OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Cornerback Jimmy Smith may have offered the defining statement for the remainder of the season for the Ravens this week.
Asked if his healthy return from a back injury as well as pass rusher Elvis Dumervil’s presence provided optimism that the NFL’s top-ranked defense could get even better down the stretch, the sixth-year defensive back provided an interesting answer. It may have been slightly off-topic and reflective of some yearlong frustration with the opposite side of the ball, but Smith wasn’t wrong in his assessment as the Ravens prepare for their toughest game of the season at New England on Monday night.
“Our defense is going to look even better if — and when — our offense goes out and puts up points,” Smith said. “We can start playing the defense where we can get after a lot of guys, pin our ears back, get sacks and a lot more turnovers. How our offense goes for the next four weeks will [determine] how even more great our defense can be.”
The Ravens are in position to make the playoffs mostly because of their exceptional defense, but it was only this past Sunday when you began feeling they might have a chance to make real noise down the stretch and into January. A season-high 38-point explosion and Joe Flacco’s best performance in two years will bring that kind of optimism for an offense that’s been below average all year.
Of course, going on the road to face a Patriots defense ranking in the top 10 in most statistical categories is a much different challenge than blowing out Miami at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 13. Whether they’re ready or not, the Ravens couldn’t ask for a better test to see if last week was more aberration or transformation.
There’s also the matter of knowing that future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady looms on the opposing side. Expecting the Baltimore defense to shut down the New England offense would be unfair, which is why the Ravens need to start fast and keep the foot on the accelerator like they finally did against the Dolphins.
Even with an elite defense, Flacco doesn’t want to be conservative against anyone, let alone the Patriots.
“You don’t want to wait for them. You do not want to just wait and hope that they do not come back,” Flacco said. “You still have to take your chances and rely on you playing sound football. Understand that if you do make a mistake in the moment, it is still going to pay off in the long run more so than it might hurt you in that one specific play. Yes, you might turn the ball over and they might get a touchdown — a quick touchdown. But if you keep it going, it usually pays dividends in the long run.”
At this point, we know the Ravens are going to throw the ball and throw it a lot. Despite averaging 4.6 yards per carry over their last three games with the same starting offensive line, Flacco is still averaging just under 40 pass attempts per game over that time and ranked behind only Drew Brees in total pass attempts entering Week 14.
The Ravens continued to use the no-huddle offense and exploited the middle of the Dolphins’ pass defense over and over, but will the Patriots allow the same free releases off the line of scrimmage? Will their secondary allow similar cushion for the crossing routes and slants run so effectively by Mike Wallace, Steve Smith, and Breshad Perriman? Will Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have a better plan to confuse Flacco, who made it look so easy against Miami?
Asked what finally clicked against the Dolphins after weeks of frustration, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg wasn’t interested in taking credit — or divulging any secrets.
“The players did a heck of a job,” Mornhinweg said. “The position coaches who are involved in the game plan did an outstanding job. It’s just that simple.”
Monday will reveal if it really is that simple and whether the newfound optimism for the Ravens is warranted. Only then will we know if Baltimore can forget about the first three months of offensive frustration and turn the page toward an exciting finish to the season.
And we also might be able to see if this defense can reach another level as Smith suggested.