Talented Ravens Secondary Continues to Be a Smash Hit
The Ravens' secondary was expected to be among the best in the NFL this year, and through the first five weeks of the season, a strong case can be made that the unit is the best.
In Sunday's 27-3 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore's shutdown secondary was a smackdown secondary as well. As previously noted, the Ravens made NFL history by getting sacks from five defensive backs.
Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer said Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale calls games like an offensive coach in that he wants to dictate terms to the opposition. Breer praised Martindale's creativity and aggressiveness, highlighting two examples from Sunday's game of Martindale using defensive backs as blitzers.
"The first came on a second-and-4 from the Bengals 26, with 7:41 left in the third quarter. It was a standard four-man rush on a play-action pass with the D-line, and then corners [Marcus] Peters and Anthony Averett blitzing off opposite edges," Breer wrote. "Confusion left tight end Drew Sample to peel back and block Peters from the opposite side, Sample missed and Peters kept after the QB, eventually sacking and stripping Joe Burrow.
"The second was a little more exotic. On the second play of the fourth quarter, second-and-17, Martindale crowded the line with eight defenders. A tick before the snap, [Chuck] Clark fell off. Then, at the snap, Matthew Judon and Tyus Bowser dropped, leaving five guys rushing. By then, though, they'd scrambled Cincinnati's protection to the point where, even with six guys in to block, [Marlon] Humphrey came free off Burrow's blindside to bury the rookie."
Said Humphrey: "Whenever we blitz, we all come thinking, 'I'm going to get the sack.' All guys that are blitzing are thinking, 'I'm going to get the sack.' Sometimes you get freed up, and you never know who it might be. We've got great pass rushers, but it's really good when you can have some DBs get in there and get some sacks."
Veteran defensive back Jimmy Smith, who also got in on Sunday's sack party, is being used as a chess piece by Martindale, The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec wrote.
"In Week 3, Smith spent much of the game on Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. Against Washington, Smith played a chunk of his snaps as a safety," Zrebiec wrote. "On Sunday, Smith was on the field for 52 of 67 defensive snaps and was used primarily as an outside cornerback. This is exactly the matchup role that the Ravens envisioned after re-signing Smith."
Marcus Gilchrist Came Off Practice Squad to Make an Impact for Defense
One of the key players in Martindale being able to use his defensive backs as pass rushers wasn't even in the league two weeks ago.
The Ravens signed veteran safety Marcus Gilchrist to the practice squad on Sept. 30 and promoted him to the main roster for Sunday's game. Martindale made good use of Gilchrist, who played 20 defensive snaps as he moved around to various spots in the secondary.
"His presence in the defensive backfield allowed the Ravens to play Jimmy Smith as an outside cornerback against the Bengals' large receivers without abandoning their habit of moving their starting safeties around the field," Penn Live’s Aaron Kasinitz wrote .
"On Baltimore's lone interception of the game, safety Chuck Clark blitzed up the middle to force Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow into a rushed, off-balanced throw. Cornerback Marcus Peters snatched the easy pick. And Gilchrist was on the field, lining up across from Bengals tight end Cethan Carter, which gave defensive coordinator Don 'Wink' Martindale the leeway to use other defensive backs as pass rushers."
Kasinitz noted that Gilchrist figures to have a role for the Ravens going forward.
"While matchups and rotations can change from week to week, the victory over Cincinnati proved Gilchrist isn't simply a practice squad player in place to provide insurance," Kasinitz wrote. "He represents a tool the team can use on defense to increase flexibility and frustrate opponents."
Looking at the Bengals' Decision to Kick Late FG to Avoid Shutout
With the defense imposing its will on the Bengals all game, it would've been fitting if the unit had recorded a shutout. Trailing by 27 points with 32 seconds left, however, the Bengals decided to have Randy Bullock kick a 32-yard field goal.
It was the fifth time since the NFL merger in 1970 that a team kicked a field goal in the final minute to avoid a shutout, according to ESPN Stats & Info. It would have been the Ravens' first shutout since Oct. 14, 2018, when they beat the Tennessee Titans, 21-0.
Head Coach John Harbaugh gave a diplomatic answer yesterday when asked about the Bengals' decision to kick the field goal.
"You always want the shutout. If we had kept them out of there and then got a couple stops, short yards, or maybe played a little better a couple of times on that drive on first and second down and kept them out of the short-yardage situations, it wouldn't have even been a factor," Harbaugh said. "So, I guess you kind of have to look at it that way and just leave it at that."
"You could see Martindale yelling and then he walked down the sideline away from many of the players and coaches," Zrebiec wrote. "Smith ultimately joined him and put his arm around the defensive coordinator as if to say, 'It's going to be OK.'"
Regardless of not getting the shutout, the Ravens defense is compiling an impressive resume.
"With Lamar] Jackson and the offense no longer leading the league in scoring, the Baltimore defense has become the team’s MVP, holding teams to a league-low 15.2 points per game,” [ESPN’s Jamison Hensley wrote. "When you exclude the Week 3 loss to Kansas City, this defense has created more than twice as many turnovers (nine) as touchdowns allowed (four). In the four wins this season, this defense has totaled more quarterback hits (43) than points given up (42)."
ESPN Metrics Rate Three AFC North Teams Among Top 10 Super Bowl Contenders
Three of the 10 teams most likely to win the Super Bowl reside in the AFC North, according to ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI).
The Ravens have a 27.9-percent chance of making the Super Bowl and a 16.5-percent chance of winning it, trailing only the defending champion Chiefs (38.3 percent, 23.7 percent). The Pittsburgh Steelers (5.7, 2.4) and Cleveland Browns (3.6, 1.4) are ninth and 10th, respectively.
Baltimore has a 97.3-percent chance to make the playoffs, which also is second to Kansas City (98.5 percent).
The FPI is a measure of team strength that is meant to be the best predictor of a team's performance going forward for the rest of the season.