the Week 2 defeat. Boyd has caught 52 passes for 685 yards and five touchdowns this season, serving as a dangerous No. 2 receiver who can exploit that problematic middle portion of the field.

“The past two games, we didn’t really give him much respect, and he’s definitely shown us we should,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “The time they beat us last year, he went [and] did a lot of good things.”

Much has been said about these final seven games being the swan song for Harbaugh and Flacco in Baltimore, but an older institution could also be on the verge of change. It’s no secret that defense has been king in this town since Ozzie Newsome’s selection of Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis with the 26th overall pick of the 1996 draft, and that mindset has remained despite the current offensive revolution in the NFL.

Even after Flacco and the offense led the way to victory in Super Bowl XLVII, the Ravens remained obsessed with returning the defense to a dominant level. They invested more early draft picks and free-agent dollars on that side of the ball while asking Flacco — a quarterback who had never put up overly impressive regular-season numbers — to make it work with supporting casts that were inferior to even those of other high-paid quarterbacks. The approach has resulted in defenses that still haven’t finished a single season in the top five in total yards or points allowed, offenses that have typically ranged from inept to mediocre, and one playoff appearance — and win — since that last Super Bowl.

This April’s draft may have finally signaled the start of a philosophical shift as the Ravens used their first four picks on offensive players, something they hadn’t done since 2000. With Jackson tabbed to be the quarterback of the future and veteran defensive players like Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Jimmy Smith, Eric Weddle, and Carr either in the final year of their contracts or carrying bloated cap figures for 2019, Eric DeCosta will have the chance to remake this roster in his first year as general manager.

Building an explosive offense around a young quarterback on a rookie contract should be the priority as defense just doesn’t carry a team like it once could.

Harbaugh and Flacco might be receiving the headlines, but Baltimore’s longtime identity is also holding on by a thread. And given the uncertainty at the quarterback position this weekend, a throwback defensive performance would certainly be appreciated — the kind in which Lewis and future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed would simply say, “We’ve got this.”

“There’s no magic potion to it; we definitely need to win,” Suggs said. “That comes by any means necessary. You’re like, ‘What do we need to do?’ We have to play winning football.”

The Ravens will try it this way one more time.