Lost in the usual hoopla that surrounds Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs' high-powered offense was their improvement on the other side of the ball in 2019. Sure, Kansas City was an ill-timed offsides penalty away from making it to the Super Bowl in 2018, but their aging defense was still the team's kryptonite more weeks than not. Offseason moves for Tyrann Mathieu and Frank Clark each paid off in big ways, as last season's Chiefs Defense was at least good enough to keep things manageable enough for Mahomes and company to out-score the opposition.
Before the 2019 playoffs I tried to figure out the adage that "Defenses win championships" has any truth to it. Basically, the majority of champions have demonstrated that it's usually vital to have at least a very good defense and offense alike. There's been a slight lean to defenses when it comes to the most-dominant units capturing the title, but the minimal difference in average offensive and defensive DVOA rank from Super Bowl champions since 2002 shows that over time both sides of the ball have proven to be capable of carrying their team to the promised land.
Obviously the Ravens and MVP Lamar Jackson had a good enough offense to win it all in 2019. They'll bring back virtually that entire unit next season, but with even more goodies on the other side of the ball.
I wrote after free agency that the 2020 Cardinals sure look a lot like the 2019 Browns. Well, the 2020 Ravens are starting to resemble the 2019 Chiefs.
The Ravens' 2019 defense was far from bad. In fact, they ranked highly in more than a few categories:
- Yards per play: No. 10
- Points per game: No. 3
- Net yards per pass attempt: No. 6
- Yards per rush: No. 21
- Overall defense DVOA: No. 4
- Pass defense DVOA: No. 4
- Run defense DVOA: No. 20
Here's the catch: Baltimore blitzed way more than anybody else. Like way, way more. Overall, the Ravens (54.9%) easily beat out the Buccaneers (43.4%) as the league's most blitz-happy defense last season.
Creating a scheme centered around forcing negative plays in order to get the ball back to the league's No. 1 scoring offense isn't necessarily a bad idea. Still, it left their corners, safeties and linebackers on islands in their respective attempts to stop the pass and run alike.
Rushing yards are correlated with winning; not the other way around. Still, the likes of Derrick Henry (30-195-0), Nick Chubb (20-165-3) and Raheem Mostert (19-146-1) each managed to overwhelm the Ravens at times brute physicality.
The Ravens largely had to send all these extra defenders at opposing offenses because they weren't having all that much success attempting to play teams straight up.
This isn't to say the Ravens were devoid of talent on the defensive side of the ball last season. They already have an extremely talented group of corners at their disposal:
- Marlon Humphrey: The Ravens had Humphrey follow No. 1 WRs such as Sammy Watkins (5-64-0), Odell Beckham (2-20-0), JuJu Smith-Schuster (7-75-1), Tyler Boyd (3-10-0) and Tyler Lockett (5-61-1) in the first half of 2019 with a fair level of success. He's as good as any slot corner in the league and figures to get #paid sooner rather than later.
- Jimmy Smith: The nine-year veteran helped turn around the Ravens Defense upon getting healthy in 2019. Overall, Baltimore allowed 156.3 pass yards per game with Smith compared to 279.8 without. The big-bodied CB remains one of the few corners in the league capable of hanging tight with the likes of A.J. Green and other plus-sized receivers.
- Marcus Peters: Both a top-10 CB from 2019 and a Jameis Winston All-Star selection, Peters was much more boom-than-bust during his first season with the Ravens. He seemed to thrive in a defense that plays to his strengths by attempting to force QBs to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible.
Obviously Earl Thomas is the least of the Ravens' concerns as well. He allowed just 5-of-13 targets thrown into his coverage to be caught for a whopping 84 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT, 1 pass deflection and a league-low 21.5 QB Rating.
The problem in 2019 was more due to the other position groups. The team failed to replace C.J. Mosley and Za'Darius Smith, effectively removing the defense's top run defender and pass rusher, respectively. Additionally, safeties Tony Jefferson, DeShon Elliott and Brynden Trawick as well as CB Tavon Young all spent time on the injured reserve list. DE Jaylon Ferguson was the team's only top-three round pick in 2019.
The good news moving forward is that the Ravens have already made a couple key offseason moves in order to address their defensive line:
- Calais Campbell: There's only been one Pro Bowl since 2014 that didn't include Campbell, as the 12-year veteran continued to ball out in Jacksonville after spending the first nine seasons of his career with the Cardinals. PFF has graded him as their No. 2, No. 1 and No. 3 overall edge defender over the past three seasons.
- Derek Wolfe: Wolfe started 108 games for the Broncos from 2012-2019, racking up a career-high seven sacks in just 12 games last season. Previously Wolfe had demonstrated a high floor as a run-stuffing interior defender, indicating there could be an untapped ceiling here if the Ravens can bring out the most well-rounded version of the 30-year-old veteran.
The Ravens have *five* picks in the top-three rounds of the draft. It's unwise to expect too much from these young 20-somethings in their first season, but at the very least we should expect the front-seven to get a much-needed depth and talent infusion.
Lamar Jackson regression conversations are already making their way across the internet. It's easy to see why: Jackson's 9% TD rate was the third-highest mark from any QB in the last 50 years. Still, this inevitable regression doesn't necessarily mean the Ravens won't be a better and more-successful football team. They seem to be taking advantage of Jackson's cheap rookie contract by spending freely on the defensive side of the ball, and the lack of needs on offense should allow them to devote the majority of their high-draft picks to the front-seven.
Maybe the Ravens will average 33 points per game again in 2019. Maybe they won't. Either way, they seem to have built a better overall defense that *should* be capable of keeping things close enough for their stud offense to at least have chances to win the game. As the 2019 Chiefs found out, sometimes a couple chances are all an elite offense needs to bring home a championship.