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Late for Work 9/20: Ravens Run Defense Needs to Be More Dominant


Ravens Run Defense Needs to Be More Dominant

Sunday's clash between the Ravens and Broncos should be an extremely physical affair, featuring lots of smashmouth running.

The Ravens are hoping to jumpstart their running game after being No. 23 in the NFL in yards per carry (3.3) after two games.

The Broncos have excelled on the ground thus far, which isn't surprising considering former Ravens Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak still serves as an advisor within the organization. In 2014, Kubiak's only season in Baltimore, the Ravens were sixth in yards per carry (4.5), and running back Justin Forsett ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing yards (1,266).

Any team that has Kubiak involved will try to run the ball, and Denver is certainly doing that thus far, ranking second in the league in yards per carry (5.2). Undrafted rookie running back Phillip Lindsay has been exceptional, and is currently third in the league in rushing yards (178).

The Broncos could possibly be leaning on running the ball even more than usual in Baltimore as new quarterback Case Keenum's four interceptions are tied for most in the NFL.

There's just no way around it – the Ravens run defense will need to play well if the team wants to emerge victorious on Sunday, as well as be successful this season.

"Even with talented Broncos receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders to consider, the Ravens will try to force Keenum to beat them through the air," WNST’s Luke Jones wrote.

The Ravens' run defense has largely gone under the radar so far this season. After last week's loss in Cincinnati, the secondary and edge rush got plenty of attention from pundits because Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw four touchdowns without getting sacked.

Though all of Cincinnati's touchdowns came through the air, Jones believes Baltimore's run defense didn't have a great night, too.

"No, the Bengals' rushing attack didn't gash the Ravens," Jones wrote. "But 108 yards on 28 carries over the course of the night helped control the tempo after quarterback Andy Dalton connected with wide receiver A.J. Green for three touchdown passes in the game's first 17 minutes."

Baltimore's defense finished in the top 10 in rush yards per carry from 1996-2016. That run ended last season when Baltimore ranked No. 16 in the NFL after allowing 4.0 yards per carry. It was the first time in team history that they allowed 4 yards per carry.

Jones noted "the four-game absence of run-stopping nose tackle Brandon Williams in the first half of the season didn't help those numbers," but the team still allowed on average 3.9 yards per carry in the games he played.

Thus far, the Ravens are allowing 3.8 yards per carry this season, which is No. 11 in the NFL. It's solid, but not where the team was during that 20-year stretch of dominance, which is something Head Coach John Harbaugh hopes to see this group return to.

"It needs to be better. Not to our standards," Harbaugh said about the run defense. "All our guys will probably echo that. We have a high, high standard. So, it might be good enough for other teams around the league, but it's not going to be good enough for us."

Though Jones thinks the run defense needs to improve, he also wrote that it "hardly qualifies as a weakness."

"But when you devote the kind of resources the Ravens have to the defensive side of the ball in terms of cap dollars and draft picks in recent years, you'd like to see more dominant results," Jones wrote.

The Ravens re-signed Williams to a five-year, reported $52 million contract last offseason. Before this year, Baltimore drafted at least one defensive lineman in the first three rounds.

The run defense will possibly have to bounce back without inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, who could miss Sunday's game with a bruised knee. It's a big blow for the unit, as Mosley does a good job of identifying run plays and finishing them with his tackling ability.

"Suddenly, the holes up​ front weren't getting​ filled as quickly," The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec noted after Mosley's departure from the Cincinnati game. "There were yards of open​ space in the​ middle​ of​​ the field for Cincinnati Bengals to run through unimpeded. The Ravens defense looked out of sorts and confused."

Though the Ravens aren't expected to have Mosley, they won't use that as an excuse. People within the organization regularly talk about needing the next man on the depth chart to step up. Multiple players will need to up their game to bring the run defense back to where it's used to being.

"Lost in the heartbreak of 'fourth-and-12' and the focus on Jimmy Smith's absence at the end of last season was the declining standard of the rush defense," Jones wrote.

"Stopping the run and running the ball, two staples of success the Ravens need to rediscover entering a critical early-season stretch that includes four road games in the next six weeks."

Ravens Looking for More Production from Matthew Judon

Before the regular season started, outside linebacker Matthew Judon was expected by many pundits to have a breakout season. That could still easily happen, but Judon hasn't had a fast start – he's registered four tackles, including one for a loss.

"The Ravens are going to need more production from Judon, but it's far too early to panic," Zrebiec wrote.

Indeed, as Zrebiec noted, Judon was in this position last year. He didn't get a sack until Week 6 last season, and only had two at the halfway point of the season. Judon ultimately finished with eight sacks.

Though that's what happened last year, the Ravens are hoping Judon starts picking up sacks a lot earlier in 2018. Zrebiec pointed out that "this would be a good week for Judon to break out," after a sack-less performance from the Ravens pass rush against Cincinnati.

The pass rush could be aided by Denver's offensive line being banged up. Broncos starting right tackle Jared Veldheer has not practiced all week after exiting their game on Sunday against Oakland with a concussion.

"It happened on Sunday," Broncos Head Coach Vance Joseph said about Veldheer’s situation yesterday. "It's only Wednesday. He's progressing. We'll see on Friday how much he can do on the field."

Though Denver's starting offensive line could be banged up, PennLive’s Aaron Kasinitz, who named Judon among his "Seven Key Ravens" for this Sunday's game, still thinks the Broncos passing attack could be a tough matchup for Judon and the rest of the pass rush. His reasoning is that Keenum is a similar quarterback to Dalton.

"Keenum, like Dalton, tends to get rid of the ball quickly," Kasinitz wrote. "So Judon and the rest of the Ravens' edge rushers need to be efficient with their movements Sunday and get into the backfield in a hurry."

Judon was asked yesterday about Keenum's tendency to quickly get rid of the ball.

"You have to continue to rush the passer, continue to get after him," Judon said. "If he does hold the ball, then that's when you make him pay."

Pro Football Focus Ranks the Offensive Line No. 28 in NFL

PFF thinks there's a lot of room for improvement for the Ravens offensive line. The unit was ranked as the No. 28 offensive line in the NFL, only finishing ahead of the Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Chargers, Houston Texans and Arizona Cardinals.

PFF's Michael Renner was particularly critical of the offensive line's run-blocking ability.

"If you were hoping for a big year from Alex Collins, don't point the finger at him; point it at the offensive line," Renner wrote. "The Ravens have earned the second-lowest run-block grade in the league through two weeks."

It's a harsh assessment, especially considering that Collins was plenty productive against the Bengals – he averaged 3.9 yards per carry, and also had 90 yards of total offense on just 12 touches.

That being said, improving the offensive line's play seems to be a priority after the loss to Cincinnati. The Ravens reportedly tried out 10 different offensive linemen this past Saturday, though none signed with the team. It remains to be seen if there will be any changes to the starting lineup against Denver.

Thus far, PFF has right guard Marshal Yanda as the best performer of the bunch with a 69.9 rating. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley is right behind him with a 69.5 score.

As for establishing the run more effectively, Renner thinks the Ravens are in for a tough matchup this Sunday.

"It may not be getting better anytime soon, though, as they face the Broncos' third-ranked run defense this week," Renner wrote.

Joe Flacco and Michael Crabtree Still Working on Chemistry

Zrebiec thinks the connection between quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Michael Crabtree "remains a work in progress."

Neither player can be blamed for not trying to make the connection work – Crabtree has been targeted 16 times, catching eight of those passes. Flacco has definitely been trying to get Crabtree the ball, but the two haven't gotten perfectly in sync quite yet.

"There have been a couple of instances where Crabtree didn't appear to be expecting the ball to come his way and another few where he's dropped it," Zrebiec wrote.

The regular season is just two weeks old – better chemistry between Flacco and Crabtree should come with more game experience together. Zrebiec did note though that the chemistry between Flacco and Crabtree appears to be a step behind the connection between Flacco and wide receiver John Brown.

With Crabtree being just one catch behind wide receiver Willie Snead IV for leading the team in receptions, it's hardly been an issue thus far, especially if the two display further progress this Sunday.

"Crabtree and Flacco have hooked up for a few highlight-reel plays, but they'll need to develop some consistency," Zrebiec wrote.

Quick Hits

  • Baltimore Orioles rookie outfielder D.J. Stewart hit his first MLB home run last night. He also went to high school and is best friends with Ravens rookie tight end Hayden Hurst.
  • Fantasy football players: PFF’s Jeff Ratcliffe ranked the top 150 flex players for Week 3. The Ravens had five players named: running backs Collins (No. 28) and Javorius Allen (No. 87), as well as wide receivers Crabtree (No. 81), Brown (No. 85) and Snead (No. 145).
  • Our very own Garrett Downing stopped by Neil Horowitz’s Digital and Social Media Podcast. Click the link to check it out.

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