Is Marcus Peters the most interesting Raven?
No one reads the game more astutely than the 29-year-old cornerback. His peers depend on him for insights, and his former coordinator, Don “Wink” Martindale, once asked him to call the defense from the sideline in a preseason game.
At the same time, no one plays closer to the edge of chaos. Two weeks ago, we watched Peters scream at coach John Harbaugh and spike his helmet at the end of the Ravens’ three-point loss to the Buffalo Bills.
Teammates and coaches, Harbaugh perhaps most of all, accept such displays as part of the package. Peters, who declined an interview request through a team spokesperson, lifts them with his daring play and fierce emotions. If he does not always fit within prescribed lines, so be it. The Ravens missed his special sauce last season, when he tore his ACL and did not play a single snap. They’re grateful to have it back, no matter how spicy the aftertaste.
“That’s one of our leaders of the team,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said. “A lot of us look up to him, including myself — to M.P. — and when he’s out there doing what he does, we all get ecstatic on the sideline, and we tell him about it after the game.”
Among the Ravens’ other defensive backs, respect for Peters borders on reverence. “He is by far my favorite player,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “Just on the field, he gives me so much insight during the game. I don’t see all the stuff he sees, but he sees it all, and he lets me know when he sees it.”
Peters’ blend of sublime play and irreverent conduct goes all the way back to his college days. In the fall of 2014, he was regarded as the best cover corner in his upcoming draft class, and he was also kicked off Washington’s team for arguing with an assistant coach.
Harbaugh, by contrast, made it clear he was not going to make a big deal of Peters’ outburst at the end of the loss to Buffalo. A week later, Peters served up a virtuoso demonstration of his value against the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals. We did not know if he would play when he appeared on the Ravens’ injury report three days before kickoff. But he materialized during pregame warmups, taking his usual jog around the perimeter of the field in gleaming gold cleats that seemed to promise a show.
On Cincinnati’s second play from scrimmage, quarterback Joe Burrow threw quickly to wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase in the right flat. It was a bet on Chase’s ability to beat his defender one-on-one. Peters immediately wrapped him up for no gain, as if he was telling the Bengals this was not 2021, when they twice hung 41 points on the Baltimore defense.
Late in the third quarter, with the Bengals 2 yards from scoring a go-ahead touchdown, Peters saw Chase break toward the backfield and take a pitch from Burrow. He seemed to know immediately that Chase would in turn flip the ball to Tyler Boyd, a play known as the “Philly Special.” He darted into the backfield, shoved Boyd to the ground for a 12-yard loss and celebrated with a high-stepping, arms-flapping dance that made him look like a strutting pterodactyl.
“That was the momentum changer,” Ravens safety Geno Stone said. “He makes a play like that and the whole stadium erupted. It felt like we got life again.”
No one questions Peters’ football bona fides. At his best (see, 2019), he’s top-notch in coverage and one of the great ballhawks in recent NFL history. Even at less than his best (see, 2020), he creates takeaways at a rate rarely seen in the professional game.
We have witnessed it already this season. In Week 3, the Ravens did not put the New England Patriots away until the fourth quarter, when rookie safety Kyle Hamilton chased down wide receiver Nelson Agholor and punched the ball from his grasp. That play would not have been completed if Peters had not cradled the loose ball within inches of the sideline. “That’s a fumble catch that not too many people are ever going to make,” Harbaugh marveled afterward. “His ball skills are just one of a kind.”
The Ravens were not the same without Peters in 2021, allowing more passing yards than any team in the league, ranking 29th in takeaways and 30th in pass-defense efficiency, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Peters’ absence was not the only reason for their fall, but it was the most significant.
Beyond his skill, how much did the Ravens miss his emotional intensity, his us-against-the-world ferocity? It’s a more difficult question to answer, but current and former players say it does help to have such a character in the mix.
“Football is a very emotional game, and the emotions are contagious,” Ravens defensive tackle Calais Campbell said, speaking from 15 years of NFL experience. “When you’re rolling, and somebody makes a big play, Marcus makes a big play, and he gets fired up, that goes to the whole team — both offense, defense [and] special teams. It goes through the whole team. And so, when you play with that fire and that fight, and you play with a passion like that, it’s very much contagious.”
Outsiders see it as well. “Marcus Peters brings that attitude, he brings that swag,” said NBC pregame analyst and former NFL safety Rodney Harrison.
It’s fair, then, to ask if Peters’ negative emotions — the frustration he expressed for all to see after the Ravens squandered a 17-point lead to the Bills — are equally contagious?
“I don’t like the fact that he’s yelling and screaming at his coach on the sideline,” Harrison said. “To me, if I’m on that team, I’m grabbing him and saying, ‘Dude, you’re trippin’. We have to stay focused on what we have to be focused on.’”
Harbaugh and Peters’ teammates, however, said they never feared his anger was anything more than an in-the-moment response to a soul-crushing loss.
“Families fight all the time,” Humphrey said. “The thing about being here that I really, really love is from the day you walk in, they tell you, ‘You can be yourself.’ So, when you’re being yourself, there are a lot of different characteristics, there are a lot of different moods, a lot of different emotions. When that happens, there’s a lot of clashes, but if it’s all toward the goal of winning, we can get the boxing gloves, fight it out and live to see another day.”
The Ravens played an unfamiliar style against the Bengals, sitting back in a two-deep zone as they tried to keep wide receivers Chase, Boyd and Tee Higgins from beating them over the top. The strategy worked; Burrow completed just one pass of 20 yards or more.
“That was such a different-looking Baltimore Ravens defense than I’ve ever seen,” NBC game analyst Cris Collinsworth said.
The Ravens probably will not play this way every week, but Collinsworth suggested Peters might be even more deadly in a zone-heavy system.
“Marcus played a tremendous game last week; he’s the best of their zone players,” he said. “Even when he’s in man-to-man, he’s looking at the quarterback. I mean, he’s crazy. Not many people can do that. So if you let him be in a zone and truly drink in everything that the quarterback is doing and all the route combinations, I think he could end up having a monster year.”
Next up, the Ravens will face the New York Giants and the defensive coordinator whose faith in Peters ran so deep. “A football savant,” Martindale called his former cornerback. “A real one,” Peters said of Martindale after news broke of his departure from the Ravens.
New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald did not work with Peters as directly until this year but has been around him enough to say he’s a unique figure to coach.
“He’s awesome in the meeting room; he sits right here in front of me when I’m talking to the team,” Macdonald said. “He’s such a great competitor, just loves being out there. He accepts the challenge and brings great energy to the sideline. I think his football IQ is second to none. I’m glad he’s with us.”
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Line: Ravens by 6