Is the Ravens’ Overhauled Defense Super Bowl-Caliber?

Do the Baltimore Ravens have a Super Bowl-caliber defense after overhauling the unit, or are they missing a piece heading into 2023?

The 2023 Baltimore Ravens are undoubtedly one of the most fascinating teams in the NFL. After re-signing quarterback Lamar Jackson and surrounding him with a brand-new supporting cast, the focus has been on how the offense will perform. But how the overhauled defense performs is just as big of a question.

We dive into whether the Ravens effectively replenished the talent on the defensive side of the ball and if that could lead to a Super Bowl run.

Is the Ravens’ Overhauled Defense Super Bowl-Caliber?

The Ravens’ defense started to churn last offseason when head coach John Harbaugh fired defensive coordinator Wink Martindale and replaced him with Mike Macdonald. Macdonald’s defense allowed the third-fewest points and ninth-fewest yards in the league despite struggling in the early part of the season. Each of the Ravens’ first three opponents racked up over 297 passing yards.

However, Macdonald did well to adjust as the season progressed. Only two opponents threw for more than 264 yards over the rest of the season. Not only did Macdonald adjust, but he also did well to maximize cornerback Marcus Peters after he returned from a torn ACL and linebacker Roquan Smith after acquiring him via trade.

Harbaugh praised Macdonald’s growth throughout his first season, noting he helped the unit “evolve” as the players continued to improve their understanding of the scheme. Their development was significant enough to keep the team from imploding when Jackson missed the final five games of the regular season.

However, Macdonald won’t be working with the same crew in 2023 as he did in 2022. Peters and edge defenders Justin Houston and Jason Pierre-Paul are still free agents as the unit embraced a youth movement. Defensive tackle Calais Campbell signed in Atlanta, and safety Chuck Clark was traded to the Jets. The only notable signing thus far has been cornerback Rock Ya-Sin.

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Always a team that does well in the draft and develops from within, the Ravens are betting on themselves to improve.

Defensive back Brandon Stephens has spent time at both corner and safety but will “focus more” on improving as a safety with Clark gone. More pressure will be on fourth-year defensive tackle Broderick Washington Jr. and second-year DT Travis Jones to complement Justin Madubuike.

A competent second corner will need to emerge from a group with mediocre talent in Ya-Sin, 2022 fourth-rounders Jalyn Armour-Davis and Damarion Williams, or 2023 fifth-rounder Kyu Blu Kelly.

While Kelly was one of my favorite Day 3 picks because he’s a tall, long, and athletic presence who fits this scheme, the lack of proven depth within the unit is concerning. Baltimore is set to play six games against Joe Burrow, Deshaun Watson in a more pass-happy attack, and an improved Pittsburgh offense. Bringing back Peters isn’t out of the question, per Harbaugh, but he also doesn’t solve all of the unit’s question marks.

Marcus Peters (24) and cornerback Marlon Humphrey (44) celebrate after stoping Cincinnati Bengals on third down during the first quarter.
Oct 9, 2022; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters (24) and cornerback Marlon Humphrey (44) celebrate after stoping Cincinnati Bengals on third down during the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Where the Ravens’ Defense Must Improve

Baltimore’s priority has to be solving its pass-rush woes. After Odafe Oweh had a stellar rookie season in 2021, he disappeared despite the unit ranking fifth in sacks last season. As Houston’s, Pierre-Paul’s, and Campbell’s combined 18 sacks walked out the door, Oweh and David Ojabo have to step up. Patrick Queen and Marlon Humphrey can’t have as many or more sacks as Oweh and Ojabo.

Humphrey is another key to this unit’s success. Once a player as physically intimidating as any corner in the league, Humphrey’s play fell off a cliff from 2021 to 2022. He ranked fourth in coverage rating and fifth in catch rate allowed in 2021 but was a forgettable zone corner in Macdonald’s unit. He finished 76th in catch rate allowed and 61st in yards per reception allowed, proving to be much less impactful when out of man-centric assignments.

It’ll be difficult for Macdonald to tailor the coverage to Humphrey’s extreme strength as a man corner without exposing his other options. Peters was an excellent partner with Humphrey because he’s capable of being effective in both man and zone assignments, but there’s not a clear replacement on the Ravens’ roster presently.

The safety position is more promising, with Marcus Williams and Kyle Hamilton settling into their best roles. Hamilton was exposed for being a liability in coverage last year due to his stiffness but fits better as a playmaker when working downhill or in zone assignments.

MORE: Baltimore Ravens 2023 Schedule

Instead of Hamilton taking slot receivers, Stephens will now utilize his skill set to keep up with quicker playmakers.

If Macdonald can’t push Oweh and Ojabo into being more fearsome and effective presences, then the back end will be further exposed. If a young cornerback doesn’t step up, the pass rush will also be neutralized because the ball will come out quickly.

The alternative is Baltimore panics and brings their aging veterans back for one more go, but that defense still might not be good enough to reach the Super Bowl.

Sudden progress is needed for the Ravens’ defense to reach a Super Bowl-caliber level. The Ravens’ 2022 rankings were a bit misleading, thanks to an easy schedule that featured an incredibly favorable run after Week 6. Their 2023 schedule starts slowly but will pick up as soon as Week 7 against Detroit, and the Ravens will be tested almost weekly from there on out.

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