Pressure Is on Ravens Defense to Continue to Dominate
The fact that the Ravens offense has scored a total of just 39 points in its past three victories illustrates just how dominant the defense has been in recent weeks.
However, if the offense continues to struggle scoring points, the defense will have little margin for error. That's why NFL.com's Jeffri Chadiha named the Ravens as one of six defenses under the most pressure as the playoff races heat up.
"The Baltimore Ravens are back in a familiar place. They're looking at a defense filled with big names at a critical juncture of the season and hoping it can carry them to a happy ending," Chadiha wrote. "Quarterback Lamar Jackson has been the player largely responsible for handling those expectations for most of the past four seasons. He's now dealing with a knee injury and relying on that defense to be precisely what it has the potential to be."
"Baltimore isn't going on a championship run unless Jackson heals quickly from the knee injury he sustained in a win over Denver in Week 13. However, the more you look at the potential of this defense, the more you see a real road for this team to be a player in the postseason. There isn't a dominant team in the AFC this year. There are only teams with dominant individuals or dominant units, such as Kansas City with quarterback Patrick Mahomes or Cincinnati with all its playmakers on offense. The Ravens can be a scary team if that defense can play up its potential."
Considering the abundance of talent the Ravens have on defense, it's not surprising how well the unit has been playing. The surprise came earlier in the season, when the defense was looking more like an Achilles heel than an asset.
Chadiha attributed the early-season issues to younger players experiencing growing pains and there being an adjustment period under new Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald. Of course, the midseason trade for inside linebacker Roquan Smith has also been a huge factor in the defense's turnaround. Baltimore has allowed the second-fewest points (13.4) since acquiring Smith in Week 9, per ESPN's Jamison Hensley.
"Macdonald's defense received a huge boost when Smith, a two-time All-Pro, arrived," Chadiha wrote. "Smith is the kind of linebacker who can do everything in a scheme as diversified as Baltimore's — he's elite as a tackler, blitzer and pass defender — and his teammates felt his impact the minute he took the field. He brings a confidence and an ability to communicate that makes life easier for younger teammates like linebacker Patrick Queen and rookie safety Kyle Hamilton. He's also the best player the Ravens have seen at that position since [Ray] Lewis retired after the 2012 season."
Chadiha noted that the Ravens' two Super Bowl teams won by "routinely beating up on opposing offenses and closing out games in a consistent fashion," and "this year's team certainly has the talent to be that overwhelming."
"After Sunday's 16-14 win over Pittsburgh, the question is whether they're ready to take over down the stretch," he wrote.
Pundit Says Ravens Must Sign Roquan Smith to Long-Term Deal
There's no question that Smith plays like a Raven, but will he play for the Ravens after this season?
Press Box's Glenn Clark said it's imperative that the team sign Smith, who will be a free agent, to a long-term deal.
"They cannot, under any reasonable circumstance, allow this to have only been a rental," Clark wrote. "The player is too good. The impact is too significant. The fit in Baltimore is entirely too logical. … Roquan Smith almost singularly represents exactly what their defensive identity should be for the foreseeable future."
Of course, the Ravens are also looking to sign Jackson to a new contract that undoubtedly will make him one of the highest-paid players in the league. Clark said the Ravens should have the flexibility to do both, and also add players at other positions (i.e. wide receiver). He noted that the Ravens are more than $40 million under the cap for next season and can gain other money by cuts and extensions.
"It does indeed take two to tango and we don't know with certainty yet whether Smith wants to prioritize a future in Baltimore, but he at least appears to be enjoying himself. Hopefully that means something," Clark wrote. "Because this dude is the dude."
When Smith was asked about his future recently by our own Clifton Brown, he replied: "Why wouldn't I want to stay with the Ravens? They cherish their guys. First-class organization. They've been winning for a long time. It'd be hard not to want to associate yourself with an organization of this caliber, and there's a lot of opportunity for me to do things in this community."
NFL.com Writer Predicts Bengals Will Overtake Ravens Before Week 18 Meeting
With the Ravens and Bengals tied for first in the AFC North with four games remaining, the Week 18 game between the two teams in Cincinnati could very well decide the division.
However, NFL.com's Marc Sessler believes the division will already be decided by then — in the Bengals' favor.
"A few weeks ago I was looking at that last game of the year and saying that was going to be the play-in game to see who was going to win the division. But right now I think that Cincinnati, the way that they're playing, the way that schedule sets up, that they'll overtake the Ravens for the division crown earlier than that last game," Sessler said. " … They're playing better than any team in the league on both sides of the ball."
Before they face the Ravens, the Bengals play at Tampa Bay (6-7) and New England (7-6) and home against Buffalo (10-3). Cincinnati has won five straight, including victories over division leaders Kansas City and Tennessee.
The Ravens' next three games are at Cleveland and at home against Atlanta and Pittsburgh. All three opponents are 5-8, but Sessler believes the Ravens are vulnerable because of the uncertainty surrounding the health of Jackson and backup quarterback Tyler Huntley (concussion).