Late for Work 7/19: Will the Ravens Defense Be Better or Worse?

071921-LFW
Ravens Defense pre-game.

Majority of Ravens Defenders Return. Will They Improve?

The Ravens defense ranked second in points allowed (18.9) and seventh in yards allowed (329.8) per game last season, continuing the franchise's legacy of being one of the NFL's best. Will it be even better in 2021?

On Sunday, ESPN's Jamison Hensley analyzed the Ravens' defensive roster by each position group and noted if the groups became better, worse or stayed the same following the offseason.

With such few personnel changes, Hensley ranked all but one as staying the same– except for the outside linebacker unit, which he graded as worse.

Considering Hensley only ranked the defensive roster as remaining same or worse, it sounds as if the ESPN writer is expecting a setback for the defense.

"You don't lose your best outside linebacker in [Matt] Judon and say you got better," Hensley wrote. "Plus, Baltimore parted ways with its second-most accomplished pass-rusher in [Yannick] Ngakoue, who proved to be a bad fit. No current Ravens outside linebacker has produced more than five sacks in a season since 2016, which is why many expect Baltimore to sign a more established pass-rusher like [Justin] Houston or Melvin Ingram at some point."

Losing such a talented tandem at the same position will feel like a step back, but those reps are now available for players like linebacker Jaylon Ferguson and rookie linebacker Odafe Oweh to make the most of. That is if they can break into the roles currently held by linebackers Tyus Bowser and Pernell McPhee.

"Bowser and McPhee were re-signed to become the veteran anchors on the outside," Hensley wrote. "Coaches and teammates have raved about the growth of Ferguson, a former third-round pick, who has a disappointing 4.5 sacks in his first two seasons."

Hensley finished the positions' breakdown with a note on the rookie additions of Oweh and fifth-round selection, defensive end Daelin Hayes.

"The Ravens are excited about Oweh, a first-round pick who should make an instant impact because he has picked up the defense quickly," Hensley wrote. "He's not the typical rookie who hesitates because he's thinking about his assignment. Hayes, a rookie fifth-round pick, stood out in offseason practices."

Though Hensley didn't say an position groups are "better" right now, there are multiple areas where there could be improvement.

Hensley pointed to a possible resurgence from veteran Calais Campbell, who dealt with COVID-19 and injuries last season. There's also optimism about Tavon Young returning healthy and further development from defensive lineman Justin Madubuike and linebacker Patrick Queen. Madubuike was PFF's Sam Monson's pick for the Ravens' 2021 breakout candidate.

"The Ravens were one of the toughest teams in the league to identify a clear breakout candidate for, and so we look to a player who impressed on limited snaps," Monson wrote. "Third-round pick Justin Madubuike played 259 snaps in the regular season and had his best game against the league's best offensive line this year (Cleveland). Madubuike notched 10 total pressures and put enough quality on tape — including a 90.4 overall grade in Week 14 — to suggest he is deserving of a much bigger role in 2021."

Queen also talked last month during media availability about how beneficial a full offseason will be this year and how he's in better shape heading into this season.

With this in mind, "staying the same" doesn't paint the full picture. Yes, the Ravens defense didn't add as many new players (like the offense) but there is a significant opportunity for players to improve when compared to last season.

Could Oweh Lead the Team in Sacks?

In the previous section, Hensley made mention of Oweh not being your average rookie; that he's "picked up the defense quickly" and doesn't hesitate due to thinking of his assignment on the field.

If Oweh skips the "awkward phase" he could be well on his way to stuffing the stat sheet in year one. Baltimore Beatdown's Josh Reed believes Oweh could break double-digit sacks in 2020.

"The last time the Ravens used a first-round pick on an outside linebacker was on [Terrell] Suggs in 2003," Reed wrote. "He hit the ground running in year one with 12 sacks and won Defensive Rookie of the Year in the process. Expecting Oweh to have such a prolific inaugural season would be a tall task for any rookie but he doesn't need to break the franchise rookie sack record to join the double-digit sack club."

Calling it a "tall task" to follow in the footsteps of future Hall of Famer Suggs is putting it lightly, but the sentiment rings true. Oweh could be the youth and athleticism this Ravens defense needs to turn pressures and quarterback hits into sacks.

"Even though he recorded just seven sacks in his collegiate career, none of which came in 2020, he has the athleticism and versatility to be used in a plethora of ways," Reed wrote. "Martindale will come up with all types of ways to use Oweh's unique blend of size, speed and length to create and exploit mismatches. This could result on several occasions where the rookie will have open and unevaded lanes to the quarterback on stunts, loops, twists and blitzes. He could also follow in Suggs' footsteps and start out as a situational pass rusher who checks in on obvious passing downs."

Offensive Line Projected as "Middle-of-the-*Pack*" in Pass Blocking

This offseason, the Ravens' front office bolstered the offensive line by adding right guard Kevin Zeitler and right tackle Alejandro Villanueva in free agency. In addition, left tackle Ronnie Stanley will return after suffering a season-ending ankle injury. But according to ESPN's Seth Walder, these acquisitions may not be an immediate boost in terms of pass blocking.

"It's shocking to see Baltimore so low on this list," Walder wrote. "And make no mistake, this has nothing to do with Stanley, who not only finished fourth in [pass block win rate] in 2019 but was leading the category through Week 8 when he was injured last season.

"It's the three newcomers ([Ben] Cleveland, Zeitler and Villanueva) who drag down this unit. Particularly Villanueva, who looks like a significant downgrade from Orlando Brown Jr. in pass protection (though Villanueva did have a slightly higher run block win rate than Brown last season)."

There are strong cases to be made here in opposition of the overall ranking and the players' performance.

First, Lamar Jackson and the strong run game make life easier for the offensive tackles. This is where Jackson's impact is visualized but difficult to quantify.

The drop-off from Brown Jr. to Villanueva could be due to Brown Jr. blocking for a one-of-a-kind athletic phenom quarterback while the other attempted to protect 38-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Earlier this offseason, Villanueva talked about the difficulty of pass blocking in an offense that threw a league-high 656 passes vs. one in Baltimore that threw it a league-low 406 times last season.

The same goes for Zeitler, who blocked for quarterback Daniel Jones, who was without star running back Saquon Barkley for all of 2020.

More interesting are PFF's stats which directly dispute Walder. According to PFF, Zeitler ranks No. 23 among guards in pass blocking. As for Villanueva, PFF graded the veteran's pass blocking at 77.8, tying Brown Jr. for No. 24 among tackles in pass blocking.

Regardless of which analytics are correct, pass protection will be an interesting storyline heading into training camp as national attention remains focused on the Ravens efforts in building a more balanced offensive approach this season.

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