Ravens change up defensive picture emphatically in 34-6 drubbing of Chargers

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BALTIMORE — Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale mentioned the need to “do some different things and change up pictures” this week with a unit that wasn’t living up to its lofty standard despite a 4-1 start to 2021.

That didn’t mean Ed Reed and Ray Lewis would magically be walking through the tunnel to take on the red-hot Los Angeles Chargers, but the return of safety DeShon Elliott and the insertion of veteran inside linebacker Josh Bynes into the starting lineup sure made a difference against an offense that had scored 75 points over the previous two weeks. And that shootout many anticipated never materialized as the Ravens played the part of an NFL heavyweight on both sides of the ball and the Chargers looked more like a sparring partner in a 34-6 demolition on Sunday.

As he did two years ago upon returning to the Ravens, the 32-year-old Bynes calmed a position of concern — for one week anyway — with six tackles (one for a loss) and a pass breakup and allowed the struggling Patrick Queen to shift to the weak-side position. Meanwhile, Elliott was one of the best players on the field, recording his first career interception, a sack, a second pass breakup, and another quarterback hit. The impact of those lineup changes was more than their individual contributions, however, as the Ravens dominated at every level of the defense to hold the Chargers to 26 rushing yards and second-year quarterback prodigy Justin Herbert to 195 passing yards, the second-lowest total of his career.  

“He does notch things up a little bit from an intensity standpoint,” said head coach John Harbaugh about Elliott. “I feel like whenever you put a player in a position where he does well, he doesn’t just add what he does. He puts everybody else kind of in a slot where they do better too.”

Yes, the entire defense brought a higher level of play in what was easily one of its best performances of the Martindale era. It was quite a change from the floundering unit that was merely along for the ride for Lamar Jackson’s heroics in the 31-25 overtime win over Indianapolis last week. On the heels of that defensive performance against the mediocre Colts, one couldn’t have known if even 34 points would have been enough against the high-scoring Chargers after Cleveland had scored 42 against them in a losing effort the previous week.

Instead, Baltimore turned in the kind of complementary throttling that became the norm two years ago on the way to a franchise-record 14-2 season. Excelling in all three phases of the game against a team perceived to be one of the AFC’s best, the Ravens’ fifth straight win put the rest of the NFL on notice that they’re for real despite the brutal run of preseason injuries and a couple closer-than-expected victories that required some late-game good fortune. 

On Sunday, the offense frankly did what it was supposed to do against the league’s worst run defense, rushing for 187 yards with Latavius Murray, Le’Veon Bell, and Devonta Freeman all finding the end zone. And though still turning in a better performance than the final numbers indicated, Jackson didn’t need to be Superman this week, a scary thought for the rest of the AFC. The Ravens scoring 34 points was hardly a surprise, but this year’s defense hadn’t yet shown such a complete performance against a team like the Chargers was possible. 

The 33 yards gained on the opening possession would be the most Los Angeles would gain on a drive until the fourth quarter when the outcome had long been determined. The Ravens stopped the run, harassed and confused Herbert with a variety of looks, contained dynamic wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, and tackled, that last point being a sore spot in previous weeks.

“There have been many games where we flashed for a quarter, flashed for two quarters, but not four full quarters,” said cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who allowed only two catches for 19 yards on seven targets. “It’s always been those one or two quarters where we played the way we wanted, but today we just put it all together and we played as a team. This week, we talked on bringing more energy, playing together as one — not one guy making a tackle, two guys making a tackle, angles.

“It was just the fundamental basics, and I feel like we were getting back to Ravens’ defense that the Ravens are known for.”

Harbaugh downplayed what the blowout victory meant in the big picture, describing it only as “a really good day today.” But in the same way that Jackson’s career passing night against Indianapolis showcased the ability to overcome a multi-score deficit and throw the football all over the field when the running game was a non-factor, the Ravens dominating defensively just gave opponents something else to worry about moving forward. 

They certainly changed up the picture.

“It’s a long season. There’s going to be something about each and every [game],” said Bynes, now in his third stint with Baltimore. “That’s what makes them so special. At the end of the day, like I told the guys, ‘One play and one series at a time.'”