When it comes to collecting interceptions, cornerback Marcus Peters is the best in the business. Since he entered the NFL in 2015, Peters has 27 interceptions, far and away the most of any player.
The Ravens want to follow the lead of their dynamic takeaway artist in 2020. They want to turn up the takeaways, and a primary focus will be producing more interceptions.
Baltimore tied for 12th in the NFL with 13 interceptions in 2019, far behind the league-leading New England Patriots, who had 25. Does Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale think the Ravens will have more interceptions?
"Man, I hope so, Martindale said with a chuckle. "You just don't know – it's year-to-year. But I think that takeaways are going to be a big priority for our defense."
NFL Network's Cynthia Frelund projected that Peters will lead the league in interceptions in 2020 with five. Her model also has the Ravens with the highest interception projection as a total defense.
Here are specific reasons why the Ravens think their interceptions will go up:
The Top Four Corners
You can't expect to have more talent at cornerback than Baltimore does. Start with the cornerback rotation. It's Pacific Ocean-deep with Peters, Marlon Humphrey, Tavon Young and Jimmy Smith. That's two Pro Bowlers in Humphrey and Peters, a physically gifted corner in Smith, and one of the NFL's top slot corners in Young, who missed the entire 2019 season with a neck injury.
Young's return adds another takeaway dimension to the defense. He has a nose for the football with three career interceptions and two fumble recoveries returned for touchdowns. Meanwhile, Humphrey had a career-high three interceptions last season, and he is becoming even more adept at putting himself in position for takeaways.
The Peters Impact
Part of Humphrey's enhanced takeaway mentality comes from playing with Peters, who was acquired by General Manager Eric DeCosta last year in a midseason trade that took Baltimore's ability to force interceptions to another level. Peters introduced himself in his Ravens debut with a pick-six against the Seahawks' Russell Wilson, one of the league's smartest quarterbacks.
Wilson threw just five interceptions last season and you don't often see him baited into egg-on-your-face mistakes. But Peters is special, and he'll be returning for his first full season in Baltimore, even more ingrained in the defensive system.
If more cornerbacks could do what Peters does, they would. But his knack for interceptions goes beyond his enviable physical gifts. He puts in the work, studying quarterbacks, studying film and recognizing tendencies. It helps him anticipate the right time to jump routes and anticipate throws. He's like an expert thief who has already cased the quarterback's house before he steals the football.
"I've said this before; Marcus Peters is one of the smartest corners I've ever seen play the game," Martindale said.
The Cerebral Safeties
Starting safeties Earl Thomas III and Chuck Clark can build off the chemistry they started last season. Thomas had just two interceptions in 2019 but has 30 for his career, proof that he's excellent at capitalizing on opportunities.
In his first season in Baltimore last year, Thomas was playing in a system that differed from the Seattle system where he played nine years patrolling centerfield. He should feel more comfortable from Day 1 and Thomas reported to training camp in great shape, fully recovered from the broken leg he suffered during his final season in Seattle. The result could be more opportunities for picks.
While Clark had just one interception last year, teammates consistently rave about his defensive intellect. In film study, Clark is like the contestant on "Jeopardy" who pushes the button with the correct answer before Alex Trebek can finish the question. It's why Clark wears the microphoned helmet to relay defensive signals from Martindale. Clark has been described as “bold, brilliant and brief” “Bold, Brilliant and Brief” by Head Coach John Harbaugh, and his acumen in his second year as a starter should help teammates line up in the right spots for more interception opportunities.
The Pass Rush Looks Stronger
The Ravens acquired defensive end Calais Campbell, who has 88 career sacks, and defensive end Derek Wolfe, who has 33 sacks including a career high seven last season. For a defense that registered just five sacks from its defensive linemen last year, their arrival will significantly boost that number.
They will join outside linebacker Matthew Judon who had a career-high 9.5 sacks in 2019, Tyus Bowser who had career-high five sacks, Pernell McPhee who had three sacks in seven games before a season-ending triceps injury, and Jaylon Ferguson, who figures to improve over his 2.5 sacks as a rookie. The additions of inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison will also add overall quickness to the defense.
"I think that with the changes that we made up front and the additions that we made, we're big where we're supposed to be big, and we're fast where we're supposed to be fast," Martindale said. "We're really excited to see the product in this next month getting ready for Cleveland."
If the Ravens get to opposing quarterbacks more often, they'll be more likely to throw ill-advised passes – the kind of throws that the Ravens will be looking to pick off.