How Will Free-Agency Losses Impact Ravens’ Top Defense?

In Baltimore, some defensive stepbacks are expected after losing several crucial pieces of last year’s unit to free agency, but not as many as you may think.
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The 2019 NFL season is just a few weeks away, so Andy Benoit makes a few predictions for each NFL team. Up first, the Baltimore Ravens, who finished 10–6 and first in the AFC North last year.

Baltimore’s AFC-leading defense regresses. But not as much as expected. The front seven was ravaged this past offseason—the Ravens likely anticipated losing free agents OLB Za’Darius Smith and DL Brent Urban, but they likely did NOT anticipate also losing star linebacker C.J. Mosley and future Hall of Fame edge defender Terrell Suggs in free agency. Most of the departed have been replaced in-house, resulting in a less skilled front seven with little depth. Stalwart defensive tackles Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce have been less effective than they were a few years ago, but their resounding strength and surprising athleticism still give Baltimore a quality run defense. Coordinator Wink Martindale still has the freedom to unleash his patented “fire zone” blitzes, where five men rush in a disguised pressure while six stay back in a matchup zone coverage.

Marlon Humphrey gains stardom. The third-year corner was—somewhat quietly—terrific last season. That’s key because matchup zone coverage often plays out like man-to-man, so corners must cover one-on-one. Baltimore’s can. Veterans Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr remain viable, and Tavon Young is sturdy in the slot. They’re boosted by Humphrey, who can travel with most No. 1 receivers.

Earl Thomas becomes savvy like Eric Weddle. In Seattle, Thomas was mostly a deep centerfield safety. But last season, Baltimore’s scheme hinged on Weddle’s aggressive disguises and versatility. Coaches will push Thomas towards that more and more, especially since fellow safety Tony Jefferson, though better in the box than in space, is a versatile counterbalance.

The offense runs hot and cold with Lamar Jackson. The electrifying second-year QB shows flashes of pocket poise and accuracy, but his running prowess, growing pains as a dropback passer and a callow receiving corps keep the Ravens in run-first mode all season. New offensive coordinator Greg Roman designs the same kind of running game that he did for Colin Kaepernick in 2012. It is built on read-option looks, pull-blocking and multi-tight end movement, with jet-sweep action new to the mix. It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors, which is partly why this offense remains inconsistent despite strong rushing numbers.

BOTTOM LINE: This defense won’t plummet the way most would after losing half of its front seven, but it won’t be what it was a year ago, either. That’s a problem given the inevitable unevenness on offense.

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