Ravens' offense has done its part, now defense must catch up

The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale has seen his unit struggle this season.

As the euphoria from the Ravens’ 36-35 victory against the Kansas City Chiefs began to subside Monday morning, the Ravens were at work on the next phase of building their team.

They need more balance, which in the past meant the difference in ratio between run versus pass.

Now, it’s offense versus defense.

In their first two games of the 2021 season, the Ravens have allowed 896 yards and 68 points, which is an insult to the franchise’s gloried past as well as some of the team’s former standout players like middle linebacker Ray Lewis, safety Ed Reed and outside linebackers Peter Boulware and Terrell Suggs.

Maybe no one is suffering more than current Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale. In his first three seasons in that role, Martindale produced one of the NFL’s stingiest units. Now, it’s one of the worst in the league in points and yards allowed, right up there with the Atlanta Falcons, who have given up 80 points in their first two games.

Martindale can’t be happy.

The overwhelming success of the offense versus defense might play well on other teams like those in Kansas City or Buffalo, but it’s hard to win titles that way. As former Ravens head coach and the late Ted Marchibroda used to say, the best teams don’t always win Super Bowls, but it’s usually the team with the fewest weaknesses.

It has worked in Kansas City because the Chiefs have such offensive superstars in quarterback Patrick Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill. The Ravens have quarterback Lamar Jackson, tight end Mark Andrews and receiver Marquise Brown, but they aren’t in the class of Kansas City’s trio — at least not yet anyway.

So, the Ravens need to balance the scales and get more out of their defense.

Start with tackling: They need to start with tackling. In the preseason, they barely missed any, but that was a lost art against the Chiefs. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh won’t point fingers partially because he doesn’t have enough on both hands.

But the best example was Kelce’s 46-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. A simple pass of about 5 to 10 yards turned into a long jaunt across the field in which Kelce broke four tackles before running through a fifth to score. Kelce is a great player, but the Ravens made him look like a superhero.

It was the same against the Las Vegas Raiders in the season opener. In two games, the Ravens have allowed touchdown passes of 33, 40, 46 and 47 yards.

Injuries have played a role: Some of the blame is the result of injuries.

Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters (knee) is out for the season while reserve cornerback Jimmy Smith (ankle) hasn’t played yet this year along with end Derek Wolfe (back/neck). The Ravens lost hard-hitting safety DeShon Elliott for most of the second half Sunday night because of a concussion and the same with nose tackle Brandon Williams, who suffered a neck strain Harbaugh believed to be mild on Monday.

At least in the case of Williams, Justin Madubuike filled in well, but the same couldn’t be said for rookie Brandon Stephens filling in for Elliott.

Spotty linebacker play: The Ravens also haven’t gotten strong play from inside linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison, both of whom missed a lot of tackles Sunday. Queen’s problem is that he arm tackles and so does nickel back Tavon Young, who appears timid at times.

“It was spotty at certain times,” Harbaugh said of the tackling. “There were two big plays where we missed 10 tackles. We had some great tackle moments. They are a hard team to tackle. They get you in space a lot. They had big plays where we didn’t tackle at all. We have to work on that.”

The Ravens’ problems, though, aren’t just about poor tackling. Both Harrison and Queen were exploited in pass coverage, especially Harrison. While outside linebacker Justin Houston showed some improvement over his performance in the opener, the top outside linebacker has been rookie Odafe Oweh, who has been the only consistent player providing pressure on the quarterback.

Secondary has struggled: The secondary has struggled as well, even top cornerback Marlon Humphrey. Granted, the Chiefs have one of the top passing games in the NFL, but Raiders quarterback Derek Carr completed 34 of 56 passes for 435 yards against the Ravens. Carr heated up in the second half after throwing for only 127 in the first.

The Ravens can point out that they’ve played against two good quarterbacks in Mahomes and Carr, but they also have some other top quarterbacks remaining on the schedule in Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and the Rams’ Matthew Stafford.

They've faced similar situations in the past: The Ravens have been in a similar situation under Martindale before, and they came on strong in the second half of the season. There is plenty of time for that to happen with 15 games remaining. They can build on the fact that they shut the Chiefs out in the fourth quarter and Kansas City’s last three drives ended with an interception, punt and a fumble forced and recovered by Oweh. The Ravens also didn’t blitz the Chiefs as much as they usually do, which is a sign that Martindale is searching for additional keys to success.

But it’s hard to win like the Ravens did Sunday, and they’ve played in two wild and bizarre games. But if the defense can improve, it would make things a little easier. Heading into this season the Ravens wanted to improve on their No. 32 ranked passing game so it would complement their top-ranked running game.

Now they are asking for more balance again, this time between their offense and defense.