Playing prominent roles in the Ravens’ defense Sunday afternoon were two “street” free agents signed two weeks ago, one player added six days ago and a guy pulled up from the practice squad last week.
The changes kept rolling in for the reshuffled and now banged-up Ravens defense, but the results are getting better.
Baltimore was without leading tackler Patrick Onwuasor (ankle) and playing its first game since safety Tony Jefferson went down with a season-ending knee injury in Pittsburgh. Those are two of the unit’s leaders both on and off the field.
Yet the Ravens defense held the Cincinnati Bengals without a touchdown for more than 58 minutes in Sunday’s 23-17 win.
“They played fantastic,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said. “I’m really proud of our defense.”
The Bengals returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, kicked a field goal when given a short field after a fumble, and pushed in their only touchdown with 1:28 left when the game was all but decided.
Baltimore held the Bengals to just 250 total yards and took their two biggest playmakers – wide receiver Tyler Boyd and running back Joe Mixon – almost completely out of the game. Mixon had eight carries for 10 yards. Boyd had three catches for 10 yards.
Yes, the Bengals aren’t the most prolific offense this year (only six teams came in averaging fewer yards per game), but the Ravens were short-handed, and still won convincingly.
After back-to-back losses and rough defensive performances in Kansas City and at home against Cleveland, the Ravens voluntarily made widespread changes last week. Josh Bynes started at middle linebacker and Maurice Canady at cornerback.
Those moves continued to pay dividends. Canady, who was targeted often by the Bengals, finished with a team-high nine tackles. They caught some on him, but he didn’t give up any big plays.
Bynes made one of the best defensive plays of the game when he broke on a pass over the middle and dove to tip it. Marlon Humphrey caught the rebound for a red-zone interception near the end of the first half.
“I wish I would have intercepted it rather than tipped it,” Bynes said. “But everybody is communicating really well. Everybody is playing on one page. But we still have things we have to clean up and be better at.”
The biggest changes this week were at safety, where Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott both stepped in for Jefferson. Clark wore the “green dot” helmet with sideline communication, relaying Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale’s play-calls.
Harbaugh said the Ravens went with Clark over Bynes because Clark was going to be on the field more than Bynes and Clark has always done a good job with communication.
“That went really well, especially for his first time doing it,” Harbaugh said. “He’s done it in practice a lot, but that was one of the best things we did.”
Safety Earl Thomas III said the Ravens’ haven’t simplified their defense, which relies heavily on communication, even in the face of so many changes.
“Chuck did amazing today,” Thomas said. “He kept his poise; he got the call out to us, and we echoed it across the defense so that everyone could get it. I think he did a great job today.”
Clark is on cloud nine. His first child, a 9-pound, 5-ounce baby girl named Charlee, was born on Friday. Sunday wasn’t his first start, but it was the first time he had so much responsibility.
“Just blessed, man,” Clark said. “God gave me a great weekend.”
Meanwhile, Elliott stepped in as more of a coverage safety and flashed his range on a deep throw intended for Boyd. Boyd may have hauled it in, despite tight coverage from Humphrey, had Elliott not whacked Boyd to dislodge the ball.
Defensive lineman Jihad Ward, who was signed just this week, played a fair number of snaps on the defensive line, including on the most critical drives. He finished with two tackles and showed his hustle.
“I’ve been on the field plenty of times,” Ward said. “Just keep it simple, just ball. Give it all I got and give effort. I want to show my respect and let them know I’m a Raven.”
The Ravens still have some things to improve on. The Bengals have had trouble protecting Andy Dalton and were banged up along the offensive line, but Baltimore got just two sacks, with both coming late in the game when the Bengals were forced to air it out.
But the newcomers are performing and the centerpieces are balling out. Humphrey locked up Boyd and got another pick. Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce stuffed the run.
The Ravens didn’t start the year well on defense and upcoming tests against the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots will tell a lot more. They are hoping their mix of veteran and youth additions will help bring it back to Baltimore’s standards.
“If you look at it last year, Patriots were 25th or 26th early in the season, and they ended up winning the Super Bowl late in the season,” veteran outside linebacker Pernell McPhee said. “It’s still early in the season. The longer the season goes, the better we are going to be on defense.”