Defense's Depth on Display in Miami Victory
While there are many positives to be taken away from the Ravens' 27-10 win over the Miami Dolphins on Saturday night, few are as big as the defense's performance.
The Ravens smothered Miami's offense, limiting the Dolphins to just 221 yards of total offense and 11 first downs, while also getting five sacks and hauling in two interceptions. Though the unit did well throughout the whole game, WNST's Luke Jones was particularly impressed with how the group started.
"A Ravens defense playing without Terrell Suggs, C.J. Mosley, Eric Weddle, Brandon Carr, and Willie Henry held the Dolphins starters to a total of two yards in the first quarter," Jones wrote. "You can debate where the high-end talent ranks compared to other teams, but this defense is extremely deep."
It was an assuring performance after a tough week in which the defense suffered multiple setbacks, something it's rarely dealt with all offseason.
It started six days ago when it was confirmed that cornerback Jimmy Smith would be suspended for the first four games of the season. Then during Saturday's game, rookie safety DeShon Elliott suffered a fractured forearm that could cause him to miss the whole season. After the game, Head Coach John Harbaugh announced that Henry, a defensive tackle, will miss a few weeks after having surgery to repair an umbilical hernia.
After the week of bad news, seeing the defense perform well gives hope that the unit will thrive despite missing two expected starters in Smith and Henry.
"Baltimore showed that their defensive depth is outstanding and their backups on both sides of the ball are capable," Ebony Bird's Chris Schisler wrote.
Starting with Smith, it looks like Stanley Jean-Baptiste is the favorite to make the 53-man roster as his replacement. Jean-Baptiste has gotten better throughout preseason, and has capped off his progress by nabbing an interception in back to back games.
He was highlighted by Pro Football Focus as Baltimore's standout defender.
There's differing opinions on how the team will deal with Henry's absence. Second-year lineman Chris Wormley or possibly rookie seventh-round selection Zach Sieler could take over Henry's duties. Wormley registered his first NFL sack in the win against Miami.
Jones, meanwhile, sees shuffling along the defensive line as the potential answer to missing Henry.
"Henry's absence could prompt defensive coordinator Wink Martindale to revert to last year's base upfront alignment that featured Michael Pierce at the nose tackle spot with Brandon Williams as the 3-technique defensive tackle," Jones wrote. "Williams had been playing the nose this summer with Henry at the 3-technique on the starting defensive line and Pierce in a reserve role."
It should also be noted that the defense's depth was shown on Saturday in areas that weren't affected by the loss of a player.
Baltimore's plethora of pass rushers was seen on Saturday. Outside linebackers Kamalei Correa and Tim Williams combined for a sack, while Za'Darius Smith had a tackle for a loss. All three have taken big steps this offseason, and are expected to form an excellent pass rushing group this season with Terrell Suggs and Matthew Judon. It's a fantastic development considering the "Ravens have invested significantly in their edge rush throughout the past few years," PressBox's Bo Smolka wrote.
"They appear to be primed to have an impact this year, which would allow the Ravens to effectively manage the snaps of the 35-year-old Suggs during the grind of a 16-game season," Smolka wrote.
The battle to start at inside linebacker alongside three-time Pro Bowler C.J. Mosley between undrafted third-year player Patrick Onwuasor and rookie fourth-round pick Kenny Young has also been extremely competitive. Against the Dolphins, both players recorded four tackles and a sack.
Doubt Settles in Over Tight End Situation
As confident as pundits are about the Ravens defense being able to handle the loss of some starters, they aren't as sure about the tight end group being able to overcome rookie first-round selection Hayden Hurst being unavailable for three to four weeks after requiring surgery on his foot.
"The injury is an early blow to a retooled offense which was counting on Hurst becoming the downfield threat at tight end that the team lacked last season," The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec wrote.
The news of Hurst's setback went public Friday afternoon, which meant that a lot of attention was being given to the tight ends on Saturday to see if anyone in the group would step up and make plays in Hurst's absence.
One notable tight end that struggled was rookie third-round selection Mark Andrews.
There was a lot of excitement when the Ravens drafted Andrews out of Oklahoma because he was such a dynamic playmaker in college. He had a sensational final collegiate season, hauling in 62 catches for 958 yards and eight touchdowns. Andrews also received the John Mackey award, which is given to the most outstanding tight end in college football for that season.
Andrews has yet to have his NFL breakout yet, though. After being sidelined by a hamstring injury in camp, Andrews has made two catches for seven yards in three preseason contests. He dropped a pass and committed a false start in the red zone against the Dolphins.
"Andrews failed to take advantage of his chance to make a push for playing time," PennLive's Aaron Kasinitz wrote.
Though there are a lot of expectations surrounding Andrews, Zrebiec noted, "rookie tight ends have struggled to make an impact in recent years in the NFL." Andrews simply needs more time to develop in the NFL, but the Ravens have an immediate need.
Another player who pundits wanted to see more from was Maxx Williams. Seen by many as a bubble player to make the 53-man roster, many now think Williams is close to a lock to make the team with Hurst being injured. The 2015 second-round pick has proven to be a solid blocker during his career, but the team will now look to him to make more catches with Hurst sidelined.
"We were counting on Williams to step up and show his best stuff in light of tight end Hayden Hurst's absence to begin the season," RavensWire's Nathan Beaucage wrote. "Alas, Williams finished the night catching his only target for nine yards."
One interesting situation to watch is the development of tight end Darren Waller. Though Waller has struggled to remain available due to injuries and suspensions since Baltimore drafted him as a wide receiver in the sixth round of 2015, there's no question that he's capable of making plays in the NFL. Zrebiec even touted him as "probably the most physically gifted tight end the Ravens have."
One knock against Waller is that he's returning from a season-long suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, and it's unclear how ready he is to play in games. At 6-foot-6 however, Waller provides a massive target, while his background as a receiver gives him capable hands that should be able to consistently haul in passes.
"He brings the size and athletic upside to be a red-zone target and a bigger slot option," Jones wrote. "Waller has also shown the ability to contribute on special teams in the past, which could further enhance his case to make the team."
Bold Prediction: Ravens Top Steelers for AFC North Crown
CBSSports' Will Brinson believes Baltimore will finish first in the AFC North this season.
"Flacco and John Harbaugh went 9-7 last year despite an incredibly bad streak of training camp injuries, a terrible receiving corps, no pass rush to really speak of and a brutal Week 17 loss to Andy Dalton and the Bengals," Brinson wrote. "If this team is legitimately good -- and I believe they will be substantially better on both sides of the ball in 2018 -- the ceiling is much higher."
Brinson lists a variety of reasons why he thinks the Ravens will be better in 2018, ranging from the improved passing attack due to the improved health of Flacco, as well as Baltimore's new veteran receivers, to a favorable schedule.
He also takes a look at the division and surmises that it's a good year to predict Baltimore winning the division title. Brinson doesn't see the Cleveland Browns or Cincinnati Bengals as major contenders to win the AFC North this season, and thinks the Ravens have just as good a shot as Pittsburgh does to finish first in the division.
"If Pittsburgh's floating in the 10-win area (the Steelers' win total is 10.5 with the under heavily juiced in Las Vegas), the Ravens can storm up on them," Brinson wrote.
Rushing Attack Displays Explosiveness
The Ravens may not have won their preseason game against Miami if it weren't for the team's rushing attack, according to PFF.
"The Ravens' rushing attack was the key to the game against the Dolphins," PFF wrote. "They kept attacking, and the Dolphins simply could not stop them."
On the night, Baltimore rushed for 223 yards on just 42 attempts.
It was an impressive showing that's even more encouraging when you consider that Alex Collins and Buck Allen, the perceived one-two punch the Ravens will rely on in 2018, hardly played Saturday. Collins had one carry for seven yards, while Allen didn't have a rushing attempt. Kenneth Dixon, who's expected to also get significant touches this season, rushed for just two yards.
Instead, it was undrafted rookie running back De'Lance Turner that took center stage. The Alcorn State alum produced the highlight of the night when he ripped off a 65-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
"A play like that could help Turner land on Baltimore's practice squad or attract attention from another team in need of a speedy ball-carrier," Kasinitz wrote.
- Two Ravens made NBC Sports' Peter King Camp All-Stars: wide receiver John Brown and right tackle Orlando Brown Jr. On Brown, King wrote, "The Ravens may have a steal in the young 28-year-old. He owned the practice I saw." As for Brown, King wrote, "He's got a mean streak, a very good punch, and he's got better feet than a 345-pound man should have."
- Former Raven and River Hill High School alum, now Tennessee Titan wide receiver Michael Campanero, has been placed on IR.
- Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton received multiple standing ovations from Buffalo Bills fans during the two teams' preseason contest on Sunday. Dalton connected on a 49-yard touchdown on fourth-and-12 in the final week of the regular season to eliminate the Ravens from playoff contention, which simultaneously secured the Bills' first playoff berth in 17 years.