Ravens players talked about having a historically good defense in 2017. They said it would be a disappointment if they didn’t have one of the best units in the league.
In the end, it wasn’t historic, but the Ravens finished well in the rankings.
They led the league in takeaways, gave up the sixth-fewest points in the league and fell just outside the top 10 in yards allowed per game.
They know there’s more meat on the bone.
“We’ll do everything we can to make our defense better next year,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said last week. “Our defense was pretty darn good this year, but I guarantee it can be better.”
Harbaugh pointed to two main reasons why he thinks the unit can improve.
“As young guys get better, and we tweak the system and make it even better – which I happen to think is the best defensive system in football right now – we’ll make it even better, because that’s what we’re going to do,” he said.
The biggest change will be with the play-caller. With Dean Pees’ retirement, the Ravens will welcome in a new defensive coordinator.
Harbaugh said it will be someone familiar with Baltimore’s system, so either somebody from within, such as Linebackers Coach Don “Wink” Martindale, or who has previously been with the team, such as Chuck Pagano, Steve Spagnuolo or Ted Monachino.
Whoever it is, he’ll take over a group full of young, talented players. The Ravens got a ton of production from first-round rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who looks like a top-notch starter for years to come.
Pass rushers Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams combined for three sacks and didn’t see many defensive snaps down the stretch. Third-round defensive end Chris Wormley was active for seven games. This offseason will be huge for all of them.
The Ravens have other young defenders who made forward strides, including outside linebacker Matthew Judon, defensive end Willie Henry, cornerback Maurice Canady and rookie safety Chuck Clark, and Baltimore will look for more from them next year.
Better health would make a big difference too. While Baltimore’s offense took the majority of the injuries in 2017, the defense was hampered too.
Slot cornerback Tavon Young suffered a torn ACL during summer practices, and should be ready to go once football practice begins again.
Defensive tackle Brandon Williams missed four games early in the season with a foot injury. The run defense stumbled and the Ravens lost three of those games, including one against the Chicago Bears in which the Ravens gave up a franchise high 231 rushing yards.
Top cornerback Jimmy Smith went down with an Achilles tear in Week 13. The Ravens split their remaining four games and gave up 31 points to the Cincinnati Bengals in a season-ending Week 17 loss.
When the Ravens had both Williams and Smith – two of their highest-paid defensive players – on the field, they were 6-2 and gave up 10.6 points per game.
Injuries go both ways, however. The Ravens also avoided having to face starting quarterbacks such as Oakland’s Derek Carr, Miami’s Ryan Tannehill (and Jay Cutler), Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Houston’s Deshaun Watson and Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck.
Harbaugh was asked about how he’ll evaluate his defense given it went up against so many backup quarterbacks this season.
“Every year, you face different situations,” Harbaugh said. “You face great running games, you face top defenses, or you face great pass rushers. Some years you face more than other years. That will be part of it when we look at the Xs and Os part of it, in terms of how we build our defense going forward.
“If we face a slew of All-Pro quarterbacks next year, we will have to be ready to stop those guys, and it will not be an excuse if we don’t.”