How about that Baltimore Ravens defense?! This week we saw the peaks of what this Baltimore defense can look like, with every part of that side of the ball—from the secondary to the defensive line—clicking.
After a Week 5 game against the Indianapolis Colts in which Baltimore looked helpless on defense—Carson Wentz passed for a career-high 402 yards with a 71.4% completion rate—they held the red-hot Los Angeles Chargers to just six points on 208 yards of total offense. Justin Herbert had the second-lowest completion rate and the second-lowest passing yard total of his career against the Ravens on Sunday just one week after putting up video game numbers against the Cleveland Browns. Austin Ekeler, who entered play on a streak of four games with at least 100 all-purpose yards, was held to just seven rushing yards and 48 yards receiving. No matter what they tried, it seemed like the Ravens had an answer to it.
As much love as I gave the Chargers’ new offensive line a few weeks ago, it was the Ravens who ruled the trenches on Sunday. To that end, one of the biggest successes the Ravens had was the pressure they were getting on Herbert throughout the game. Given the Ravens’ lead—which only seemed to grow throughout the game—the Chargers were forced to pass the ball often. That allowed Baltimore to find success with their blitz variations and leave Herbert with little time to throw in so many obvious passing-down situations. They only ended up with two sacks on the day, but Herbert was constantly under pressure in the pocket and never able to get into a rhythm.
Herbert himself gave credit to Baltimore’s pass rush on Sunday saying, “They did a great job at disguising their looks, bringing pressure from one way and hiding from another. It was looks they hadn't shown all season and stuff that you know we have to be better at to adjust to during the game.”
Baltimore’s front three of Justin Madubuike, Brandon Williams, and Calais Campbell were consistently getting penetration up front. No Los Angeles back surpassed even 10 yards on the day as the defensive front they faced quickly filled any gaps the offensive line created. They combined for nine tackles, including a couple of tackles for a loss from Campbell. The linebackers behind them matched the defensive line’s physicality with their own, forcing double teams and allowing guys in the secondary to create extra backfield pressure themselves. On the rare occasions that Ekeler managed to cross the line of scrimmage, the Baltimore linebackers showed they left their tackling issues in last week’s game, finally succeeding in finishing tackles this week.
A lot of the credit in shutting down the pass game also must go to the Ravens’ secondary. They locked down the Chargers’ top receivers in Mike Williams—who also entered Sunday leading the NFL in receiving touchdowns—and Keenan Allen all game. Cornerbacks Anthony Averett and Marlon Humphrey were all over them in passing coverage, breaking up passes, or making quick tackles after a reception. Neither receiver put up more than 50 yards on the day.
Meanwhile, third-year safety DeShon Elliott made sure the Chargers felt his presence in his return to the lineup after missing two games with a quad injury. He recorded his first sack along with the first interception of his career—a great play undercutting tight end Jared Cook to end Herbert’s streak of three games without a pick—along with another pass defended on a 3rd-and-long. At the same time, it seemed like whenever he wasn’t making plays on the ball, fellow safety Chuck Clark was. On the Chargers’ first possession of the game, he was quick enough to break up a screen pass out of the backfield.
Finally, what was most influential in the Ravens’ success in shutting down the Chargers was defense on later downs. Head coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale knew that opposing head coach Brandon Staley and the Chargers have tended to be aggressive (and successful) in fourth-down situations. Pushing them into more 4th-and-long situations would create fewer easy opportunities to keep drives going and force more punts. The combined efforts of the Baltimore run defense and pass rush on earlier downs often made Los Angeles’ third and fourth downs long ones, so although they entered Sunday 33-for-68 on third-down conversion attempts and 7-for-8 on fourth down, the Chargers finished just 3-for-12 and 1-for-4 against the Ravens on third and fourth down, respectively.
Baltimore’s dominance against a Chargers team that many considered to be early favorites out of the AFC has put them on the map as one of the best teams in the NFL through six weeks. Their defense will continue to be challenged in the coming weeks with Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals next week and MVP sleeper candidate Kirk Cousins two weeks later. If they continue to play the way they did on Sunday while Lamar Jackson keeps dominating on offense, look out for this Ravens team come the postseason.