The Ravens defense had a lot of successes last year.
It gave up the sixth-fewest points in the NFL (18.9 per game) and led the league in takeaways (34). It ranked 12th in yards allowed per game (325.1).
But the group didn’t meet its own lofty preseason projections of being the best in the league and, for the second straight season, it didn’t finish.
The 2018 Ravens defense will have a lot of the same faces, but with a new one calling the plays. Wink Martindale is taking over at defensive coordinator after Dean Pees retired, and Martindale has one clear mission ahead.
“We’re going to take our good and make it great,” Martindale said Thursday in his introductory press conference. “We were really good. Let’s make it great.”
The biggest priority will be figuring out how to get over the hump and finish – not only in singular games, but in a season.
When cornerback Jimmy Smith went down with an injury before the final quarter of the season each of the past two years, the Ravens defense wasn’t the same without him.
It was better in 2017 than 2016, but Baltimore still gave up 39 points in a loss to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 14 and 31 points to the Cincinnati Bengals in the regular-season finale.
Each of the past two years, the Ravens watched the Steelers and Bengals celebrate touchdowns in the final minute to painfully keep Baltimore out of the playoffs. It was the Antonio Brown “Immaculate Extension” in 2016 and Andy Dalton’s fourth-and-12 touchdown throw last season.
Finishing was the defense’s mantra all last season, and it will continue to be going forward. But beyond stressing it, how does Martindale plan to make it happen?
“We are going to work diligently, with all of us, on our package and situational football,” Martindale said. “That’s going to be the next step, I think, that will skyrocket us.”
Martindale has a unique opportunity ahead because it doesn’t seem that there will be many changes to his defense. There could always be salary-cap cuts, but Baltimore’s biggest pending free agent on defense is defensive end Brent Urban.
From the run stoppers up front in Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce, linebackers featuring C.J. Mosley and Terrell Suggs and those in the secondary with safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson and cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey, there will be a lot of continuity.
A big part of Martindale’s job will be getting more out of the team’s young defensive players, who will continue to see a larger share of the snaps.
Baltimore has added a lot of young talent via the draft the past two years, including cornerbacks Humphrey and Tavon Young, linebackers Matthew Judon, Tyus Bowser, Tim Williams and Kamalei Correa and defensive ends Chris Wormley and Bronson Kaufusi. If those players can take the next step, so will the Ravens defense as a whole.
“I love the young guys on this team,” Martindale said. “There’s nobody tougher on a rookie than me. … You’ll see the jump in these young guys. They can all run and they’re talented, talented football players.”