Ravens banged up defensive front will face another tough test with Titans

The Baltimore Ravens have one of the best defenses in the NFL when mostly healthy at all three levels. They are the stingiest in the league in terms of points allowed this season and have arguably its best secondary as well.

The first commandment in Baltimore dating back to the heyday of Hall of Fame inside linebacker Ray Lewis is to paraphrase “thou shalt stop the run on defense first and foremost”.

The Ravens came into their matchup with the New England Patriots this past week knowing they’d be without four-time defensive end Calais Campbell but they couldn’t have foreseen that they would also lose Pro Bowl nose tackle Brandon Williams early in the first quarter of the game.

Williams is the key to the Ravens run defense and whenever he’s not in there to anchor the middle, clog interior rushing lanes and eat up multiple blockers, the team has struggled mightily to stop opposing teams from having their way with them on the ground.

While they have allowed the rare poor run defense outing with Williams in the lineup, it pales in comparison to the way they have gotten relentlessly gashed when he’s been out.

Against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week Six when Williams was on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, they surrendered 194 yards rushing on just 18 carries. When he missed their Week Four matchup with the Cleveland Browns last year, they got gashed for 193 yards on the ground.

Campbell is an elite run defender in addition to being one of the best interior pass rushers in the league and without them both in the lineup against the Patriots, they were pounded up the middle and on the edge for 173 yards.

“Whoever is in the game needs to play to a standard,” said outside linebacker Matthew Judon in his post-game presser. “When we let up that many rushing yards from a team, that’s unacceptable. We’re going to get on film and get it fixed, because if they have a rushing attack … If a team runs the ball like that, you usually lose. So, there’s no excuses.”

The Ravens’ backup defensive linemen stepped up at times and made plays and stops but were unable to do so consistently. Rookie Justin Madubuike replaced Campbell and made his first career start and seven-year veteran Justin Ellis took over for Williams at nose when he went down with snaps from rookie Broderick Washington Jr sprinkled in as well.

“Justin [Ellis] played a good game. He did well in there. Justin Madubuike did a good job. Broderick Washington did a good job,” Head Coach John Harbaugh said Monday.

“Each of those guys probably have a couple plays they’d want to have back, but for the most part, those guys played well. I would say better, probably, on the tape than I thought watching the game itself. They were in there fighting pretty hard and did pretty well.”

The Ravens are firm believers and have grown accustomed to repeating the “next man up” mantra with all the injuries both short term and season-ending they have sustained so far this season.

Baltimore might be without both of them from start to finish when the Tennessee Titans and reigning league rushing champion Derrick Henry comes to town in Week 11 for a pivotal AFC matchup.

“Calais will be day-to-day here going forward with the calf,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll see about this week as we go. Brandon Williams, we’ll see as we go. Possibly a week, maybe more. It’ll be touch-and-go for Sunday.”

In a game with massive playoff implications and with both teams coming in with identical 6-3 records, the Ravens will need their backups and young players along their defensive front seven to step up big time if they want to stand a chance of bottling up are at least slowing down Henry who currently ranks second in the league in rushing yards with 946 in nine games.

When asked if he was concerned with the injuries that his team has sustained in their defensive line, particularly Williams, and what his team’s performance against New England might mean for their prospects of defending Tennessee effectively, Harbaugh didn’t mince his words but also expressed his faith in his less heralded players to rise to the occasion.

“Yes, that’s definitely going to be a concern and a factor,” Harbaugh said. “We’re going to work really hard at that. It’ll be the guys who are healthy that’ll be in there playing. I have full confidence in those guys’ ability to get the job done. That’s a good group. Especially the young guys, they’ve done well, and they’ve proven themselves.”

“They’re nine games in now, so they’re not new to this. So, they understand what they need to do. It’s an offensive line and a running back that are built to do what they do; they’re very good at it. [They’re] very consistent from week-to-week in what they try to accomplish. So, we’re going to have to be at our best to get it stopped. I’m confident that we will.”

One injury-related storyline pertaining to the front seven this week that is flying under the radar is the health and availability of veteran inside linebacker L.J. Fort who has missed the last two games with a finger injury.

The Ravens have talented young players on the active roster at inside linebacker in rookies Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison as well as third-year pro Chris Board who have been holding down the fort—pun intended—in his absence and are more athletic than the eight-year vet.

However, he’s the unquestioned leader and most experienced player in the position group. Fort is also the smartest and most complete player of the bunch who is just as proficient in coverage as he is at stuffing the run and making open-field tackles.

Against the Patriots, there were several instances where the Ravens young linebackers, particularly the two rookie draft picks, were out of position to shoot through or at least fill gaps before the running backs could hit the whole or got caught in the wash and weren’t even able to get an assisted tackle.

If neither Campbell nor Williams can play this week, hopefully, the Ravens front seven can at least get their most dependable linebacker back.

Baltimore will be looking to avenge their stunning and rather embarrassing 28-12 upset loss to Henry and the Titans in the Divisional round of last year’s postseason.

If they want to increase their likelihood of getting their vengeance, it will come down to how their banged-up front seven handles Tennessee in the trenches and who can control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

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