The Ravens did many things well during their 14-2 season, but defending the run was not their strongest suit.
Baltimore surrendered 4.4 yards per carry in 2019, the highest average in franchise history. In Baltimore's playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans, Derrick Henry gashed the Ravens for 195 yards on 30 carries, reinforcing the Ravens' need to address their run defense during the offseason.
The Ravens' front seven has undergone major changes, beginning in free agency with the additions of defensive linemen Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe. Remodeling the front seven continued during the draft when Baltimore selected inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison and defensive linemen Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington.
"Nobody values stopping the run quite like the Baltimore Ravens," NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah said during the the draft. "Especially when you consider how their season ended last year at the hands of the Tennessee Titans. They want to get stronger."
The Ravens were the only team in the draft to double down at both inside linebacker and defensive tackle. Some were surprised when the Ravens drafted Washington in the fifth round after taking Madubuike in the third, but having a strong run defense and a deep defensive line rotation is part of the Ravens' DNA.
"We lost some guys in the front seven this offseason, and we always want to continue to be as strong up front as we can," General Manager Eric DeCosta said. "And that's something that since Coach Harbaugh's been the head coach, [since] 2008, he has stressed that we are as strong as we can be on the offensive and defensive lines. So, we try to get guys every single year in the draft on both sides of the ball. I know sometimes our fans don't think that's maybe sexy, but we do. We want to be as strong up front as we can, so you're going to see us do that every single draft. It's important to us to control the line of scrimmage and be a physical football team."
It remains to be seen how many reps Madubuike and Washington can earn in 2020, but the Ravens are deep and versatile on their defensive front with Brandon Williams, Campbell, Wolfe, Jihad Ward and second-year tackle Daylon Mack joining the two rookies. There will be intense competition for playing time and DeCosta believes Mudubuike and Washington will benefit from being mentored by proven vets and being groomed by Defensive Line Coach Joe Cullen.
"I think it's a good environment right now to bring a young guy in," DeCosta said. "We have great leadership in Calais and Derek, and Brandon is an awesome leader, too.
"I think Justin is a guy who – first and foremost – plays hard. He can rush the passer, he runs to the football, and I think he's a guy who has tremendous upside. He is going to develop quickly with those guys in front of him, and I think it's a great spot for him to be in."
Improving their run defense could be a critical component to the Ravens making the jump from playoff team to Super Bowl team.
With the NFL's highest-scoring offense last season, the Ravens often grabbed early leads and forced opponents to abandon the running game. It was a winning formula. Baltimore has one of the NFL's best secondaries featuring Pro Bowl cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, playing with Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas III and Chuck Clark. Quarterbacks often found themselves throwing into tight coverage against the Ravens, while having to deal with the creative blitz packages dialed up by Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale.
However, when opponents avoided falling behind by double digits, Baltimore's issues defending the run became more glaring. In their Week 4 loss to the Cleveland Browns, the Ravens were hurt badly by running back Nick Chubb (165 yards, 20 carries) and Baltimore yielded a season-high 40 points. After that game, the Ravens signed inside linebackers Josh Bynes and L.J. Fort, and Baltimore went on a franchise-record 12-game winning streak to grab the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
But the performance by Henry in the playoffs was a bitter way for Baltimore's season to end. Now with Queen and Harrison, the Ravens have two athletic inside linebackers joining Fort, Chris Board, Otaro Alaka and reportedly Jake Ryan. They have a revamped defensive line. On paper, they look better prepared to stop the run, and Harbaugh looks forward to seeing the revamped front seven on the field.
"It's going to be competitive," Harbaugh said. "It's going to be a fight for playing time. You're going to have to know what to do, and you're going to have to do it well to get on this field and play for the Ravens. Like Eric said, you have to play fast and run to the ball and be explosive. I don't feel like we'll be limited at all where we're just forced into doing certain things. It'll all be by choice."