Ravens' Depth on Defense Has Been on Full Display
"Next man up" is a cliche we hear a lot from NFL coaches, but for many teams the notion that a backup player can seamlessly step in for an injured starter is wishful thinking.
That hasn't been the case for the Ravens (3-1), who have taken sole possession of first place in the AFC North despite a rash of injuries on both sides of the ball.
Looking at the defense in particular, The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec noted that the unit ranks third in yards allowed per game (260.8) and is tied for third in points allowed (14.5) even though several key players have been dealing with injuries.
"The silver lining to the Ravens' injury-riddled start is that they've been forced to rely on certain players to occupy much bigger roles than initially anticipated, and most of those players have emerged as significant contributors," Zrebiec wrote. "The Ravens have found defensive success by plugging and playing guys to compensate for the myriad injuries. In the coming weeks, Defensive Coordinator Mike Macdonald should have even more options. That's an encouraging development because the Ravens' defense is already playing well."
Defensive starters expected to return to the field soon include cornerback Marlon Humphrey (foot) and outside linebackers Tyus Bowser (knee) and Odafe Oweh (ankle). Safety Marcus Williams (pectoral) was back at practice last week and could potentially play this Sunday in Pittsburgh.
"Bowser and Oweh will join an outside linebacker group that has Jadeveon Clowney playing well and just added solid veteran Kyle Van Noy, who had a strong debut against the Browns," Zrebiec wrote. "Young linebackers Jeremiah Moon and Tavius Robinson have gotten valuable snaps over the past two weeks with both Oweh and David Ojabo sidelined.
"Humphrey, Baltimore's top cornerback who can play both outside and in the slot, will be a welcomed addition. However, Ronald Darby and Brandon Stephens have played well as starters and Rock Ya-Sin has done his job as part of a rotation with Darby. Add in a healthy Humphrey and suddenly, a position that was one of the Ravens' biggest perceived preseason concerns could become a strength. At safety, Geno Stone has played so well in Williams' absence that it will probably be hard to take him off the field when Williams returns. Macdonald will undoubtedly find ways to have Williams, Stone and Kyle Hamilton on the field together. That likely means Hamilton playing closer to the line of scrimmage, where he has excelled this year."
Not Yet Explosive, Lamar Jackson-Led Offense Has Been Highly Efficient
The Ravens were expected to have a more explosive offense this season under new coordinator Todd Monken, but thus far the Lamar Jackson-led unit has been more efficient than explosive.
As Baltimore gets healthier at wide receiver — Odell Beckham Jr. (ankle) and Rashod Bateman (hamstring) have only been on the field together for two of the first four games — more big plays in the passing game will likely come.
In the meantime, Jackson has taken his game to new heights in terms of accuracy and red-zone success.
"His 74.3% completion rate is eight percentage points higher than his career-best mark in a season," The Baltimore Sun’s Brian Wacker wrote. "His 16 yards per attempt are nearly 3 1/2 yards more than the highest rate of any year of his career as the full-time starter. He's leading a Ravens offense that is tops in the NFL in red zone efficiency at 80% with 12 touchdowns scored in 15 trips."
One of the reasons for Jackson's efficiency is that he is getting the ball out quicker than in the past.
"Since the offseason workouts in the spring, new coordinator Monken and Jackson have been talking about getting rid of the ball quicker," ESPN’s Jamison Hensley wrote. "Jackson's average time before throwing was 3.0 seconds last season, which ranked 31st in the NFL. This year, he's averaging 2.66 seconds before each pass, the ninth-fastest pace in the league."
Wacker noted that while Jackson's 794 passing yards are the fourth-fewest in the league, the Ravens quarterback has been effective when throwing deep.
"He has a 104.2 passer rating and has been the most accurate quarterback on throws 10 or more yards downfield, according to Pro Football Focus," Wacker wrote. "His unpredictability has also made the Ravens one of the more dangerous offenses in the league — Jackson is just the fourth quarterback over the past 10 years to have at least four rushing and four passing touchdowns in the first four weeks of a season. And his accuracy only adds to it, with his second-quarter touchdown pass to Mark Andrews over three Browns defenders having only a 17% completion probability, per Next Gen Stats."
Gerald McCoy Feels Strongly About Whether Jackson Is an Elite Quarterback
NFL Network analyst and former six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was asked for his opinion on which current quarterbacks are elite during his appearance on "The Rich Eisen Show."
When Jackson was mentioned, McCoy did not hesitate.
"Yes. He's an MVP, and if you look at what he's done with the system he's been put in, his win-to-loss ratio with all the injuries and everything he's dealt with and they still come out winning every year, that's an elite quarterback," McCoy said.
For the record, McCoy also bestowed elite status on Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Joe Burrow, but said he does not consider Justin Herbert, Jalen Hurts, TuaTagovailoa, and Dak Prescott to be elite.
Inside linebacker Roquan Smith was the lone Raven to make PFF’s First Quarter All-Pro Team.