Eisenberg: Why You Shouldn't Fret About the Pass Rush

DC Wink Martindale

As we sit here now, between the first wave of free agency and the draft, the Ravens' pass rush probably would win a balloting among fans to identify their biggest concern about the 2021 team.

It's understandable. Three of the team's top edge defenders departed in free agency, creating a hole that needs filling. And the front office hasn't addressed the pass rush early in free agency, unlike with several of the team's other stated needs.

Beyond bringing back Tyus Bowser with the idea of expanding his role, the Ravens haven't revealed their plan for replacing the departed sacks and pressures.

While I understand the concern, I wouldn't get too carried away with fretting over the 2021 pass rush.

The defense is strong up front and also strong in back. The inside linebackers are ascending. The pass rush may be an uncertainty now, but the Ravens were in a similar position two years ago and things turned out fine.

Two years ago, after Za'Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs left in free agency, the Ravens drafted an outside linebacker (Jaylon Ferguson) with a Day 2 pick, signed a veteran (Pernell McPhee) and fortified their secondary with a marquee signing (Earl Thomas). They counted on a holdover (Matthew Judon) continuing to develop and really counted on Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale continuing to create pressure with his unique array of schemes.

In the end, although the team's sack total declined from 43 in 2018 to 37 in 2019, the defense allowed fewer points overall. With Martindale pulling the strings, the pass rush brought heat for a team that went 14-2 in the regular-season.

Now, after the departures of Judon, Yannick Ngakoue and Jihad Ward in free agency, I'm expecting a similar problem-solving scenario from the Ravens. It would surprise me if they didn't sign a veteran linebacker with a history of pressuring quarterbacks; several are available. I'm also expecting them to draft an edge defender, possibly with a high pick.

And of course, Martindale is still on the job, seemingly able to gin up pressure regardless of his personnel.

A few years ago, the organization made a fundamental decision about how it wanted to build its defense. Recognizing the prevalence and sophistication of NFL passing offenses, the Ravens resolved to build from the back end forward, i.e. make the secondary the priority.

According to Spotrac, the Ravens ranked No. 2 in the NFL in 2018, No. 1 in 2019 and No. 4 in 2020 in salary devoted to the secondary. At this early point in the 2021 roster-building process, they're No. 6.

It doesn't mean they've abandoned the rush. Judon was their highest-paid player in 2020. They gave up two drafts picks for Ngakoue, whose cap hit ranked in their top eight.

Those investments didn't lead to many more sacks; the Ravens finished 2020 with 39, up two from the year before. But the defense still brought enough pressure that it produced the seventh-lowest passer rating in the league among opposing quarterbacks. Although the secondary's strong coverage was a big factor, a defense can't perform that well without pressure.

Interestingly, this is playing out as a "coverage vs. pressure" philosophical debate rages in the NFL. Are teams better off investing in pressuring quarterbacks or shutting down receivers? In 2019, Pro Football Focus reported that its math suggested good coverage correlated more directly to winning. Many insiders nodded in agreement, but some pushed back, indicating their math proved otherwise.

The events of Super Bowl 55 boosted the notion that pressure could be a big difference-maker; Patrick Mahomes was harassed nonstop as the Bucs shocked the favored Chiefs.

But tight coverage also was critical to the Bucs' ability to slow down Mahomes.

The Ravens seemingly want strong coverage and a strong rush, achieved somewhat differently. They're paying for elite coverage, as Spotrac indicates, while relying on Martindale to put together a capable rush provided he has enough quality pieces.

Martindale has always done that, and even now, before the front office really makes its key moves to fortify the rush, the smart money is on him doing it again in 2021.

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