That feeling of helplessness was all too familiar to Ravens defenders – a feeling that they couldn’t organize themselves to slow the avalanche heading their way, about to erase a lead that seemed secure just minutes later. early.
In the locker room after the Miami Dolphins unleashed their rapid-fire carnage in front of a shocked crowd at M&T Bank Stadium, Ravens defensive backs spoke grimly about miscommunication and urgent solutions. Their faith in the greater mission was unshaken, they insisted, but some of the same players had said those same things in 2021, when a secondary supposedly among football’s best finished dead last in defense against the pass.
Were they stuck in a terrible loop, where reality would never match their best-laid plans?
The Ravens will start answering that question on Sunday against the New England Patriots. They said they couldn’t afford to be haunted by the images of their 42-38 loss to the Dolphins: Tua Tagovailoa’s passes inevitably took place on the pitch as Tyreek Hill sprinted past defensive backs who didn’t seemed unsure which of them should pick up the most dreaded sport. deep threat. They promised quick repairs.
“How we respond to that,” coach John Harbaugh told them in the losing locker room, “that will be history.”
Fixing the Ravens’ ills seems easier said than done, however, after Tagovailoa threw for 469 yards and six touchdowns against them in a performance that echoed similar disasters from last year, engineered by Joe Burrow of the Cincinnati Bengals (416 and 525 yards in a pair of blowouts), Derek Carr of the Las Vegas Raiders (435 yards in the season opener) and Carson Wentz of the Indianapolis Colts (402 yards in a game that the Ravens came back to win in overtime).
Those body shots shaped general manager Eric DeCosta’s priorities for the offseason. “The attrition that we faced in secondary, it just overwhelmed us towards the end of the year, and it wasn’t the players’ fault,” he said summing up 2021. I guess it was my fault, we just didn’t have enough good corners, we just didn’t have enough guys.
So he committed $70 million to free agent safety Marcus Williams, used three draft picks, including No. 14 overall (Kyle Hamilton), on defensive backs, and added veteran cornerback Kyle. Fuller for more security. DeCosta also believed 2019 All-Pros Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters would be back in shape after injuries cut short their 2021 seasons.
DeCosta had long said he believed a modern NFL defense should be built from the backfield, and he was determined to have enough skilled bodies on hand this time around. The Ravens entered 2022 with more salary cap dollars spent on defensive backs than all but two other teams, according to Spotrac.com. If they were to return to the league’s top flight, the secondary would be one of the central reasons.
DeCosta’s efforts have garnered rave reviews. In June, scouting and analysis website Pro Football Focus said it had assembled the league’s best secondary while adding one caveat: ending elite potential. Four of their five starters have earned top-10 marks at their respective positions at some point in the past four seasons. And that list doesn’t even include first-round rookie Kyle Hamilton, who will no doubt take a lot into consideration.
Ah, the “health perspective,” a caveat the Ravens can’t seem to escape when it comes to their defensive backs.
By the time they lined up to face the Dolphins last weekend, the secondary was already less robust than they had imagined. Fuller tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the 80th snap he played in their season-opening win over the New York Jets. Humphrey was limited by groin pain. Peters was set to play for the first time in 20 months but under an instant restriction. Second-year defensive back Brandon Stephens, whose versatility is key, was sidelined with a quadriceps injury.
The Ravens should rely on fourth-round rookie picks Jalyn Armour-Davis and Damarion “Pepe” Williams to help cover the fearsome passing duo of Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Hamilton would also be called upon to play an important role in creating a safety net behind cornerbacks.
We know the results weren’t pretty: 11 catches for 190 yards for Hill and 11 for 170 for Waddle, who capitalized on Baltimore’s secondary confusion to catch three touchdowns in the final eight minutes of the game. They became the first pair of NFL teammates to post those stat lines or better in a game.
So how much of a grim omen is this for the Ravens’ efforts to resurrect their pass defense, which ranked fourth in the Football Outsiders DVOA as recently as 2019?
They faced Miami with their closet half empty. Humphrey made 56 of 71 defensive snaps, Peters 44 of 71. Both could be close to 100% in a few weeks. Stephens returned to practice Wednesday and said he hoped to play against the Patriots. If they don’t take any new injuries, the picture will clear up even without tactical adjustments.
But the Ravens were in no mood to blame their ongoing health issues for the communication blackouts against the Dolphins.
“No matter who’s in there, we’re expected to do the job at a high level,” said Armour-Davis, who learned the side game under famed Nick Saban in Alabama. “It doesn’t matter if you are young or old. So it’s never even a discussion: “Hey, that was a rookie.” It’s, ‘Hey, someone didn’t do what they were supposed to do. Someone did not communicate.
Hamilton described his immediate regret seeing a pass take off and realizing he was in no position to defend it. “At this level, people are going to take advantage of your mental mistakes,” he said. “You can’t use being a rookie as an excuse. Guys trust me to be in the right place at the right time. It sucks to let down the coaches, the fans, the family but especially my teammates, because I am with them every day. Having mental errors like that is unacceptable.
Harbaugh balanced his disappointment at the amateur errors with understanding that some of the players involved were seeing their first significant NFL action.
“I didn’t expect those things to happen in this game, but I also understand that we have young guys there,” he said. “We’re throwing guys out there for the first time in an NFL game against fast players, and things are moving fast, and the game is on the line. It can happen, so if we had a group of veterans there- low, I would be more worried about that, but I think these young people are going to learn fast.
It’s easy to blame miscommunication for a play like Hill’s 60-yard touchdown. Safeties Williams and Hamilton lined up on the other side of the field near the line of scrimmage and neither had the prayer of stepping back in time to support Armour-Davis, who seemed to think he would have a teammate behind him . It’s harder to explain how the team’s defensive backs will learn to talk about these lapses.
“It’s a group thing. It’s a group effort,” Stephens said. “We are not pointing fingers. We just have to all work together. We just have to work as a unit. I’m confident. … We don’t beat our heads too much about it.
How does a secondary practice communication? Armour-Davis went back to a training camp mantra: “Reinforce it. In practice, it doesn’t matter if everyone hears it; make sure people outside the facility can hear it. It doesn’t matter if you know your guy heard it. Just keep saying it. Overestimate everything, because these errors cannot occur.
Coaches can only hammer home that message so far, the rookie added: “It’s a bit on the inside. It’s the players who have to go out and do it. It’s us who have to communicate on the ground, so it’s a message that comes from within.
First-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, also in the spotlight after the loss, believes improvements will come from those player conversations. “There’s communication, especially with the vets and how they see things and how they want to play stuff,” he said. “It kind of sparks more dialogue as we prepare for new teams. I’m happy with what they do with it. »
The Ravens know they’re going to get a backlash if they go through another season of results that don’t live up to the preseason hype. It started this week, with ESPN analyst and former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. “They’re breaking covers, their communication is bad, they can’t finish games anymore,” Ryan said on the network’s “Get Up” morning show. “This new hotshot coordinator [Macdonald] is awful.”
“They can make all the statements they want to make, but they’re not coaching anybody right now,” Harbaugh said in a not-so-veiled response to his former aide.
But players have recognized that if they don’t respond with better performance, the narrative will persist. The slump of 2021 will become the slump of 2022.
“We never expect to be second, let alone last,” Armour-Davis said. “We always expect to be the best. Give the credit to the dolphins. They executed their game plan, and we didn’t. But we know we’ve made a lot of self-inflicted mistakes, so we know that if we clean them up – when we’ve cleaned them up – we’ll be where we want to be.
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 2 1/2