After spending the first half of the season scrambling for solutions, the Ravens’ defense was nothing if not consistent Sunday. Consistent in its production. Consistent in its execution. And, until an injury intervened, consistent in its personnel.
In holding the scuffling Carolina Panthers to 203 total yards and forcing three turnovers in a 13-3 win, the Ravens seized on a newfound (and perhaps fleeting) stability in their back end. Their two star inside linebackers never left the field. And their slot defender rotation actually started as just a one-man show.
Until the Ravens traded for All-Pro inside linebacker Roquan Smith ahead of their Week 9 game, until rookie safety Kyle Hamilton earned more regular nickel back duties, defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald’s personnel deployments had been more situational. The Ravens had a core of reliable starters up front; it was some of the pieces behind them that needed to be figured out.
With inside linebackers Josh Bynes and Malik Harrison’s limitations on obvious passing downs, the Ravens had leaned heavily into dime personnel looks (six defensive backs), surrounding inside linebacker Patrick Queen with more capable partners in coverage.
And with cornerback Kyle Fuller’s season-ending Week 1 knee injury compounded by the early-season struggles of the Ravens’ young defensive backs, playing time fluctuated. Rookie Damarion “Pepe” Williams has featured prominently in the slot. So has Brandon Stephens. Starting cornerback Marlon Humphrey has bounced between the inside and outside to accommodate the Ravens’ lineups and matchups.
On Sunday, though, there were far fewer moving pieces — and far fewer problems. At inside linebacker, Queen and Smith, finally up to speed on the Ravens’ schemes, played every defensive snap. They helped limit the Panthers to 36 yards rushing (2.1 per carry) and helped juice the Ravens’ upgraded front (four sacks and seven quarterback hits) with their speed and pass-rushing ability.
In the secondary, when the Ravens needed a fifth defensive back, they at first called exclusively on rookie safety Kyle Hamilton. Until the first-round pick suffered an apparently minor knee injury in the third quarter, no other defensive back besides cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Humphrey and safeties Geno Stone and Chuck Clark played a single defensive snap.
Hamilton finished with four tackles, including one for loss, and a quarterback hit in just 21 snaps Sunday. His physicality and instincts helped shore up problem areas for the defense, blowing up blocks on wide receiver screens and making quick, smart reads as a run defender. Hamilton was also sticky in man-to-man coverage and sound when dropping into zone coverage.
“Defensively, I feel good about the steady progress,” coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “I feel like we had a vision. The players understood the vision. It’s built around the talent that we have, and what we had, and we haven’t really changed course; we’ve stayed on course, and we’ve just tried to improve. So, the guys have done that. It’s starting to show up in a real good way the last month or so, and we have to keep getting better. We have a long way to go.”
In an era where three-wide-receiver formations have become the default for most NFL offenses, the Ravens’ development of a reliable nickel defense (five defensive backs) could prove hugely consequential. The team will face three of the league’s most efficient “11″ personnel attacks (one back, one tight end, three wide receivers) — the Cleveland Browns (Week 15), Atlanta Falcons (Week 16) and Cincinnati Bengals (Week 18) — over the second half of their season.
Get through them, and even bigger tests could await the Ravens in the playoffs. The Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills, all possible AFC playoff opponents, lead the NFL in expected points added per play in 11 personnel, according to TruMedia. (EPA is a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position.) Over the season’s first nine weeks, the Ravens’ defense ranked No. 27 against that package by the same metric. Over the past three weeks, however, only the New England Patriots have been better against 11 personnel.
The Ravens won’t have the luxury of facing quarterbacks like Andy Dalton and Baker Mayfield every week. But with more help set to arrive in the coming weeks — safety Marcus Williams and rookie outside linebacker David Ojabo, most notably — and the defense’s experience in Macdonald’s system still growing, the Ravens should be on solid ground.
Lamar Jackson’s perhaps the biggest stressor for run defenses in the NFL. Before the snap, they have to account for him on read options and designed quarterback runs. After the snap, they have to wrangle one of the league’s most elusive ball-carriers. On drop-backs, they have to worry about scrambles. Jackson gives the Ravens a numerical advantage that many teams simply can’t replicate.
Which makes the success of the Ravens’ most reliable run play this season all the more surprising. The longest carry in their win Sunday was actually a simple delayed handoff. On first-and-10 from Carolina’s 31, the offense’s first play after Peters’ pivotal fourth-quarter forced fumble, Jackson took an under-center snap, faked a quick-hitter to wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, then watched running back Kenyan Drake dart through the Panthers’ defense for a 29-yard gain. Not long after, the Ravens had a touchdown and a decisive 13-3 lead.
The Ravens, unsurprisingly, have never leaned heavily on such draw plays under offensive coordinator Greg Roman. In both 2019 and 2020, they ran one just three times, according to Sports Info Solutions. Last year, they called four draws. But they were successful enough over those three years — 93 combined yards, or 9.3 per carry — to merit more regular consideration.
Through 10 games this season, draws remain something of a changeup in Roman’s play-calling. But they’re still effective, and they’re no longer a once-a-month offering. The Ravens have run 14 draws for 124 yards (8.9 per carry) and six first downs this year, led by running back Justice Hill’s 10 carries for 70 yards.
Roman declined to comment on the play’s execution after the Bills struggled to defend it in the teams’ Week 4 meeting (“The less people know how I think, the better”) other than to acknowledge that certain run designs work better under certain circumstances.
“We have every run known to man,” he said in October. “Studying each defense, we’ll run different runs against different teams, and if something is popping, we’ll probably come back to it. Whereas earlier in my career, I would probably not do that as much; now more so, I will.”
Ravens at Jaguars
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 13
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 4