Ravens fans fell into one of two camps after the Ravens’ 2017 draft.
Either they were ticked that the team didn’t draft a player at an offensive skill position (particularly wide receiver) for the first time in franchise history, or they were excited that the Ravens appear headed back to their dominant defensive roots.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which side of the fence Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees is on. Pees knows his defense has been very good over the last few years, but a couple instances stick with him.
Once, he couldn’t remember the first name of one of his defensive backs playing in a game because he had been signed just three days earlier due to injuries. “That ain’t fun,” Pees said.
The other memory is more fresh. It’s from last year’s Christmas Day loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, which knocked Baltimore out of playoff contention.
The Ravens defense held strong for most of the game but fell down the stretch, giving up 21 fourth-quarter points, including a game-winning touchdown in the final minute when wide receiver Antonio Brown fought off defenders to stretch the ball over the goal line.
Now, Pees has a lot more ammunition at his disposal, and he’s giddy with the potential it offers.
The Ravens already grabbed safety Tony Jefferson and veteran cornerback Brandon Carr in free agency. Then the draft brought on another round of gifts with the addition of first-round cornerback Marlon Humphrey, second-round outside linebacker Tyus Bowser, third-round defensive end Chris Wormley and third-round pass rusher Tim Williams.
“I don’t want to overstate the expectations, but I’m not afraid to do that, really,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said Sunday at the conclusion of the draft. “I expect these guys to be great. … We expect to put a great defense on the field.”
How is a Ravens defense that ranked seventh in the NFL last year going to be even better in 2017?
It starts with the transformation in the secondary. In a passing league, the Ravens should do a much better job in coverage, which has a ripple effect.
The Ravens already had the ninth-best pass defense in the league last year. Jefferson was one of the best safeties in the league, and will create more flexibility to move Pro Bowler Eric Weddle around, and let him patrol the deep part of the field.
Jefferson will also be a major factor in shutting down teams’ short and quick passing attack. He’s a very strong tackler who can hang with tight ends and running backs around the line of scrimmage.
Carr, who hasn’t missed a start over his nine-year career, gives Baltimore a durable veteran who they know what to expect from. The Ravens have had to cycle their starting cornerbacks due to injuries over the years. Carr should be a steady rock who knows what he’s doing. He allows the Ravens to move second-year cornerback Tavon Young inside, where he could flourish even more.
Then there’s Humphrey, who will give the Ravens more talent and depth, as well as challenge Carr for a starting position.
Humphrey’s strength, like Smith and Carr, is pressing wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. While Humphrey did give up some big gains during his time at Alabama, he was particularly effective at shutting down quick and short passes because of his physicality.
If the Ravens can jam opposing wide receivers more than in years past, that disrupts their routes and gives the pass rush more time to get to the quarterback. It also helps in third-and-short or medium situations.
Many teams in the NFL now employ quick, short passing attacks. That’s how two of the best offenses in the league last year – New England and Oakland – operate, and it’s also how Pittsburgh beat the Ravens at the end of last year’s Christmas Day game (a quick slant to Brown).
“We like to pressure. We like to play man coverage. We like to get up in your face,” Pees said at Humphrey’s introductory press conference.
“There have been some times last year, like when we were ranked No. 1 in the league after 12 games, and those last four games we were not able to do that. Well, that is why this guy is sitting right here beside me. On the line of scrimmage, this guy is just absolutely phenomenal.”
Better pass coverage on the back end means the Ravens should be able to bring more pressure up front.
Pees again went back to the loss in Pittsburgh last year to illustrate his point. He said he sent blitzes on four of the first five plays on that drive. It didn’t work.
“We pressured and nothing happened. We could not cover them,” Pees said. “I want to pressure, and I want to pressure a lot. That is not only based on the guys up front, but it is probably more things that we do [in the secondary].”
The other part of the equation is that the Ravens now have more players to get after the quarterback.
While Baltimore released outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil, the additions of Bowser and Williams inject a youthful athleticism into the unit. Bowser notched 8.5 sacks in eight games last season and Williams posted 18.5 over the past two seasons. They are both explosive off the edge.
“I take so much pride in getting to the quarterback, and I am willing to get there in any type of way,” Bowser said.
The Ravens traded Timmy Jernigan, who led the Ravens’ defensive linemen with five sacks last year, but Wormley will help make up for his interior pressure. Wormley had 12 sacks the past two seasons.
Baltimore is also counting on gains from second-year outside linebacker Matthew Judon, as well as third-year outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith. And the Ravens still have six-time Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs, who notched eight sacks last season. Though he’ll turn 35 years old this season, Suggs could be better with more time since his 2015 Achilles tear.
Then there’s stopping the run. The Ravens did it better than pretty much everybody for much of last season but stumbled down the stretch and finished fifth in the league (89.4 yards per game). Baltimore made sure it will stay among the league’s elite in that category by re-signing nose tackle Brandon Williams, and the addition of Wormley will help make up for the loss of Lawrence Guy in free agency. Michael Pierce, Carl Davis and Willie Henry will step into larger roles with Jernigan gone.
But the big changes have been made in the secondary and pass rush. That’s where teams must be strong in today’s NFL landscape, and the Ravens certainly appear well equipped entering 2017. Of course, it’s all just on paper for now.
Harbaugh was asked if he believes this is the most depth at pass rusher and in the secondary that he’s had during his 10 years in Baltimore.
“I would have to say yes,” he said. “I don’t know, we’ll see. I mean, they have to prove it. We’ll find out. It’s up to them; they’ve got to do it. But we’re really excited to have these guys.”