With old coordinator on opposing sideline, Ravens defense out to prove it’s back on track

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Asked last week about his message to a defense preparing to play a Cincinnati team that embarrassed the Ravens twice last season, Mike Macdonald didn’t want to belabor the point, especially since he wasn’t with Baltimore in 2021. 

“There’s not much to be said. We know what we need to do,” said the first-year coordinator before pausing a few moments. “We know what we need to do.”

The Ravens got the memo against the Bengals, holding the defending AFC champions to just 17 points, 291 yards, and 4.9 yards per play in a 19-17 victory. And though not pleased about surrendering the go-ahead touchdown on Cincinnati’s final drive and needing the late-game heroics of Lamar Jackson and Justin Tucker for the win, the Baltimore defense appears to be slowly finding its way. Of course, it had nowhere to go but up after blowing a 21-point fourth-quarter lead against Miami in the 42-38 loss in Week 2.

With former defensive coordinator Wink Martindale looking on from the opposing sideline this Sunday, how the Ravens fare against the improving New York Giants will tell us more about a defense in transition under Macdonald. Despite a slew of injuries at wide receiver and a porous offensive line, the Giants found a way to score on five straight possessions to upset Green Bay in London last week, a reflection of the progress they’ve made under new head coach Brian Daboll. Still, beyond dynamic running back Saquon Barkley and the legs of fourth-year quarterback Daniel Jones, this isn’t an offense that should give a formidable defense all that much difficulty if we’re being honest. 

The numbers still aren’t pretty for a defense that entered the season with such high expectations, but Macdonald is encouraged.  

“The big message to the guys is where we’re going and trajectory,” Macdonald said. “Where we’re at right now is not where we want to be — everyone can tell you that. But what matters is how we play on a week-to-week basis and how we’re playing at the end, and if we’re in it, how we play throughout the playoffs. 

“Am I happy with it? I’d say I’m not satisfied, but I think we’re on the right trajectory.”

The total yardage presents one story, but the truth is more complicated with some numbers looking worse than reality and others masking more legitimate concern. Holding the Bills and Bengals — two of the NFL’s most talented offenses on paper — to a combined 40 points over the last two games and leading the AFC with 11 takeaways are certainly encouraging developments for a defense working on a new identity under Macdonald. The Ravens also rank 17th in points allowed and 11th in third-down defense, numbers again looking better than they did just a few weeks ago. 

Baltimore still ranks last in the league in passing yards allowed, but the unit has climbed to 17th in yards per pass attempt and 10th in pass defense efficiency. As many anticipated, the Ravens aren’t blitzing as often or playing as much man-to-man defense as they did in the past under Martindale, opting for more two-high safety looks and zone coverage. That was by design with the organization desiring a higher floor for a defense that gave up too many big plays under Martindale last season. Unfortunately, a secondary that was just getting used to having three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters back on the field must now endure the loss of prize free-agent safety Marcus Williams, who is out indefinitely with a dislocated wrist after registering three interceptions in the first five games. 

The Ravens rank 12th in rushing yards allowed, but they’re currently 26th in yards per carry allowed (5.0) and 26th in run defense efficiency. Conceding some ground yardage was by design in the effort to try to limit the big-play potential of Buffalo and Cincinnati — playing two high safeties leads to lighter boxes against which to run — but Baltimore surrendering at least 4.8 yards per carry in each of the first five games certainly wasn’t part of the plan, which is cause for concern against a New York ground attack that’s been among the best in the league. A thin outside linebacker group hasn’t set the edge consistently, and the loss of nose tackle Michael Pierce to a torn biceps in Week 3 has left the defensive line more vulnerable than expected, putting more pressure on a 36-year-old Calais Campbell and 2020 third-round pick Justin Madubuike to hold up over a full season.

But the Ravens defense is optimistic that help is on the way with starting strong-side outside linebacker Tyus Bowser and second-round rookie edge rusher David Ojabo beginning their respective 21-day practice windows this week. Baltimore entered Thursday tied for 12th in the league with 11 sacks and 27th in Pro Football Reference’s pressure rate, but adding Bowser and Ojabo to the picture should only help the likes of Odafe Oweh, Justin Houston, and Jason Pierre-Paul. It hasn’t helped that Houston has been sidelined with a groin injury since Week 3.  

Of course, there are no guarantees that the Ravens defense won’t suffer any other significant injuries after losing their top two free-agent acquisitions. Baltimore is still waiting to see more consistency and production from recent first-round picks Patrick Queen and Oweh. And rookie safety Kyle Hamilton, the 14th overall pick in April’s draft, has only seen his playing time decline since the start of the season, which isn’t what anyone had in mind. Simply put, this defense needs more from such early draft picks if it’s going to flourish now and in the future.

A strong road performance against the upstart Giants would go a long way in reinforcing that the Ravens defense is back on track after a rocky start and made the right decision to move on from Martindale.

“Everything is new. We have a new play-caller, a lot of young guys we’re depending on, some older guys who haven’t been here long,” Campbell said. “We’re just kind of getting everybody to gel and play together and kind of get a feel for one another and how to communicate. All of that kind of plays a role together, and I felt like as the season progresses, we should get a lot better. 

“You’ve seen it the last couple of weeks where we’re starting to play a lot better football, and hopefully, we continue to trend in that direction.” 

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