Amid a crowded AFC playoff picture, the three betting favorites to represent the conference in the Super Bowl are the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs and Cincinnati Bengals, likely due to the strength of their quarterbacks and offensive firepower in general. The Baltimore Ravens, the fourth favorite, don’t fully fit that description, clearly lacking playmakers at wide receiver this season. Yet, instead of addressing that weakness at the trade deadline, they chose to acquire linebacker Roquan Smith from the Chicago Bears.
That seems counterintuitive on the surface, but a comment on PFF’s NFL Podcast this week caught my attention as to why in an AFC with high-powered offenses, the Ravens’ attention on the defensive side of the ball could be the thing that keeps them as contenders. On the show, Steve Palazzolo said, “It’s almost like they are (and I’m oversimplifying this here) chasing high-end plays … and the reward has been there for the Ravens.”
This is something I pondered when Baltimore traded for Smith, and Palazzolo’s comment brought it back to the forefront. In an AFC as loaded as it is, if you’re a team like the Ravens and you know that, this season at least, you are unlikely to compete with the passing offenses of the Chiefs, Bills, Bengals and Dolphins, are you better to lean into trying to find big plays on defense to produce a potential Super Bowl run?
Let’s take a look at the difference-makers on the Ravens’ defense this year, starting with that linebacking duo.
The trade for Smith hasn’t just led to improvement at one linebacker spot in Baltimore; it’s also coincided with the best stretch of Patrick Queen’s career. Over the past five weeks, Queen’s 85.7 PFF grade ranks seventh among all linebackers to play 100-plus snaps in that span, while Smith’s 82.0 mark ranks ninth. That makes the Ravens the only team in the NFL with two linebackers in the top 10 since Week 9.
|Patrick Queen||Weeks 1-8||Weeks 9-14|
They have both given up 140 or more yards in coverage in that span, but each has also recorded an interception and a pass breakup. Queen is tied for second among all linebackers with 22 tackles resulting in a defensive stop. On the season, Queen is tied for third among all linebackers with 18 total pressures, including five sacks. As is true of most linebackers in the NFL today, the duo can be susceptible in coverage, but they still make plays and help flip the field for the Ravens.
Loaded defensive backfield
The Ravens were aggressive in their approach to strengthening their defensive backfield once again this offseason, adding safeties Marcus Williams and Kyle Hamilton in free agency and in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, respectively. Williams is tied for fourth in the NFL with four interceptions this season, despite playing in just six games, and he marked his return to the field with an interception in Week 14.
Hamilton has proven to be something of a revelation as a slot defender for the Ravens, giving up just 17 receptions for 126 yards and a touchdown, with a pass breakup to his name, from 106 snaps in slot coverage.
Then you have Marlon Humphrey, the Ravens’ top player on defense. He filled in as a slot cornerback for the defense when Hamilton missed time and once again excelled here, giving up just 12 receptions from 123 slot snaps, but it’s on the outside that he is a true difference-maker. From that alignment, he has let up just 24 receptions from 333 coverage snaps. He’s yet to give up a touchdown this season and has already tied a career high with three interceptions.
Opposite Humphrey, Marcus Peters has had his struggles, allowing 514 yards and five touchdowns through the air so far this season, but he has still made high-end plays. His stat sheet includes an interception, four forced incompletions and two forced fumbles through 14 weeks of the season.
Weakness up front?
If there’s a place where the Ravens lack defensive playmakers, it’s up front. They make up for it in numbers, though. They have recovered from the loss of Michael Pierce to a season-ending injury thanks to the emergence of Broderick Washington, who has the 13th-best PFF grade (77.1) among interior defenders — placing him just ahead of veteran Calais Campbell, who ranks 15th at 76.1. On the edge, it’s another veteran in Justin Houston who is tied for 26th at the position with a 75.7 PFF grade.
While there is no Myles Garrett, Micah Parsons or Aaron Donald type of player in the trenches for the Ravens, they are tied for fifth in the NFL with 39 sacks on the season, with 13 of those coming from either linebackers or defensive backs.
Nine Ravens defenders have played 250 or more snaps and boast 70.0-plus PFF defense grades, and the team ranks inside the top five in sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles and batted passes. As they head toward a likely postseason appearance, hopefully with a healthy Lamar Jackson at quarterback, and deal with the prospect of taking down the offensive juggernauts of the AFC, they have built a defensive unit with the ability to force big plays of their own and turn games in their favor.