In recent years, the Ravens’ emphasis on loading up on quality defensive backs has been obvious.
The Ravens drafted cornerback Marlon Humphrey in the first round in 2017 and gave him a five-year, $97.5 million deal last season. They traded for cornerback Marcus Peters in 2019 and later gave him a three-year, $42 million deal. The team has given out other long-term deals to defensive backs recently as well, including cornerback Tavon Young and safeties Chuck Clark and Earl Thomas, though Thomas was released before the start of last season.
And it’s no coincidence that the Ravens have built their defense with a heavy emphasis on the back end.
“I want as many cover corners as you can have, because the game is the passing game now,” Ravens defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said in a call with season-ticket/PSL holders this summer. “… I think we have one of the best systems around, and like I said, my philosophy is, personally, I’d rather have the corner that can cover than a guy that can rush because I’ll get guys to hit quarterbacks. I think that’s our job as a defensive staff.”
There are a variety of reasons why building a defense this way makes sense for the Ravens. Recent analytical studies show that coverage is a better predictor of a defense’s success than the pass rush. Elite pass rushers tend to only be available at the top of drafts, and the Ravens haven’t picked near the top since 2016. And having Lamar Jackson on a rookie deal allows the Ravens to splurge at positions other than quarterback.
Eric Eager of Pro Football Focus, which concentrates on the analytical and data side of the game, has been studying the coverage versus pass rush concept since 2017, with his first article on PFF coming in 2019. He has found that coverage correlates to defensive success more than pressure does. To wit, the Ravens rated 24th in PFF’s pass rush rankings in 2020 and fifth in PFF’s secondary rankings … and ended the regular season ranked seventh in total defense (329.8 yards per game) and second in scoring defense (18.9 points per game).
But Eager stressed that there’s nuance to that conclusion. A secondary is only as good as the team’s lesser cornerbacks. Pass rushers are more stable year to year than defensive backs. Players on the back end are more likely to get hurt than those in the front four.
“My take is, look, if you have a top-five pick and you don’t have a great edge player, then take one,” Eager said. “But the next six players that you should prioritize on your defense should be coverage players because coverage is also a very weak link in that it’s about as good as your fifth- or sixth-best player, whereas pass rush is more strong link. If you have one guy who can be dominant, that can help your defense a lot more than one coverage player who’s dominant.”
The Ravens have committed a little more than $34 million cap dollars to cornerbacks in 2021, third in the league after the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. Cornerbacks Humphrey, Peters and Young represent three of the Ravens’ top six cap charges for 2021. They’ve taken at least one defensive back in each of the past 11 drafts.
With Baltimore not drafting at the top of the draft where elite pass rushers are available, the Ravens look for diamonds in the rough in later rounds — like Matthew Judon (fifth round, 2016) and Za’Darius Smith (fourth round, 2015) — and try to scheme up pressure in creative ways. The Ravens blitzed at the highest rate in the NFL in 2020, according to PFF.
Former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who worked under current head coach John Harbaugh in 2008, understands where the Ravens are coming from in how they’ve built their defense from the back end.
“I get [Martindale’s] point that you can scheme up pressures. That’s true, but you better have four really good cover guys,” said Ryan, now an analyst with ESPN. “The Ravens have such a talented group of cover guys. Eric DeCosta has done an amazing job there and Ozzie Newsome before that of getting [man-to-man] cover corners. They’re hard to find, and they’re able to do that. Why? Because they want to be able to pressure. Harbaugh wants to be able to pressure — send five, send six, whatever. That’s always been the case.”
It remains to be seen, though, how long the Ravens will have the luxury to build their defense exactly how they see fit. Jackson, the 2019 NFL MVP, is eligible for an extension. The Ravens picked up Jackson’s fifth-year option, so he’s currently under contract for 2022 for about $23.1 million.
Fellow fourth-year quarterback Josh Allen agreed to a six-year deal in early August that ties him to the Buffalo Bills through 2028. Allen will earn $43 million per year, more than Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott ($40 million) and Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson ($39 million). Jackson’s extension, once completed, figures to average more than $40 million per year as well.
Once Jackson’s extension kicks in, that will force hard choices elsewhere on the roster, according to overthecap.com founder Jason Fitzgerald.
“You have to pick and choose your spots then,” Fitzgerald said. “At that point, some of your luxury stuff — if they determine that [cornerback is] a luxury for them — kind of goes by the wayside. Most teams are going to have to cut anywhere from $10 [million] to $15 million probably in salary elsewhere to cover for the quarterback cost over the long term. In the short term, you can always make one move work for a given season.”
But as for now, the Ravens have what not many teams do — two of the nine highest-paid corners in the league (Humphrey, $19.5 million per year; Peters, $14 million per year) along with depth behind them (Young, Jimmy Smith and others). Plus, Clark is on a three-year, $15.3 million deal.
And as has been the case since Terrell Suggs moved on from Baltimore, the Ravens will be counting on a pass-rush group without many headliners. Fifth-year veteran Tyus Bowser (10.5 career sacks) will be asked to step up, as will third-year man Jaylon Ferguson (4.5) and rookie Odafe Oweh. The Ravens also brought in veteran Justin Houston (97.5) on a modest one-year deal this summer.
So no, a pass rusher such as Chase Young — who went No. 2 overall to the Washington Football Team in 2020 and earned a Pro Bowl nod that same year — isn’t available to the Ravens. But they’ve made it work.
“You look at the way Baltimore built that defense — Baltimore has done an amazing job of finding guys who can rush the passer in later rounds,” Ryan said. “That’s such a tribute to their coaching staff and their scouting department. They’ll just come at you in droves, whether they’re getting a fourth-rounder or a fifth-rounder or whoever. He might not be an every-down player, but that sucker can rush the passer.”
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