Defense Is On the Verge Of History You Do and Don't Want to Make
Baltimore's defense has gotten a lot of love this week, and deservedly so. The unit stuffed another top-10 offense on Saturday, which is something it's consistently done all season.
As a result, the Ravens rank No. 1 in yards (284.1) and points allowed per game (17.5), as well as yards allowed per play (4.6) and lowest completion percentage (58.7). Make no mistake about it, this is the top defense in the NFL.
So far, 2006 is the only season in franchise history when the Ravens finished atop the league's rankings in both yards and points allowed per game. To do it again in this golden era of offense would be quite an achievement.
Still, while the defense is on the verge of making some fantastic history, that could easily change to frustrating history if Sunday's game against Cleveland were to end in a loss.
"It is not rare for a defense to finish the regular season No. 1 in scoring and total defense; six have done it in the past decade," The Baltimore Sun’s Jonas Shaffer wrote. "It is rare, however, for such an elite unit to not even advance to the postseason. Since 2009, only the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers and 2010 San Diego Chargers have finished with the No. 1 total defense and not made it to the playoffs. In the NFL's modern era, a period that dates back to 1970, only the 1977 Atlanta Falcons have finished with the league's best scoring defense and not qualified."
Indeed, it's rare for a defense that has been so dominant for much of the season to not make the postseason. A fine defensive performance but a loss to the Browns would make that scenario a reality. It's what happened in Week 5 when the two teams met for the first time, which Cleveland won, 12-9, in overtime.
In the Browns, 247Sports’ Sam Quinn believes the Ravens have a difficult matchup from a defensive perspective. No, Cleveland does not possess one of those high-flying, high-scoring, record-setting offenses like the Kansas City Chiefs or Los Angeles Rams. Their formula is closer to the Ravens, with a strong running game being the foundation, along with a talented defense that keeps giving the offense the ball back.
Essentially, if the Browns play their game, they could do to the Ravens what the Ravens have done to every opponent since rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson became the starter.
"They have won the time of possession battle in every game Lamar Jackson has started. But if the Browns can contain him, they can easily swing that pendulum back in their direction with Nick Chubb, one of the NFL's best runners in the second half of the season," Quinn wrote. "If they win the time of possession battle, Baltimore's defense becomes less effective by sheer virtue of spending more time on the field and getting tired. If the Browns do manage to build a lead, they force the Ravens to play offense the way that every other team in the NFL does: by passing the ball."
While Quinn lays out a winning scenario for the Browns, it's easier said than done. First, the Browns have to contain Jackson, who leads all quarterbacks in rushing yards despite only starting six games. They have to win time of possession against the team who leads the NFL in that category (32:03). And if the Browns do build a lead, they're going to force Jackson to have to throw, something he's done well while the Ravens are trailing.
One good bit of news is that if the Ravens do reach the postseason, Shaffer believes recent history indicates Baltimore is in for a deep playoff run.
"January football has tended to reward teams like the Ravens recently," Shaffer wrote. "The 2017 Minnesota Vikings, 2014 and 2013 Seattle Seahawks, 2009 New York Jets and 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, all of whom finished atop the NFL in the two defensive categories, advanced to at least their conference championship game. The 2013 Seahawks and 2008 Steelers won the Super Bowl that season."
That would be a big change from 2006, when the defense performed valiantly against the Indianapolis Colts, but lost, 15-6, in the divisional round after securing a first-round bye.
Before focusing on the postseason though, the Ravens must first qualify by stifling one last opponent, and cement itself as this season's top defense.
Second-Half Surge Has Been Coming at a Bargain Price
Baltimore's second-half surge, resulting in a 5-1 record, has been unique for a lot of reasons. A switch at quarterback is certainly something most division leaders don't go through. In an age when the NFL is obsessed with throwing the ball, how often Baltimore has run it is also unique.
There's another way this stretch of games has been distinctive, and it hasn't gotten as much attention: it's been done at a good price. Baltimore's charge up the standings has been led by players that aren't as high up on the team's payroll.
According to Pro Football Focus, Baltimore's top four contributors on defense have been defensive tackle Michael Pierce, cornerback Marlon Humphrey and outside linebackers Matthew Judon and Za'Darius Smith. All four are still on their rookie deals, and with the exception of Humphrey, none of were high draft picks.
"Judon and Smith are former Day 3 picks, while Pierce didn't even hear his name called in the draft," PFF's Austin Gayle wrote. "All three are putting together career-high performances in several respects, and the trio's 2018 salaries combined barely account for half of the $8.25 million veteran safety Eric Weddle is due this season."
Yes, it should be noted that the Ravens have pumped plenty of money into their defense with Weddle, and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs among those with higher salaries.
Those players have been key contributors this campaign too, with Gayle noting that Weddle ranks 12th-overall among all NFL safeties in PFF's scoring system (78.9 PFF score), while Suggs is 16th in quarterback pressure percentage (13.3 percent). The veterans have done well, but having your top-graded players being on their rookie deals is certainly an added bonus.
"The Ravens' strong veteran presence coupled with a bevy of young guns delivering on rookie contracts has the team firing on all cylinders as they make a push for the playoffs in 2018," Gayle wrote. "And even if they fall short in Week 17, Baltimore can bet on a bright future if the front office can maintain its nucleus of young talent on the defensive side of the ball."
The same can be said for the offense, with Forbes’ Jeff Seidel noting the team's rushing attack is coming at a discounted price, too. Compared to the average starting quarterback salary, Jackson is certainly a bargain, but that deal is nothing in comparison to running backs Gus Edwards and Kenneth Dixon.
Dixon is making $630,000, while Edwards is earning $350,820, according to Spotrac. Edwards is now Baltimore's leading rusher for the season, despite not being featured heavily in the offense until Week 11. Dixon, meanwhile, has averaged 4.5 yards per carry, and has also been a presence in the passing game.
"The bottom line is the Ravens are using a rookie quarterback with a limited type of offense and two running backs are certainly giving the team its money's worth," Seidel wrote. "It will be interesting to see how the money part plays out in the off-season but for now, the Ravens are right where they want to be at."
Buzz Growing Around Wink Martindale Becoming an NFL Head Coach
The Ravens recently announced that Head Coach John Harbaugh will be back next season, and that a contract extension is in the works. To some pundits, one of the benefits of making the announcement during the regular season was to show other organizations in need of a new head coach that Harbaugh won't be available.
Now, it looks like the front office might be fielding calls from other organizations about another member of Baltimore's coaching staff: Defensive Coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale.
With the defense's excellent performance in L.A. on Saturday, Martindale has begun to get mentioned in lists of potential head coaching candidates. The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec would "almost be surprised" if Martindale doesn't get some attention for vacancies.
Any buzz around Martindale as a potential head coach is a testament to how well he and the defense have done this year. In this age of offensive-minded teams being among the NFL's elite, most of the names being put out there are offensive coaches.
Martindale hasn't given any indication if he would or wouldn't be interested in becoming a head coach, but if he were to depart, it wouldn't be a new situation for the Ravens. Four former Baltimore defensive coordinators – Marvin Lewis, Mike Nolan, Rex Ryan and Chuck Pagano – all left the Ravens for an NFL head coaching job. It's also worth noting that only Lewis is still in a head coaching position.
Still, that doesn't mean replacing Martindale would be simple.
"Not only has his defense been lights out for much of the year, but opponent after opponent has talked about how well-coached and relentless the Ravens' defense has been," Zrebiec wrote. "Martindale's players just love him, and a defensive assistant job with the Ravens has been a springboard for many future head coaches in the past."
Justin Herbert's Decision Makes Drafting Lamar Jackson Look Even Better
To NFL.com’s David Carr, "Jackson was drafted into the perfect situation. In fact, it's turned out to be more perfect than anyone (maybe even Jackson) could have thought."
Indeed, it's a scenario that may be working out better than many pundits believed it would. When Jackson was drafted, he was widely considered to be a promising talent, but one that would need some time to acclimate to starting in the NFL. Instead, Jackson is 5-1 as a rookie starter.
Zrebiec thinks the front office's decision to trade up to the No. 32 pick to draft Jackson this past May was given even further validation yesterday when Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert announced he would not enter next year's draft.
Herbert was seen by many as one of the top quarterback prospects for the 2019 draft, which leaves one less arm for quarterback-needy teams to choose from.
"The team's decision to essentially trade a second-round pick to get in position to take [Jackson] with the final selection of the first round looks better by the day," Zrebiec wrote. "Herbert deciding to stay in school, rather than declare for the NFL draft, has weakened an already suspect draft class at quarterback. It's also not an especially impressive quarterback free-agent class either. If the Ravens hadn't drafted Jackson, it was going to be awfully tough for them this year to find a quarterback of the future."
- Carr credits Assistant Coach Greg Roman for being a big influence in Jackson's development, like he was with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. "Roman has worked with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinwheg to do the same thing with Jackson by implementing quarterback run schemes and catering the offense to Jackson's strengths," Carr wrote. "In turn, the rookie has been able to showcase his incredible running talent while progressing as a passer along the way."
- Zrebiec believes Baltimore's exploits on the road this season have gone unnoticed, and are a big reason why the Ravens are currently atop the AFC North. "Of their four [road] wins this year, three of them have been against winning teams who have either clinched a playoff spot or could this weekend and the other was against an Atlanta Falcons' team that had their quarterback and most of their offensive skill position players intact," Zrebiec wrote.
- PFF’s Nathan Jahnke noted that right guard Marshal Yanda has an impressive streak going right now. "Yanda has allowed no pressure in seven games this season, which is tied for the most for offensive guards."