Eisenberg: The Ravens Defense Is Stacked

Left: Defensive Coordinator Don Martindale; Right: DE Calais Campbell

Ravens Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale didn't speak to the media Monday, which meant I didn't get to pose the question on the tip of my tongue.

I wanted to know if there was anything else – anything – he wanted for his unit in the wake of the addition of Justin Houston, the veteran pass rusher who signed with Baltimore last weekend.

Unit coordinators usually have a wish list and a quiet gripe or two, but my hunch is Martindale would say no, thanks, he's good with the tools at his disposal heading into the 2021 season.

The Ravens' defense is pretty darn stacked.

The secondary is deep and talented, among the NFL's best. The starting D-line is the same one that stuffed Derrick Henry in the playoffs seven months ago. The inside linebackers include recent high draft picks, young and ascending players.

The pass rush was the area being questioned, fairly, after several key edge defenders signed elsewhere during free agency.

I wasn't as concerned about it as some because Martindale is so adept at ginning up pressure with inventive schemes and blitzes. Also, more and more teams, including the Pittsburgh Steelers, are deploying passing attacks in which the ball comes out super-rapidly, lessening the importance of a strong rush.

Yet I know there are still plenty of games a team can dominate strictly by pressuring the opposing quarterback. (Cough, the most recent Super Bowl, for instance.) You can't consistently win in a passing-centric league if you can't mount a rush. The Ravens certainly didn't want to go without.

They re-signed Tyus Bowser and Pernell McPhee. They drafted Odafe Oweh and Daelin Hayes. Jaylon Ferguson is back for his third season. Houston was the final puzzle piece, a shiny one; he is a four-time Pro Bowl selection with 97.5 career sacks. At 32, he is still pressuring quarterbacks, having registered at least eight sacks in each of the past four seasons.

His decision to join the Ravens is a positive in many ways. Cornerback Marcus Peters, a former teammate, praises his leadership and other intangibles. Houston came stunningly cheap, enabling the Ravens to maintain a measure of salary cap flexibility. He reportedly turned down more from other teams because he wants to play for a Super Bowl contender – a nice compliment.

We'll see if the pass rush actually is improved from 2020, but with Houston on board, the Ravens' depth chart at outside linebacker is a nice blend of veteran savvy and youthful potential.

How Martindale will use them remains unclear. Oweh is lighting up the practice field in training camp with his size and speed; if he continues to be a handful when the players don pads this week, he might end up assuming a larger-than-expected role, which could impact others.

In any case, now that the pass rush is fully addressed, I'm not sure Martindale would willingly make many changes to the defense.

Yes, he probably wishes his young inside linebackers were more experienced in pass coverage. Opponents will attack there. I'm sure he wishes his D-line was younger for the purposes of being less susceptible to injury. I'm sure he hopes to see his safeties force more takeaways.

But those are minor quibbles. The truth is his unit has so much talent at all three levels that players who belong in the league aren't going to make the roster.

It was no surprise the defense dominated Monday's practice at the Under Armour Performance Center. The offense is short-handed, missing quarterback Lamar Jackson and other key performers due to injuries and absences.

But the defense is going to test the offense in practice even when both units are back at full strength.

I'm not going down the road of suggesting the defense has the potential to rank with some of the Ravens' classic units. I'm tired of that yardstick. Who cares? Stopping offenses is a different challenge than it was two decades ago. (Look at me personifying Head Coach John Harbaugh and bristling at a comparison question.)

What matters is the Ravens have built a defense for 2021, in the process checking every box on Martindale's wish list. That's a promising sign.

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