Too often, we speak of NFL teams as finished paintings in the last week of July.
By then, we have declared “winners” of free agency, “winners” of the draft, “winners” of the offseason. These meld into a brew of grand prognostications for the season ahead.
Top Ravens decision makers have long argued this is nonsense, that in fact, each team remains a work in progress until the last day of the season. General manager Eric DeCosta knew that was the case this year as the Ravens entered training camp facing questions about their deficit of proven pass rushers and a secondary with one established starting cornerback.
Four months later, it’s strange to think a defense that leads the league in sacks and allows just 4.2 yards per pass attempt was perceived as potentially weak. But the Ravens put the lie to these predictions in part because of four players they added between late July and late September at the modest cost of $5.7 million.
Only outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney could be called a star of the league’s stingiest scoring defense. But nickel back Arthur Maulet is a stout run stopper and one of the top blitzers in coordinator Mike Macdonald’s madcap rush designs. Ronald Darby has helped keep the secondary together in the six games the Ravens have played without their top cornerback, Marlon Humphrey. The last major addition to the defense, outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy, stepped in to provide pass-rush punch in the absence of David Ojabo, Tyus Bowser and, for a time, Odafe Oweh.
Injuries to talents such as Humphrey and Oweh might have led to devastating dips in performance in previous seasons, but the Ravens patched right over them. Why did their roster fortifications prove so effective?
“Eric and Ozzie [Newsome] talked about it over the years, talking about your roster is never really set throughout the course of the season, and I think that’s a philosophy of the organization, just always trying to improve the team,” Macdonald said. “We’ve done a great job at targeting guys that can be productive for us, and then we kind of take it from there. Obviously, we’re always excited to take on a great player; we’re never going to turn down a great player.”
There is a chicken and egg question: Did DeCosta sign players who would have excelled in any situation or did he pick those whom John Harbaugh’s staff would deploy most efficiently?
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“I just think that credits the coaching staff here, the style that we are here, and I think it just goes to good leadership and just making everyone feel welcomed — welcomed to be themselves and not try to be anything that they’re not,” said linebacker Roquan Smith, who thrived as a midseason addition last year. “I feel like, if you express that to individuals — when they come in here, making sure that they know that they don’t have to try to act or be anything they don’t [want to be] — I think guys just are being themselves, and it makes them play like the best version of themselves.”
That trusting ethic would not work, however, if the players in question were not seasoned professionals, secondary coach Chris Hewitt said.
“They’re pros,” he said. “Those guys having the experience of playing — I think Arthur [Maulet] is in his seventh or eighth year or something like that, and [Ronald] Darby is in his ninth year — those guys have played a lot of football, so they’ve seen the coverages. Let’s not get it twisted; we’re not putting new coverages or anything like that [out there]. They’ve played everything that we’re doing. So, those guys being pros and just being able to get the verbiage of all the things that we’re doing, that’s how those guys are just able to plug in and just go play.”
Van Noy offered the simplest explanation: “We’re good players, and they got a good system.”
The Ravens caused hardly a ripple in the wider football world when they signed Maulet, who had started six games for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2022 but asked for his release in May, on July 26. He was another candidate to bring dependable depth to a secondary that needed it.
He made a minimal impact early, not playing in the Ravens first two games and getting in for just three defensive snaps in the third. But his snap count soared to 60 in the team’s blowout of the Detroit Lions as Macdonald recognized the 30-year-old’s versatility. When the Ravens needed to send a defensive back flying at Justin Herbert at a crucial juncture of their Nov. 26 win over the Los Angeles Chargers, Maulet, who has two sacks and two quarterback hits on just 12 pass-rush snaps, was their guy.
Ravens outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy, right, sacks Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith in the second quarter Nov. 5 at M&T Bank Stadium. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)
“It’s been fun, man,” Maulet said. “Shout out to Mike [Macdonald] for getting me open on these freelance runs where no one’s picking me up. I have no choice but to make the play.”
“When we called his number towards the end of the game, he executed at a high level,” Macdonald said. “That’s all you can ask. It speaks to the whole defense, all 11 guys playing together, you’re going to have an opportunity to step up and make plays when their time comes.”
The same could be said for Darby, whom the Ravens signed Aug. 17, the day after Humphrey had surgery to repair a foot injury that would keep him out the first four weeks of the season. The veteran cornerback was coming back from his own serious injury, a torn ACL that ended his 2022 season prematurely. Three weeks after he signed, Darby played 69 defensive snaps in the Ravens’ season-opening victory over the Houston Texans. His workload fell off in the middle of the season, but he stepped back into the breach in the Ravens’ last two games, with Humphrey sidelined by a calf strain. Darby’s Pro Football Focus coverage grade is actually higher than Humphrey’s, and the Ravens’ pass defense has not skipped a beat.
Pressure — Clowney and Van Noy have combined for 14 sacks, 12 quarterback hits and 60 hurries — has a lot to do with that as well.
The Ravens signed Clowney, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, a day after they added Darby. He cost a mere $2.5 million guaranteed coming off an unhappy 2022 season with the Browns, which he finished with just two sacks. The 30-year-old pass rusher had long thought he might enjoy playing for Harbaugh and believed he had “a lot left in me.”
He was not wrong. Clowney has been the team’s most consistent edge rusher. He made perhaps the most important play, a strip-sack of Herbert, in the aforementioned victory over the Chargers.
“I’m just comfortable, and Mike puts us in great position to make plays,” Clowney said, noting he has put pressure on himself to have a great year after an elbow injury, which he didn’t talk about at the time, undermined his last season in Cleveland.
With Bowser sidelined by a knee injury and Ojabo, whom the Ravens saw as a breakout candidate, facing the prospect of season-ending knee surgery, DeCosta sought more help on the edge, signing Van Noy after the third game of the season. He played 23 snaps against the Browns five days later and, at age 32, sits one sack shy of a career high.
None of these late additions seem terribly surprised they’ve put the finishing touches on an elite defense, though Maulet was quick to point out that won’t truly be the the case unless the Ravens win the Super Bowl.
“We’ve all played on multiple teams,” he said. “It’s just helping the team win for the bigger picture. Us being vets, you’ve got to know your job. You’ve got to know where to be for the team to have a successful snap. I just think it’s a testament to us getting in our playbooks, all four of us coming in late and understanding how to help the team win.”
Rams at Ravens
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 7 1/2