Fox Sports NFL analyst Mark Schlereth shared earlier this month that he thought the Ravens had the best defense in the AFC entering the 2020 season. Last year, Baltimore had the fourth-best total defense (300.6 yards per game) and third-best scoring defense (17.6 points) in the league.
Schlereth, a former offensive lineman, played in the NFL from 1989-2000 and won three Super Bowls. He joined Glenn Clark Radio Aug. 18 to explain why he thinks the Ravens have the best defense in the AFC and more.
PressBox: Why do you think the Ravens have the best defense in the AFC?
Mark Schlereth: There’s a couple different things. As soon as I said that, people get mad at me in Buffalo. “Are you crazy? Have you watched us play defense?” Listen, I love the philosophical approach of Wink Martindale, which is [that] we are not going to leave anything holstered. We are going to hit you with both barrels and whatever happens at the end of the day happens, but we’re going to get into cover zero, we’re going to play man-to-man, we’re going to blitz your quarterback, we’re going to hit you more than you hit us. I just love the aggressive nature and just the unapologetic aggressiveness of that defense.
And when you couple that with what they do on the offensive side of the ball — controlling the clock, of running the ball, [the] heavy spread — and the matchups that they get in the run game and the possessing of the football, it just makes the combination of what you’re doing defensively from a philosophical approach and what you’re doing offensively just mesh perfectly for me. And it gives you the opportunity to play that aggressive style.
When you’re [an opposing] football team that’s down by even seven points — in the first quarter, you go down seven, you’re starting to count possessions. You’re like, ‘Oh shoot.’ As an offense, you’re going, “Dang it, we’re down seven, it’s the first quarter and right now instead of getting another 11 or 12 possessions we’re going to be down to eight possessions. What are we going to do in those eight possessions?” It creates this opportunity for you as a defense to play with that aggressive style and say, “We’re going to turn you over. We’re going to hit your quarterback. We’re going to do these things.’ I love the philosophical approach more than anything else. They’ve got great players, don’t get me wrong. The players are awesome. I just love the philosophical approach?
PB: With that in mind, do you think the Ravens are the best-constructed team in the NFL? The Chiefs have the best quarterback, and that might be what matters the most, but do you think the Ravens are the best-constructed team throughout the entire league?
MS: I think you can make a very compelling argument that way. They are built that way. And they’re just so uniquely different. Here’s the one issue that you get into: If the Ravens fall down by 14 points, it’s really hard with that style and with the quarterback that does what he does exceptionally well, it’s really hard to fall down 14 points and say, “Hey, we’re going to throw ourselves back into this game,” because that’s not how you’re constructed. That becomes an issue, and we’ve seen that kind of bite them in the butt in the playoffs over the past couple years.
Just from a physicality standpoint, the things I love that the Ravens do, they’re just going to thunder-punch you in the throat and just basically say, “Hey, this is one of those heavyweight contests where it’s just fisticuffs.” That’s kind of who they are. Physically, they beat you up. If you can play that style of football and you can beat people up at the line of scrimmage on both sides, hell, you’re going to win 85, 90 percent of your games. It’s just the way the league is. I love the way they’re constructed, yes. Every team has its fatal flaw, right? And their fatal flaw to me is if you get down 14 points, your offense isn’t constructed to spread and throw the ball a bunch.
PB: One of the deficiencies you might argue with the Ravens’ defense would be perhaps the edge rush department. Matthew Judon obviously is a very good pass rusher in his own right, but behind him there’s not exactly a lot of proven depth. When you talk about Wink Martindale’s philosophy … how much do you think of that is because of his mindset as a coach and how much of that is trying to ease whatever deficiencies they might have in the edge rush department?
MS: I’ve known Wink for a long time. I think even if you add great edge rushers, Wink’s still bringing pressure. I had this conversation with Earl Thomas last year. He said, “Hey, I know one thing: When the pressure’s on, we’re going straight zero. That’s what we do.” Wink believes in it. Wink believes that, “Hey, I’m going to put so much pressure on your quarterback that you’re not going to be able to complete balls or you’re going to throw errant balls or we’re going to pick balls off. We’ve got enough guys people on the back end that can cover that we’re going to be fine.” I think he would do that regardless.
It’s always nice when you’ve got great edge rushers to be able to bring pressure with just bringing four and that kind of thing, but there’s scheme and then there’s kind of matchup scheme. There’s a little bit of both here for the Ravens. Hey man, I can get a great one-on-one out here on the edge if I bring enough pressure on this side. Matt Judon is a really good pass rusher, really good football player. Say, “Hey man, if I bring enough pressure on his side, I think I can get a one-on-one matchup and I think I can win that matchup.”
PB: How excited are you to see the defense with the additions of Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe and then the two rookie inside linebackers, Malik Harrison and Patrick Queen?
MS: Patrick Queen’s a guy that really intrigues me quite a bit – his ability to run and to cover and to do all those things. I’m excited about that. Derek Wolfe played exceptionally well last year for the Broncos. He’s a tough guy. He plays with some nasty and attitude. He just fits, as does Calais Campbell. I think controlling the middle of the football field, your ability to bring pressure off the edges, pressure from the safety position, the outside linebacker position, all those things, I think those things just match well. If you’re going to bring pressure — boy, you better have guys that can run, and those two inside linebackers can run. I think it’s intriguing, there’s no question about it.
PB: You bring up the idea of the Ravens playing from behind. Their style leads to being bullies — they want to get out in front of you, dictate pace and force you to do the things they want to do. We did see some really good two-minute drills from Lamar Jackson a year ago. Do you believe that that evolution can be coming?
MS: Absolutely. But the threat is still your ability to take off, your ability to run. When you’re playing the Ravens, [given] Lamar Jackson’s abilities and his unique abilities, there is no question that as a defender, you’re worried about that part of it. You’re going to get some one-on-ones. You’re going to get some space. You’re going to get some opportunity. Obviously, he completed, hell, 66 percent of his passes and [led] the league in touchdown passes. The guy was incredible last year. But you’re going to get a lot of one-on-one down the seam. You’re going to get a lot of stuff on the outside, a lot of those shallow crosses that they really made money on throwing the football.
So I think as you continue to evolve, all players are they get older you would hope that they become better and better at that part of the game, on that skill set, and rely less and less your ability to run. But again, it’s one of those things that makes that offense so damn unique is that he is in that offense, in that style an accurate passer. I guess my point is he is so dynamic running the football and he’s so dynamic in the drop-back game that I just don’t think you ever want to basically take that threat away. You don’t want to go [do] what Jim Harbaugh did in San Francisco when all the sudden he thought, “Hey, I’m going to take this running threat of Colin Kaepernick and we’re just going to make him a drop-back guy.” Because then it ended up hurting his development.
To hear more from Schlereth, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox