Eisenberg: Defense Will Decide How Special Ravens Are in 2019

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Lamar Jackson and the offense are getting most of the attention, but I’d keep an eye on the defense when trying to gauge the full extent of the Ravens’ upside possibilities in 2019.

The offense is already established as a force. Although the passing game still needs developing, Baltimore is No. 1 in the league in rushing, No. 1 in scoring and No. 2 in total yardage. There’s no longer any doubt about the unit’s potency.

The Ravens’ special teams are also a force. Yes, there’ve been some recent wobbles, including a muffed punt and coverage lapses, but no team has better specialists than Justin Tucker and Sam Koch, according to the Patriots’ Bill Belichick.

So, summing up, the offense is high caliber, special teams are high caliber, and if the defense can find a comparable level, the Ravens surely have something special going.

Yes, it’s ironic, because for years the defense has been the unit you didn’t have to worry about, while the offense has usually been trying to keep up.

But that’s no longer so. While Jackson has emerged as one of the NFL’s top playmakers in 2019, the Ravens’ defense has ridden a roller coaster – a nice start followed by a harrowing dip, and now, an encouraging rise.

Surprises are dominating the defense’s story in 2019. Unemployed Josh Bynes taking over C.J. Mosley’s spot? L.J. Fort and Jihad Ward providing energy after being cut elsewhere? Marcus Peters arriving in a trade? Chuck Clark, who’d never been a starter, putting on the green-dot play-calling helmet?

Who foresaw any of that happening? But those changes helped steady things after several unsettling early outings, including a home loss to the Cleveland Browns.

Will the defense’s performance curve continue to rise? If so, just how high can it go? Those are key questions.

The early struggles may have been somewhat misleading, as neither Jimmy Smith nor Brandon Williams were on the field for the low points. Both are now playing again, helping solidify their areas.

Since allowing 193 rushing yards to the Browns in Week 4 with Williams sidelined, Baltimore has yielded just 72.5 yards per game on the ground in the past month with Williams playing. Bynes and Fort also have helped there.

For the season, the Ravens are No. 2 in the league in rushing defense, a good starting point for playing sound overall defense. Between that and the presence of four starting-caliber cornerbacks and Earl Thomas III, there’s reason for optimism.

The thorniest issue remains the pass rush, with Baltimore ranked No. 27 in sacks. But that concern also has eased in recent weeks after the Ravens succeeded in harassing Russell Wilson and Tom Brady, with the Brady absorbing 10 hits.

Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale has rolled out all sorts of unconventional stuff to get things going, including having those four cornerbacks on the field together, with Brandon Carr shifting to safety. There also have been alignments without a single inside linebacker, and others without a down lineman.

But while some players are new and the tactics are unusual, the sum of the parts has been more than acceptable lately.

“We've been able probably to start hitting our stride just a little bit with scheme and doing some different things and changing up from week to week and getting it right,” Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said. “We're getting some experience working together, probably a big part of it, and it's just week to week. We have to play well. We have to cover people. We have to stop the run. We have to be consistent with everything we do, and we're probably more consistent than we were early, I would say.”

Games against challenging quarterbacks such as Houston’s Deshaun Watson are coming, but Sunday’s contest against the winless Cincinnati Bengals could hint at what lies ahead.

The Bengals are starting a rookie quarterback, Ryan Finley. Baltimore defenses have traditionally feasted on inexperienced signal-callers. If another feast unfolds Sunday, it could be a sign that the Ravens’ defense is snarling again and ready to join the offense and special teams as major factors in a season gone very right.

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