OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have heard the same story over and over this season.
The NFL’s second-ranked pass defense has faced a backup or rookie quarterback in seven of its 11 games and in six of the last seven. The best quarterback Baltimore has beaten all year was Andy Dalton, whose offensive coordinator was fired just five days after that season-opening shutout in Cincinnati.
The underwhelming slate of signal-callers has been both a blessing and a curse as no team would turn down such good fortune over the course of a season, but it’s led many to question just how great this pass defense truly is. That changes this Sunday with Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions coming to town.
“He’s one of the best, so we’ve got to defend that,” cornerback Jimmy Smith said. “People are giving us all kinds of flak like it’s our fault we had to play against the second-string quarterbacks, but we’ll get to go out and play against a really good one and hopefully show you what we’re capable of doing.”
The Ravens can’t control their schedule or who’s been under center for the opposition and shouldn’t apologize for it. Regardless of the opponent, Baltimore leading the league in both interceptions and takeaways and posting three shutouts are superb feats and reflect the improved talent and good health in the secondary this season. But it is fair to wonder how that translates against upper-tier quarterbacks, especially with the playoff-hopeful Ravens receiving so little help from one of the worst offenses in the league.
Seven members of the secondary have played at least 150 defensive snaps this season with second-year cornerback Maurice Canady also averaging 24 snaps per game since being activated from injured reserve earlier this month. Such a distribution of playing time is usually a product of injuries, but Canady is the only meaningful contributor in the secondary to miss any games if you exclude Tavon Young, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the spring. Smith has missed practice time and some snaps within games due to lingering Achilles tendinitis, but he’s avoided missing a single game, an enormous development for the Pro Bowl-caliber corner and a secondary that’s too often slipped because of his absence in the past.
That depth has allowed defensive coordinator Dean Pees to be creative with his personnel as he’s rotated three outside cornerbacks in the base defense and used three others in nickel and dime packages in addition to Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson manning the starting safety spots. The ability to employ various sub packages and to disguise coverages has frequently overwhelmed lesser quarterbacks, but the Ravens hope those same traits can make a long day for Stafford, who is fourth in the NFL with 21 touchdown passes and ranks eighth in yards per attempt this season.
With the 6-5 Lions ranking 30th in rushing yards per game, there’s no secret to how they try to win.
“[Stafford] has the keys to the offense. He runs the show,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “He has a lot of confidence in his throws, a lot of confidence in his receivers. He throws the ball around the yard. All those guys are capable of making big plays and great catches.”
Stafford may lack the monstrous target he enjoyed throwing to for years after the retirement of future Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson two winters ago, but wide receivers Marvin Jones and Golden Tate both rank in the NFL’s top 20 in receiving yards with Jones ranking ninth in yards per catch (16.6) and Tate fifth in yards after the catch (398). Even No. 3 receiver TJ Jones has only three fewer receiving yards than Jeremy Maclin, which probably says much more more about the state of the Baltimore offense than the Lions’ top-10 passing game.
Detroit ranks sixth in the league in pass plays of 20 or more yards and second with 10 completions of 40 or more yards. That’s a different ballgame than facing the likes of Matt Moore, Brett Hundley, and Tom Savage in recent weeks.
A defense priding itself on forcing quarterbacks into making mistakes will face one who’s thrown only six interceptions despite ranking fourth in the NFL in pass attempts.
“It’s going to be a tough challenge. We are excited about it, obviously,” safety Eric Weddle said. “Every week presents challenges, offensively, schematics, players, etc. But Stafford is one of the best. He can make all the throws. He commands the offense, checks at the line, presents different challenges that we’ve seen in the past.”
The defense is the overwhelming reason why the Ravens have improved to 6-5 and currently hold the No. 6 spot in the mediocre AFC, but that doesn’t mean it’s been perfect. Baltimore hadn’t allowed a 100-yard receiver all season before Green Bay’s Davante Adams and Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins reached that benchmark catching passes from backup quarterbacks the last two weeks, which could be viewed as at least a mild sign of caution with matchups against Stafford and then Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger looming.
If there’s been one area to attack the pass defense this season, it’s been the middle of the field, which could spell trouble with Tate’s ability working from the slot.
Make no mistake, the Ravens defense deserves a ton of credit for putting the offense on its back and working with such a small margin for error all season. Sunday presents a substantial test and an opportunity to quiet those who’ve scoffed at the list of opposing quarterbacks faced.
A strong performance and a win over Stafford and the Lions would both fortify the Ravens’ playoff chances and further validate what the flashy numbers already suggest about this defense.
“It’s going to be a good challenge for us in the back end,” Carr said. “This is why we play the game. It’s a great opportunity to play some December football at home again against a high-powered pass attack and see what we can do.”