Yanda injury puts more pressure on Ravens defense to be special

September 17, 2017 | Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Ravens deserved to feel good about their 24-10 win over Cleveland Sunday to improve to 2-0 on the young season.

The defense was its own toughest critic after the game for allowing seven plays of 20 or more yards, but the Browns managed only 10 points, went 2-for-12 on third down, finished 0-for-1 in the red zone, and committed five turnovers. You’ll gladly take that kind of defensive performance in those four major categories while working to iron out the other kinks.

But the loss of six-time Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda to a season-ending ankle injury put a damper on the post-game locker room and was on the minds of even those on the opposite side of the ball. That’s how badly this one hurts for the Ravens.

“He is a leader. There is not a word in English dictionary that can describe — well, I can’t find one right now — what Marshal is to us,” said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, Yanda’s teammate for the last decade. “It hurts. That hurts to lose your bell cow. But, the Ravens, our motto is ‘the next man up.’ We are going to miss him.”

The offensive line had already lost above-average right tackle Rick Wagner to free agency, starting left guard Alex Lewis and 2017 fourth-round guard Nico Siragusa to season-ending injuries in training camp, and fourth-year interior lineman John Urschel to a surprising retirement in late July. Those types of losses test an offensive line’s depth, but Yanda has long been the glue and heart of the group. He’s that rare talent who raises the play of those around him, meaning an already-suspect unit becomes even more troubling without him moving forward.

Other than quarterback Joe Flacco, Yanda was probably the player the Ravens offense could least afford to lose.

The Ravens did manage to rush for 69 yards on 20 carries in the second half to help protect a 21-7 halftime lead after Yanda was injured on the first play of scrimmage in the third quarter, but it’s not as simple as plugging in recently-acquired journeyman Tony Bergstrom at right guard and assuming all will be fine. It’s the latest challenge — and the biggest one yet — for an offense that’s been ravaged by injuries over the last 3 1/2 months.

“Even before I came here, everybody in the league knows about Marshal, how special he is, his excellence on the offensive line, and the way guys gravitate toward him, the leader that he is,” 14th-year tight end Benjamin Watson said. “It’s definitely going to hurt. Football is a team game. We’re going to put 11 on the field, and someone is going to play.”

Making the injury more frustrating is that the offense showed progress from Week 1 when it rode the coattails of a defensive shutout and really only needed to run the football at a functional level. Against the Browns, Flacco used an array of bootlegs and play-action passes to throw for two touchdowns and 217 yards with only one interception. The Ravens also rushed for 136 yards and averaged a solid 4.3 yards per carry.

But you can’t help but feel the Yanda injury represents at least a couple steps back after the stride forward on Sunday. Filling that colossal void won’t be easy, putting more pressure on the defense to continue playing at an elite level in the meantime.

Perhaps the group is up to the challenge after forcing 10 turnovers in the first two weeks of the season, an output incredibly just four shy of Baltimore’s total number of takeaways for the entire 2015 season. The competition will get tougher in the coming weeks, but this Ravens defense looks like it can be special.

It will need to be with the offense now forced to find its new footing after losing the best guard in football.

“No one can replace Marshal Yanda — no one person,” head coach John Harbaugh said. “But I think we traded for [Bergstrom] for a reason, and our scouts believed in him. It looks like a good trade. Everyone is going to have to collectively raise their effort level, their execution level to make up for the loss of a player like Marshal.”

Fair or not, that “everyone” will include a defense that’s already been rather spectacular.