Not having defensive tackle Brandon Williams on the field the past two weeks has had a ripple effect on Baltimore’s defense, but probably not the one fans would have expected.
Yes, the Ravens gave up 144 rushing yards to Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell last week. But many of those runs weren’t up the middle, where Williams typically dominates.
Thanks to the emergence of Carl Davis and Willie Henry, two young Ravens defensive linemen, the Ravens have held up inside as they await the return of their star.
Davis had one of the defense’s best performances against the Steelers, according to Pro Football Focus grades. He made three tackles and was credited with one quarterback hurry.
Henry was also one of the unit’s standout players. In his second career game played, Henry logged just one tackle but added two pass defenses and hit quarterback Ben Roethlisberger twice, once forcing a third-down completion.
The Ravens have gushed about their defensive line depth this offseason, and it’s starting to show.
“Brandon is a huge part of the defense. There’s a reason why he got paid,” Davis said. “But we knew we had to step up. I automatically took it upon myself.”
Henry and Davis have had a circuitous path to the field this season.
Davis was a third-round pick out of Iowa in 2015 who played in 13 games as a rookie but spent last year on injured reserve due to an ankle injury. He’s suited up for all four games this season and registered eight tackles. Henry was a fourth-round pick out of Michigan last year who didn’t see any game action.
“Ever since I got that call on draft day, I envisioned myself putting on that helmet on a Sunday and going out there and giving my all,” Henry said. “Just hearing my number called and playing up to the expectations of a Ravens defender, it’s exciting.”
Still, the Ravens haven’t been the same defense without Williams. It’s been felt on multiple levels.
Williams was getting excellent push up the middle, which was preventing quarterbacks from stepping up in the pocket and helping the pass rush. It was also forcing quarterbacks to make more uncomfortable throws, which helped lead to eight interceptions in the first two games.
Williams also commands extra attention. He can occupy multiple blockers, freeing up teammates to make more plays.
“It’s been a big loss for us with Brandon not being out there,” linebacker C.J. Mosley said. “But [Davis and Henry] have definitely shown up the past two weeks. We demand a lot of them, but we know they’re not the same player Brandon is.”
What’s hurt the Ravens run defense the most the past couple of weeks has been counter runs to the edges. Head Coach John Harbaugh gave his take Monday after watching the tape.
“We are not defending the run as well as we want to, for sure,” he said. “Interior-wise, we are playing OK, not as well as when Brandon [Williams] was there. But Michael Pierce is playing really well. I give him a lot of credit, and those young guys are doing pretty well, too, when you watch it.
“Our problem [Sunday] was more on the edges. We had a problem on the edges with some of their formations. They put two and three tight ends out there, and we didn’t respond to some of the gap schemes as well as we can, as well as we need to, and I think that is where they popped those runs for the most part.”
Now the Ravens have Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch up next. He runs with a different style than Bell, but he can be just as dangerous.
Bell is patient. He waits for teams to overextend themselves. Lynch attacks the line of scrimmage and is extremely tough to bring down. At 31 years old and after a year away from football, he still runs with intense power.
He hasn’t had the best start to his season, however. After rumbling for 76 yards in Week 1, Lynch has run for a combined 75 yards in the past three games.
The Ravens know they have to clean up their mistakes, or they could see a Lynch revival Sunday in Oakland. With starting quarterback Derek Carr out (back), the last thing Baltimore wants to do is let his backup, EJ Manuel, settle in behind a strong Raiders rushing attack.
"It is everybody is at the point of attack; everyone has to stay alive," Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees said. "[Lynch] is not down until he is down until the whistle blows. He is an angry runner; he runs hard. His feet are always chopping."